Turner's Modern World, Tate Britain, review: moments of power, but some disappointing omissions

Alastair Sooke
·5-min read
Blindingly original: Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844) - National Gallery
Blindingly original: Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844) - National Gallery

You can’t stage an exhibition called “Turner’s Modern World”, I thought, and not include the picture on which Ruskin argued that the artist’s “immortality” alone could rest.

Nothing Turner painted is today more resonant, more on-the-button, than “Slave Ship” (1840), his terrifying vision of black men and women flailing in rough seas, beset by ravenous, razor-toothed fish and a typhoon. The poor, drowning souls, their desperate hands blood-red beneath a sunset, evoke 133 Africans cast, in 1781, from the Zong, a disease-ridden British vessel, so that its captain could cash in on insurance.

In our Black Lives Matter era, Turner’s painting is crucially important – and, moreover, a reminder that not everyone in the British Empire was a profiteering advocate for slavery (even if it took the artist, who once tried to invest in a Jamaican cattle ranch, a while to come around to this view).

Yet, it isn’t here.

Barrelling past many of the 150 exhibits in Tate Britain’s new show to come face to face with “Slave Ship” in room six, we find … a reproduction. The original is, a label informs us, too fragile to travel.

Sometimes an exhibition lives or dies by the presence or absence of a single work. Imagine the gnashing of teeth inside Tate’s HQ upon learning that Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts was vetoing the loan. According to David Blayney Brown, the show’s co-curator, the gallery “tried everything” – even sending conservators to confer with their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. To little avail. Apparently, on the last two occasions it travelled, “Slave Ship” suffered flaking losses. So, Boston ruled: no dice.

Disappointment, then – and not the only one. That decision came last year, before the outbreak of Covid-19, but the pandemic has, inevitably, played havoc with Tate’s intentions. This should have been a chance to encounter great works from Washington, New Haven, and elsewhere. But lenders are getting twitchy. Who can guarantee when loans will be returned? Because of the “challenging circumstances”, I’m told, Tate decided only two weeks ago against bringing a major oil painting, “The Wreck of a Transport Ship” (c. 1810), promised by Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Museum. 

 

At times, Tate’s curators must have sympathised with the imperilled vessels in Turner’s roiling, dramatic seascapes, buffeted and tossed by an almighty storm.

Aside from a smattering of works from British galleries, then, we are left with a selection from the vast Turner Bequest, always on rotating, free display inside the Clore Gallery. Is this a story we’ve heard before?

Six years ago, Tate’s “Late Turner” exhibition examined the artist’s radical painting style during his final years. Now, the curatorial trio behind it, who call this show a “sequel”, tackle his subject matter, widening the focus to his whole career. The title, incidentally, refers to the modernity of Turner’s age, not ours - a period of turbulence precipitated by industrialisation, technological advances, political reform, and the long Napoleonic Wars.

What did a modern artist paint in the early 19th century? Brighton’s chain pier. Recently dug waterways and the railways that superseded them. Foundries and industrial pollution. Corpses on the field of Waterloo. Whalers boiling blubber. It’s all here.

'Modern times': The Field of Waterloo (c 1817) - Amy Jugg/Fitzwilliam Museum
'Modern times': The Field of Waterloo (c 1817) - Amy Jugg/Fitzwilliam Museum

Too much of it, you could argue. Prepare for a history lesson, with labels like revision cards about the crop rotation of turnips, a tax on pig iron, and reform of the Anglican Church. After a slow start, several passages are diligent but dull, like a BBC Four documentary about, say, Britain’s canals. Anoraks, fill your boots.

Furthermore, not every Turner is great, by any means. Often you spot the joins, as he constructs compositions with familiar elements, like a mason laying bricks to build a wall. A cluster of deer or awkward incidental figures here, a bolt of lightning there. Storm clouds alluding to political upheaval. And that classic Turner device: juxtaposing old with new.

At the same time, of course, he was a prodigious enchanter, capable of glowing, poetic visual effects as ethereal as moonbeams. Somehow, though, amid all the historicising, his idiosyncratic originality gets, if not lost, then hemmed in.

That said, there is one standout room, “Steam and Speed”, towards the end. A new-fangled locomotive hurtles at 60 miles per hour through damp mist: according to Thackeray, the world had never seen anything like Turner’s “Rain, Steam, and Speed” (1844). What a coup to have persuaded the National Gallery to lend this and “The Fighting Temeraire” (1839), a much-loved, ghostly elegy about the passage of time, which Turner called “my Darling”, and refused to sell.

Constable once said that Turner painted with “tinted steam”. Certainly, his brushes vaporised these heralds of modernity. That Great Western Railway engine, accelerating towards a hare on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Maidenhead Viaduct, bears only a passing resemblance to the gleaming 19th-century model of a “Firefly” on display nearby. You see, Turner was no reporter, but a blindingly original, imaginative artist who wanted to capture intangible things: swirling atmosphere, the immediacy of sensation, subjectivity, emotion. His was a world in perpetual flux – which is why, in another well-known picture in the same room, “Snow Storm” (1842), a steamboat gets smacked about like laundry in a spin cycle.

Like laundry in a spin cycle: Snow Storm (1842) - Sam Drake
Like laundry in a spin cycle: Snow Storm (1842) - Sam Drake

Mocked, at the time, as “a mass of soap-suds and whitewash”, it was, surely, never a simple representation of its title. As well as snow, Turner’s surging, cyclonic vectors of filthy weather, rendered with the palette of a bruise, evoke grand forces beyond human control. This is a vision in which everything – not just a boat – is at sea.

Sound familiar? Frankly, the canvas has never felt more powerful. That distant, vulnerable vessel could be the barque of our maritime nation even now, as, once again, Britain is assailed by threats and the pell-mell pace of change. Let us pray for safe harbour.

From Wed until March 7; information: tate.org.uk