Climbing into the picture

``IT is impossible to understand Turner's landscapes without knowing the landscape they record,'' writes David Hill in his recent book (something of a best seller in Britain last year) called ``In Turner's Footsteps.'' That, at any rate, was his justification for the pleasure of retracing (in 1983) the itinerary followed by the English artist (in 1816) ``through the hills and dales of Northern England.'' Hill did it ``on the same days of the year as Turner, though mercifully in better weather conditions.''

His thesis (though not his pleasure) is arguable, of course. Turner's landscapes at their best transcend mere record (and Ruskin thought his paintings of Yorkshire among his best). They achieve self-sufficiency, going beyond the mere ``delineation of a given spot'' characteristic of the topographical draftsmanship from which his increasingly ambitious and imaginative art grew. Indeed the purpose of the pictures he made of then remote places in northern England -- places sublime and picturesque -- was to give pleasure not only to other travelers but also to the fireside connoisseur, who could thus feel he had experienced the dales and hills without actually visiting them.

Turner's 1816 tour of the north was specifically to sketch such already-famous scenes as Hardrow Force (in his day called ``Hardraw Fall''), the highest unbroken waterfall in England; or Weathercote Cave or Ingleborough Hill; or a view from Kirkby Lonsdale churchyard; or a prospect of Richmond.

Finished watercolors from his sketches were then engraved and reproduced in ``The General History of the County of York,'' by Thomas Dunham Whitaker. The publishers considered the pictures just as important as the text, if not more so: They were not simply illustrations. The finished watercolor of ``Hardraw Fall,'' and the scrupulous engraving made after it for Whitaker's book, are both shown here, as they are in Hill's book. Clearly, John Pye, the engraver (and Hill says that he took particular care over this plate and ``prided himself on the results''), had no need to travel to see this natural wonder in Wensleydale in order to understand completely Turner's depiction. It is remarkable how the airiness and light of Turner's atmospheric original was accurately translated into the necessary specifics of a black-line engraving without altogether losing the nuances of it.

But Hill's fresh way of studying Turner (and he is no mean art historian as well as a dedicated rambler) yields considerable detail. Above all he discovers how Turner could heighten or emphasize the awe inspired by a particular place.

By actually exploring, for instance, the horseshoe-shaped gorge at the end of which Hardrow Force ``leaps down to a depth of 96 feet,'' Hill was able to analyze how Turner solved the difficult problem of transferring it to two dimensions on a page measuring only 10 inches by 7. He points out that ``Hardrow is a place of extravagant scale that surrounds, overhangs, and completely dominates the spectator.'' Turner's first sketch ``did not work,'' because he ``was too close.''

The interesting thing is that photographers (as is shown by Derek G. Widdicombe's fine picture) tend to concentrate on the close view, perhaps because the memorable experience of most visitors to the fall is the excitement of walking behind and under it. Widdicombe (whose photograph is in color in Hill's book) chose to capture the scale and drama of this, just as Wordsworth had in 1799. The poet described his experience in a letter to his friend Coleridge: ``We found the rock, which before had appeared like a wall, extending itself over our heads like the ceiling of a huge cave, from the summit of which the water shot directly over our heads into a basin. . . . The water fell at least two yards from us, and we stood directly behind it. . . .''

But Turner found that, to ``convey an impression of immense grandeur within the confines of an engraving,'' as Hill puts it, he needed to move back and make a distant view of the fall. He even seems to be slightly above it and so exploits its depth, rather than its height as seen from below. He also shows the overhang of the rock and the space behind the column of water, avoiding the flat wall effect of a near view.

As Hill puts it: ``[Turner] found the solution by moving back from the falls to make a distant view. This allowed him to lead the spectator's eye into the glen along the path beneath the cliffs. In the finished watercolor he developed the theme even further. It is early morning, and the sun streams from the east, lighting the pasture on the western side of the glen, while the eastern cliffs are still in deep shade. A milkmaid returns from her morning rounds, and is met climbing over a stile in the foreground. Turner's problem was to make the eye lose sight of the edges of the sheet, to lead the viewer right into the gorge and confront him with the enormity of the falls. He diminishes scale gradually so that we make our way along the precipitous path, squeezing past a fellow-tourist in a red waistcoat on the way, until we finally join two tiny figures perched on a bluff [the viewpoint of Turner's first sketch]. We are now reduced to a speck, totally surrounded by the cliffs, wetted by the mist drifting up from the basin, and dwarfed by the fall pouring past. At this point the imaginary tourist stands suspended in the middle of the chasm, his imaginary field of view engulfed by the picture.''

Indeed, Hill describes Turner's achievement so vividly that one is persuaded, after all, that a greater understanding of Turner's art can perhaps be reached in certain cases by a hiking, climbing, scrambling acquaintance with his subject matter. . . .

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.