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1832 Shot out of the Water?

The contest between J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, and their paintings—Turner’s sea-piece Helvoetsluys and Constable’s The Opening of Waterloo Bridge—occurred, according to a famous anecdote, on a Varnishing Day in 1832, when Academicians had the chance to finish off their works as they hung on the Exhibition walls (Figs. 1 and 2).1 The story was the basis for a key sequence in Mike Leigh’s feature film Mr. Turner (2014) which, in large part, follows the traditional interpretation of this anecdote as a demonstration of Turner’s effortless artistic good judgement: that is, his ability to transform an unexceptional painting—the Helvoetsluys—into a masterpiece, through the application of a single red “daub” of paint, which he then fashioned into a buoy. Moreover, thanks to the fact that this action was prompted by the painting—Constable’s—that hung next to Helvoetsluys in the Exhibition space, Turner’s action has long been judged as an example of his legendary one-upmanship and, even, his superiority among his artistic rivals. Most secondary sources agree. In an essay dealing with the subject, Michael Rosenthal describes the red daub as “a visual explosion” so startling as to cause Constable’s canvas “to fade into insignificance”. Meanwhile, Constable’s recorded reaction—“He has been here and fired a gun”—makes plain, according to David Solkin in Turner and the Masters (2009), that: “Constable was convinced that Turner had shot him out of the water.”2

Rather than simply describing the incident in print, the film, for which I was the art-historical and historical consultant, obviously required re-enactment, necessitating motivational analysis while making sense of the narrative literally and visually. When copies of the paintings were hung together on set, and even after the red daub’s application, it was unconvincing that Turner's action could have rendered Constable’s painting insignificant, let alone shot it out of the water. In the event, the traditional interpretation was adapted in one crucial way. Constable (James Fleet) with one eye on his canvas—the other neurotically following Turner (Timothy Spall) as he prowls back and forth across the Exhibition Room—gently applies vivid red highlights, which become thicker and brighter as time passes. Turner’s triumphant flourish in response forces his opponent to exit in frustration and wounded pride. The red daub becomes a clever, if mean-spirited, visual joke on Constable’s use, or over-use, of this same red pigment. No doubt, the film Mr. Constable would have presented this event in a very different light, with Constable as the misunderstood genius. Here, however, Turner is the hero.

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In fact, the idea of the artist-hero is inherent to the anecdote’s meaning, at least as it has been passed down to posterity. But the task of unpacking this story for the big screen led to a heretical thought. Has the standard interpretation been too readily, unquestioningly, accepted?

The origin of the story is Charles Robert Leslie. Waterloo Bridge is first mentioned in Leslie’s Memoirs of John Constable (1843) where Constable, Leslie states, “indulged” himself in the use of a palette knife “to an excess”. Meanwhile, through his subject matter—the Thames during a Civic celebration—Constable wilfully, perhaps arrogantly, encouraged comparison with the revered eighteenth-century Venetian, Canaletto, whose execution, in contrast, “is wonderful”. So Constable’s heavy impasto, made heavier still when weighed against Canaletto’s airily deft “precision”, was not to Leslie’s taste, nor indeed to the generality of viewers, who, he continues, considered the picture a failure.3

Leslie returns to Waterloo Bridge, within the setting of the Academy, in his Autobiographical Recollections (1860). He observes that Helvoetsluys was “a grey picture, beautiful and true, but with no positive colour.” Constable’s Waterloo Bridge, in contrast, “seemed as if painted with liquid gold and silver, and Turner came several times into the room while he was heightening with vermilion and lake.” After Turner adds his daub, Leslie notes that the

intensity of the red lead, made more vivid by the coolness of his picture, caused even the vermilion and lake of Constable to look weak. I came into the room just as Turner left it. “He has been here,” said Constable, and fired a gun.” 4 

Leslie concludes: “The great man”, Turner, returned a few days later, “glazed the scarlet seal … and shaped it into a buoy.”5

Here, the issue of colour is critical. Yet although it is Leslie’s opinion that this red daub made Constable’s painting “look weak”, he does not state that it was visually blown away, nor, specifically, that Constable himself thought so. This idea springs from Constable’s enigmatic comment, “He has been here and fired a gun.” What did Constable mean by this, if, indeed, he said it? Most scholars have taken it to be a ship’s gun, a broadside blast signalling a battle’s commencement, and, in this case, a battle that has been immediately won by the mortal wound inflicted by this single, well-aimed shot. The maritime analogy is compelling, given Helvoetsluys is a seascape, while Constable’s painting is a Thames scene.

