A Touch of Turner Humor

The Tate's Clore Gallery was built to house J.M.W. Turner's vast bequest of his works to Britain. Designed by James Stirling, it celebrates its 10th birthday this year.

It isn't one of the obvious ones," David Brown says. "It's not in every book about Turner."

Dr. Brown is curator of the Tate's Clore Gallery in London, which houses the vast collection of works the English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) bequeathed to Britain. Brown came to the Tate in 1987 (after 13 years as curator of the Print Room at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum), just when the Turners were at last given their permanent home.

The "quiet and restrained" picture he is talking about - "The New Moon" - hangs in a room now devoted to Turner's marine paintings. "It's small, so we have to hang it in a corner. It gets passed by."

"The New Moon" was Turner's main title for this comparatively late picture when he exhibited it at the 1840 Royal Academy exhibition, among a number of recent pictures including, Brown says, "his wonderful 'Slave Ship,' which has that extraordinary, fiery, vivid color. Only an artist as diverse as Turner could come up with such an appalling, grand-manner picture - and something as quiet, subtle, and humorous as 'The New Moon' in the same exhibition."

Brown calls it "a minor work, a little throw-away jeu d'esprit. But that is what I like about it. You know, I live with 'grand Turner' every day. It is impressive. But those are not the pictures I would take to my 'desert island.' This one might be."

Turner's subtitle for "The New Moon" is most unusual: "I've Lost My Boat, You Shan't Have Your Hoop!" It refers to a woman with two squabbling children, almost out of the picture, lower left.

"One doesn't associate Turner much with humor," Brown observes. "That's really why I chose this picture: It is another side to him, which either wasn't there very much or that he kept hidden in his search for greatness." (Turner's ambition is legendary.) "But by the time it got to 1840, he had nothing left to prove really, had he?"

Or perhaps he no longer cared what critics said. Although he was by then an established figure, "The New Moon" received some flack. Brown reads a vivid, fairly typical example from an issue of Blackwoods Magazine that year:

" 'The painting does not belie the silliness of the title. What can the moon have to do with the loss of a hoop and a boat? Who would have imagined this to be moonlight. It is far below even moonshine. There is a red child squalling lustily. The moral is that spoiled children of all ages do very silly things' - meaning, of course, Turner as well," Brown adds.

"But I think it's one of the loveliest pictures in the gallery. It is basically about the moon and the sunset and the sea - about light. This wonderful sky combines the last remnants of the setting sun with the very white light from this little stab of the new moon. A lovely effect. All this he achieves in oil paint, thinly painted, almost as if he's using watercolor." With its "smooth, rather glassy surface," the painting marvelously conveys "exactly how a beach looks when the waves have rolled in and then recede and the sand is left glistening."

BROWN is sure that this marine was painted "not from nature, but from a memory-bank built up from constant observation. This enabled Turner to get these effects even in the studio with a great deal of truth and spontaneity.

"It looks perhaps more like one of his private and personal pictures," though in fact "it is quite beautifully finished. It hasn't lasted very well, however. There's a lot of cracking in the paint. But if one looks beyond that, it's full of subtle colorations and varieties of tone; the color's absolutely fresh."

But the serene loveliness of "The New Moon" is not total. "It's rather rudely broken by this ridiculous argument between the children. I think that's very Turner, really. You have this undermining quality. He's not in the end, I think, an artist who expects to be taken entirely seriously, despite the fact that most people do. I mean, he was a person of the people, wasn't he?

"Although he never married, he did have a couple of children by a mistress and seems to have had quite a fondness for and understanding of children. So he's added this little genre story in the foreground - trivial, but very telling - a little boy and girl. The boy's lost his model boat and is full of resentment - so he's grabbed the girl's hoop."

Like many of Turner's later marines, "The New Moon" is a picture of Margate, a popular seaside resort on the Kent coast. "Turner visited it frequently to stay with his last companion/mistress, Mrs. Booth, who lived there."

The doyen of Victorian critics, John Ruskin, who recognized Turner's greatness and loftily championed his work, "couldn't understand," Brown says, "why Turner was so dreadfully fond of Margate - full of all these rowdy cockneys!

"But of course Turner, a cockney himself, loved it. They were his own people. He was entirely at home in Margate. And he makes a piece of art out of it."

* Fourth in a series. Previous articles ran April 7, 14, and 21.

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