1840 Turner "out-Turnered"
“What shall we say of Mr. Turner?”, teased The Morning Chronicle in its review of the 1840 Exhibition.1 This year, Turner was deemed to have “out-Turnered” himself, showing “freaks of chromomania” and “flaming abortions”, including one painting said to look “exactly like an omelette”.2 This “omelette” was Bacchus and Ariadne, a combination of mythological subject matter, old master references, and boundary-pushing technique that encapsulates the flair for blending tradition and innovation that had first marked Turner out some fifty years before (Fig. 1). Although his radical approach to that blend had always attracted criticism, 1840 proved a tipping point: all seven works he showed that year met with near-unanimous derision, the critics’ scorn delivered with a new zeal. But where his contemporary critics saw a “falling-off” in the abilities of this veteran Academician, lamenting “power misapplied and time misspent [sic]”, we now see restless vitality, timeless profundity, and examples of Turner at his very best.3
Turner’s 1840 exhibits show him flexing his skill and imagination across a range of time-frames and geographies, both familiar and imagined, from the fictional setting of Roman mythology to Venice, a popular tourist destination, and the transport hub of Margate on Britain’s southern shore. The portfolio, however, is particularly notable for two qualities: it announced a new chapter of formal experimentation; and it embraced highly topical, contemporary subject matter. These are exemplified in Bacchus and Ariadne and Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying, Typhoon Coming On (Fig. 2).
In Bacchus and Ariadne, Turner was trialling a new format—the square-shaped canvas. While its upper corners suggest he may have originally intended an octagonal picture, the final glaze—added after it was framed for exhibition—is circular. Saturated with brilliant yellow, it was said to have shone from the walls of the Exhibition like an “explosion of light—literally a sun-burst”.4 However appropriate the effect was for a story about light—in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Bacchus promises his bride Ariadne a constellation made from jewels in her crown—Turner’s radiant disc was ridiculed, its near unicolour effervescence and indistinctness of form far removed from the more restrained palettes and attentively detailed works of contemporaries like Clarkson Stanfield, David Wilkie, and William Etty.
Yet while the format of Bacchus and Ariadne was new, its subject and composition derived from Turner’s decades-old engagement with the work of Ovid and Old Master painters Claude and Titian. The central figures in Bacchus and Ariadne are a translation from the latter’s painting of the same subject, which had hung in the National Gallery since 1826. This direct reference to a hallowed source rendered Turner’s idiosyncratic painting all the more obnoxious in the eyes of his detractors. Turner had deliberately courted controversy via allusion to old master paintings in the past, but Bacchus and Ariadne may have been a genuine attempt to repackage his favoured sources—and, by extension, his art—for a new generation. Its smaller, square canvas not only compressed and intensified its effect but might also appeal to middle-class buyers with homes smaller than those of yesteryear’s aristocratic patrons. Its romantic theme, of a couple about to be married, was timely, too, as February that year had seen Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert. In the end, however, Bacchus and Ariadne failed to strike a chord and the work went unsold.
Far removed from myth and romance but no less powerful in its effect, Slavers was an unflinching rendition of an unpalatable episode from Britain’s recent past. Its subject is believed to be the murder that took place on the slave ship Zong, during its passage from modern-day Ghana to Jamaica in 1781. Unwilling to share dwindling drinking water supplies among the disease-struck slaves and mindful that insurance covered only those lost by drowning and not to disease, the ship’s crew drowned dozens of slaves and then sought compensation for their deaths. The typhoon referred to in Turner’s title would later replenish the ship’s drinking water stocks. Anti-slavery campaigners took up the case and it resurfaced in a spate of publications marking the cessation of slavery across British colonies in 1838. Increasingly inclined towards topical subjects—the previous five years had seen him paint the Houses of Parliament ablaze and the last voyage of the veteran sailing ship, the Temeraire—Turner likely absorbed this new literature but had perhaps been reflecting on the subject for some time. In 1805, he had invested in a slave-dependent venture but by the 1820s expressed solidarity, via the dedication of a print, with prominent abolitionist Lord Carysfort.5
If the end of slavery in British territories had been his prompt, further motivation lay in the painting’s potential to become an emblem for the ongoing campaign for universal abolition. Turner could not have timed its exhibition better: during the last week of the Royal Academy Exhibition, the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and the Civilisation of Africa (of which Prince Albert was President) held its first meeting, followed closely by the inaugural World Anti-Slavery Convention. Any hopes Turner may have had that these events would work to the Slavers’ advantage were likely dashed by the picture’s critical reception. William Thackeray drew on other slavery-related 1840 exhibits to ridicule Turner’s. He heaped praise on the French artist August-Francois Biard’s The Slave Trade, while imagining that Turner’s picture would force Samuel Joseph’s sculpture of the deceased anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce to “fly away in terror”.6
It is precisely the qualities that his critics found obnoxious and repulsive that we find so compelling. Indeed, the reaction and lack of sales for his 1840 exhibits did little to hold Turner back from the ceaseless pursuit of his vision, expressed in formats and techniques befitting the dramatic times through which he lived.
The Morning Chronicle, 8 May 1840.↩︎
The Athenaeum, 16 May 1840.↩︎
The Art-Union 2 (May 1840).↩︎
The Spectator 13, no. 620 (16 May 1840): 476.↩︎
See Sam Smiles, “Turner and the Slave Trade: Speculation and Representation, 1805–40”, British Art Journal 8, no. 3 (Winter 2007/2008): 47–54.↩︎
Fraser’s Magazine (June 1840): 731–732.↩︎