But there are other guns—hand guns, for example. Constable could mean that the relentlessly competitive Turner had, yet again, “fired a gun” like a starting pistol, or a duel. After all, Constable’s comment was made after the daub had been applied, but before it had been turned into a buoy: the full intended effect of Turner’s action was not, at that moment, apparent.

There is another possible scenario. After quoting Constable, Leslie states: “On the opposite wall was a picture, by Jones, of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego in the furnace. ‘A coal,’ said Cooper, ‘has bounced across the room from Jones’s picture, and set fire to Turner’s sea.’”6 As Turner had executed his own version of this subject—of the same size, and located in the same room—in direct competition with his close friend George Jones (a blatant attempt at pictorial sabotage that Jones himself acknowledged), Abraham Cooper may be whimsically suggesting that Jones’ painting had exacted a suitable revenge.7 In fact, Turner was hoisted by his own petard, as critics considered his rendition of the Old Testament theme even less successful than Jones’. In the spirit of Cooper’s amusing comment, perhaps Constable meant that Turner had metaphorically fired a gun leaving, accidentally or otherwise, a blood-red bullet hole in his own canvas—it could have been a light-hearted, off-the-cuff visual joke, no more, no less.

However, Constable had good reasons to be suspicious about his fellow Academician’s motives and actions—in the previous year, while serving on the Hanging Committee, he had removed one of Turner’s paintings from its prime location in the Great Room at Somerset House, and replaced it with his own Salisbury Cathedral from the Water Meadows. At a gathering afterwards, David Roberts recalled, Turner confronted Constable who “wriggled, twisted” like “a detected criminal”.8 A year on, Constable was probably expecting Turner to have his revenge at the first opportunity and Constable’s comment may acknowledge this. Turner, no doubt, guessed that leaving this enigmatic patch of red on his picture would discomfit Constable, while giving him, Turner, the opportunity, a day or so later, to demonstrate that a single spot of contrasting colour, transformed into a humble buoy, could animate a canvas as effectively as Constable’s red highlights.

The enduring appeal of Leslie’s anecdote—or rather, how it has been interpreted—is simply explained. It offers us an easy, too easy, shorthand for modern presumptions that the radical landscape painter in this instance is Turner, not Constable. Crucially, the continual repetition of this specific reading—or misreading?—of the episode has blocked us from seeing, objectively, the paintings themselves, while ignoring the full context of their exhibition and, similarly, the complex relations between their creators.

  1. My thanks to Anne Lyles for her comments on this article. The Exhibition of the Royal Academy: MDCCCXXXII: The Sixty-Fourth (London: W. Clowes, 1832), 19. For Waterloo Bridge, see A. Lyles (ed.), Constable: The Great Landscapes, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate, 2006), 184–189.↩︎

  2. Michael Rosenthal, “Turner Fires a Gun”, in David .H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 149; David H. Solkin (ed.), Turner and the Masters (London: Tate Publishing, 2009), 188–189. See also Richard Johns in Christine Riding (ed.), Turner & the Sea (London: Thames and Hudson, 2013), 139.↩︎

  3. C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 2nd edn (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1845), 226.↩︎

  4. C.R. Leslie, Autobiographical Recollections, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1860), Vol. 1, 202–203.↩︎

  5. Leslie, Autobiographical Recollections, Vol. 1, 202–203.↩︎

  6. Leslie, Autobiographical Recollections, Vol. 1, 202.↩︎

  7. Exhibition of the Royal Academy 1832; Jones (no. 256), Turner (no. 355).↩︎

  8. H. Guiterman, “The Great Painter: Roberts on Turner”, Turner Studies 9, no. 1 (Summer 1989): 4. Roberts does not specify which Turner was moved; one possibility is Caligula’s Palace, almost two feet wider than Waterloo Bridge, though we cannot be entirely sure. See Rosenthal, “Turner Fires a Gun”, 263. n.19.↩︎

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