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1839 Henry Howard and J.M.W. Turner

On the front page of the catalogue for the 1839 Royal Academy Exhibition is the following quotation:

We consider Nature but transiently till the Poet or Painter awake our attention, and send us back to life with a new curiosity, which we owe entirely to the copies they lay before us.1

Sourced from the Essay on the Original Genius of Homer by the antiquarian Robert Wood, the epigraph posits art as a means by which life is processed; poetry and painting give us a deeper understanding of the world around us. Writing in the mid-eighteenth century, Wood took for granted that artists ought to generalise nature in order to represent its inner truth. For him, the archetypal “Painter” was a proponent of the classical ideal, one who instructs and ennobles the (elite, implicitly male) public. A few years before, he himself had appeared in a grand-manner tableau by Gavin Hamilton, James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra.2

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By 1839, the kind of art Wood invoked had become extinct. Persistent devotees of the grand manner like Benjamin Robert Haydon and William Hilton teetered on the edge of poverty, while William Etty favoured a realistic aesthetic that shunned the lofty aims of a painter like Gavin Hamilton. Wood’s declaration, however, still had relevance. The most distinguished painter of the day was J.M.W. Turner, who, over the course of the previous decade, had adapted the relationship between art and nature for the new age. Scholars have observed that, during the 1830s, Turner came to prioritise his own individual experience of the world rather than reflecting the more universal point of view that characterises his earlier landscapes.3 This had an impact on his reputation. Critics were frustrated by the increasingly expressive qualities of his works, especially his handling of light. Still, his paintings were guaranteed to attract notice at the Academy exhibitions, to “awaken (the) attention” of visitors and arouse “new curiosity” among them.4 Considering Turner’s status in 1839, Wood’s quote was a fitting motto.

Each of Turner’s three contributions to the 1839 Exhibition were met with ambivalence in public journals. The Fighting Temeraire, his portrayal of a British naval ship about to be dismantled twenty years after England’s victory over the French, was heralded as “very beautiful … and worthy of Turner when he was Turner” (Fig. 1).5 Yet the painting was attacked for its dazzling effects; “it would have lost none of its beauty, had it been more true”, wrote a critic in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine: “The unsubstantial and white look of the vessel adds nothing to the feeling”.6 Bathed in evening sunlight, the ghostly surface and hazy outline of Turner’s ship jarred with a straightforward reading of the subject. Those looking for an affirmation of Britain’s naval prowess would find only, in the words of a critic in Bell’s Weekly Messenger, “a glaring mass of red and blue paint, representing nothing, and meaning nothing.”7

Distracted by the ocular qualities of Turner’s work, these critics overlooked the fact that The Fighting Temeraire was one of his more legible achievements. In 1805, the HMS Temeraire had helped secure Britain’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar. Over three decades later, the ship had sailed one last time along the Thames, greeted by crowds gathered on the riverbank. Turner’s portrayal of the war vessel on the brink of its breaking up into timbers is a vanitas painting: an ode to the inevitable transience of life on earth. The setting sun, an emblem of the life cycle, reinforces the meaning. The historian Sam Willis argues that the steamboat tugging the ship forward is symbolic of industrial technologies carrying the nation into an unknown future.8 Responding to the Exhibition that year, William Thackeray—an admirer of the painting—pronounced the steamboat “spiteful, diabolical … a little demon”, the ship an “old champion”.9

Turner’s close friend, the painter Henry Howard, was another contributor to the 1839 Exhibition. Although the two spent time together, sketching, walking, and discussing their work, Howard suffered from the opposite problem to Turner. Entrenched in outmoded conventions, his painting was seen to be lacking in originality. That year, Howard’s latest version of the Rising of the Pleiades was exhibited, a subject he had repeated numerous times and in different formats. At present untraced, the 1839 work likely bore some resemblance to his ca. 1818 The Pleiades Disappearing, another lost painting recorded in an engraving, although we know from reviews that the 1839 work presented the seven stars in the constellation of Taurus, embodied in the form of maidens, “not floating in atmosphere but resting on substantial clouds” (Fig. 2).10 From his early achievements in Rome of the 1790s to his decorative schemes at Lancaster House and Sir John Soane’s Museum, such groups were Howard’s signature. By 1839, critics were fatigued with the painter’s “well-known and most mannered style”.11Howard is “forever among the stars”, complained one journalist, “This is their rising—would that they would set, and forever!”12 The public are all too “familiar with the classical elegance of Mr Howard’s celestial groups”, wrote another, to the extent that his reputation was at risk from his continually “copying himself”.13

Despite their differing aesthetic inclinations, Turner and Howard had a fondness for one another and their respective practices. According to Henry Scott Trimmer, Howard was privy to Turner’s idiosyncrasies, such as his spending hours sketching a stone or plunging himself into a ditch to churn out a quick watercolour away from prying eyes eager to know his secrets.14 Reportedly, the two painters debated about the perfect audience for their work; Howard was convinced that the artist should speak to the public at large, whereas Turner only wished to have his creations judged by the initiated.15 There is a degree of irony, then, in the fact that Turner has been canonised by the public, while most of Howard’s paintings are untraced, surviving only as prints. 

Yet the influence of Howard subsists elsewhere. Looking closely at Turner’s The Parting of Hero and Leander (exhibited two years before The Fighting Temeraire) one sees a cluster of figures that resemble Howard’s feminine stars. On the far right of this moonlit scene, an ethereal cluster of bodies soars between the rocks. While the precise identity of these figures has never been determined, familiarity with Howard and his relationship with Turner suggests that they are the sisters of his Pleiades, or rather, a faint imprint of Howard’s “peculiar style”.16 Indeed The Examiner’s description of Howard’s earliest portrayal of the figures could easily be describing Turner’s: “the streaky lights that dart upward … converting the air and rippling water into transparent gold … and tinting with a warmer glow the felicitous and feminine Genii.”17 Unlike his friend, Howard was not one to generate the kind of “new curiosity” described in Wood’s epigraph. Refracted through the prism of Turner, however, he lives on.

  1. Robert Wood, Essay on the Original Genius of Homer (London: T. Payne, 1775), xiii, quoted in the exhibition catalogue: The Exhibition of the Royal Academy. MDCCCXXXIX, The Seventy-First (London: W. Clowes and Sons, 1839).↩︎

  2. Dated from 1758, this painting is in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland.↩︎

  3. For insight into this idea, see Leo Costello, J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).↩︎

  4. Wood, Essay on the Original Genius of Homer.↩︎

  5. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 46 (September 1839): 313. In the catalogue, the painting is listed as The fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838.↩︎

  6. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 46 (September 1839): 313.↩︎

  7. Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 12 May 1839, 6.↩︎

  8. Sam Willis, The Fighting Temeraire: The Battle of Trafalgar and the Ship that Inspired J.M.W. Turner’s Most Beloved Painting (New York: Pegasus Books, 2010).↩︎

  9. Fraser’s Magazine 19 (June 1839): 744.↩︎

  10. The Examiner, 9 June 1939, 8.↩︎

  11. The Examiner, 9 June 1939, 8.↩︎

  12. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 46 (September 1839): 315.↩︎

  13. Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 18 May 1839, 6.↩︎

  14. Quoted in Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, Vol. 1, (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1862), 171.↩︎

  15. Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, Vol. 1, 172.↩︎

  16. The Era, 12 May 1839, 8.↩︎

  17. The Examiner, 26 February 1815, 142.↩︎

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