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1833 In Search of the "Ochre Man"

The Exhibition of 1833 provides another bumper crop of pictures for students of J.M.W. Turner. The works presented by him in that year were not only numerous and ambitious but seem also to crystallise several key aspects of his artistic ambition in particularly lucid ways. He showed six paintings, all marine subjects: four had topographical titles, Rotterdam Ferry Boat; Van Tromp returning after the Battle off the Dogger Bank; Ducal Palace, Venice; Mouth of the Seine, Quille-Boeuf; two had titles that explicitly referred to artists of the past, Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace and Custom House Venice; Canaletti Painting (Fig. 1) and Van Goyen, Looking out for a Subject (Fig. 2). These last works, referencing the eighteenth-century Venetian topographical painter Canaletto and the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape artist Jan van Goyen, respectively, were among a succession of eight pictures exhibited by Turner from 1820–1844 with titles that referred to artists of the past.1

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The painter’s commentators have found much of interest here, seeing these painting as exemplifying, in a supremely self-reflexive way, Turner’s knowing engagement with the history of art, his deliberate and determined pitching of his own art against the art of the Old Masters in a gambit at once self-serving and aspirational.2 For the eminent art historian Hugh Honour, these constituted “painted rather than written art criticism”, and the question of whether these were simple tributes to these established figures, or contained elements of critique and commentary, remains open.3 The gesture was, also, undoubtedly commercially minded. Turner’s Venetian picture was calculated to rival Clarkson Stanfield, known to be working on the same subject, a point commented on by The Morning Chronicle.4 While it seems hardly credible that he worked up the subject in days in order to pitch his work against Stanfield’s, his choice of exhibit was made with this opportunity in mind. This was, perhaps, a propitious moment for making art-historical claims. The royal mews in Charing Cross had just been demolished to make way for the new building combining the Royal Academy and the National Gallery.5 During the Annual Exhibition, The Times wrote: “The erection of a National Gallery occupies, as it is well entitled to do, the attention of the Government and the public.”6 Turner, already conscious of his potential place in history and deeply involved in Academy matters, would already have been questioning how he would secure a place in this future pantheon.

Turner would have had good reason to harbour such expectations. In 1833, the discussion of Turner’s pictures dominated the press coverage of the Exhibition, as it had done for many years, and most of it was favourable, if punctuated with doubts about his perceived departures from nature, doubts that were to become more frequent and more emphatic in the next decade. While The Morning Chronicle insisted that, “Turner has made no improvement by a better acquaintance with nature and common sense”,7 The Examiner praised “some splendid sea-pieces, conceived and executed in all the fervour of his poetic imagination.”8 

The digitisation of the sources of such newspaper and magazine reviews provides for a sense of comprehensiveness; we may convince ourselves that a search of these electronic resources reveals in its entirety the critical record of Exhibition. But there are other sources as well, in the form of unpublished comments in letters and notes, and notices in memoirs and autobiographies. Among these, we have one intriguing comment from a young American visitor, Thomas Gold Appleton, later notable as a publisher. In 1833, he remarked of Turner’s exhibits, in a letter home: “Ochre is his favourite tint and he is often called ‘The Ochre Man’”.9 William T. Whitley, quoting this comment, observed that “This may have been the case, but I have seen no reference to such a nickname in any book on Turner or in the comments on him in contemporary newspapers.”10 Subsequent art historians, and the digital archive now available, have not overturned Whitley’s comment, at least in its precise implications. There appear to be no further surviving references to Turner as “The Ochre Man”. The painter was, on a number of occasions, castigated for painting excessively yellow pictures, but none seem to have been so specific or insistent about his use of ochre in particular. If anything, Turner was in this year largely excused of this fault in the published criticism. A further notice in The Examiner praised his exhibits of this year, for their “chaste, natural and original style”, setting this against the “pictorial abortions” of recent shows, including “yellow and ugly Jessicas and jaundiced Pilates” referring to Turner’s widely disparaged figurative subjects of 1830.11 Another reviewer said that Turner puts the viewer in fear of “yellow fever”, although the Van Goyen—the picture most likely to have attracted Gold’s comment about the predominance of an “ochre sail”—was excused from this fault, being “cooler” in tone.12

Gold’s claim that Turner was commonly known as the “Ochre Man” seems hard to explain with reference to documented instances of the use of the phrase. There are several possibilities here. One is that Appleton is drawing more generically from the language of contemporary published criticism, but inventing the phrase itself for literary effect or perhaps even from a sense of propriety. Referring to Turner as the “Ochre Man” would certainly be in better taste that repeating the quip about “yellow fever”, at least for reader in America (where the perils of the disease were felt far more immediately and greatly). The rough and tumble, bad taste, and cruel humour characteristic of critical discourse in the metropolis was thus dampened down in favour of a kind of calm tastefulness we would recognise as “Victorian”. The other, of course, is that he is reporting an aural record, something that he’d heard said. In that he points to the virtually irrecoverable archive of multitudinous exchanges and references, allusions and quips, glances and gestures, that actually made up the moment of reception, and are only faintly captured in the more informal records. Gold’s elusive “Ochre Man” is a reminder of the limits of our historical comprehension of the Exhibition as a lived experience, the fullness of which lies beyond even the dramatically enhanced digital archive available to us now.

  1. Sam Smiles, Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 31.↩︎

  2. See David H. Solkin (ed.), Turner and the Masters, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Britain, 2009).↩︎

  3. Hugh Honour, Romanticism (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 95.↩︎

  4. The Morning Chronicle, 6 June 1833. See also Solkin, Turner and the Masters, 200–201.↩︎

  5. The Morning Post, 4 February 1833.↩︎

  6. The Times, 4 May 1833.↩︎

  7. The Morning Chronicle, 6 May 1833.↩︎

  8. The Examiner, 5 May 1833.↩︎

  9. Susan Hale (ed.), The Life and Letters of Thomas Gold Appleton (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1885), 110.↩︎

  10. William T. Whitley, Art in England 1821–1837 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), 253.↩︎

  11. The Examiner, 26 May 1833.↩︎

  12. The Morning Chronicle, 6 June 1833.↩︎

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