Who, as a child in England, doesn’t remember being ushered into an impossibly darkened gallery to view the paintings of J.M.W. Turner? That viscerally despondent feeling that perhaps our very breath might destroy the delicate miracle unfolded upon the paper or the canvas. Saddled with the monicker of, “romantic landscape painter” Turner was in fact so much more. The son of a barber and wig maker with a mother from a family of butchers, made him a true working-class son. Admitted to the Royal Academy of Art in 1789 at the tender age of 14 he produced his first water colour a year later for the Summer Exhibition.
The independence such early recognition gave Turner, coupled with the financial freedom it brought him, allowed the young artist the license to experiment and dabble. Water colours, oils and print were the mediums he chose to express his outstanding visions of light but he did more than just capture the right moment. Many of his paintings cast a distinct narrative such as this emotive piece, The Slave Ship or Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying. Surely that broiling sea and that blood red sunset in reflection speaks to us even today of the barbarous practices of slavery and the pact made with the devil of that evil trade.
History and art were my favorite subjects when I was growing up in England and they still are today. The knowledge one stores in the recesses of the mind has a way of percolating through to the present time to become something of an applied science in the modern world. Here’s an extract from one of my most treasured books, A Shortened History of England, by G.M. Trevelyan. His skill with language could bring any passage of history alive in the mind and fire up the imagination to conjure up vivid dioramas.
For many centuries after Britain became an island the untamed forest was king. Its moist and mossy floor was hidden from heaven’s eye by a close-drawn curtain woven of innumerable treetops, which shivered in the breezes of summer dawn and broke into wild music of millions upon millions of wakening birds; the concert was prolonged from bough to bough with scarcely a break for hundreds of miles over hill and plain and mountain, unheard by man save where, at rarest intervals, a troop of skin-clad hunters, stone-axe in hand, moved furtively over the ground beneath, ignorant that they lived upon an island, not dreaming that there could be other parts of the world besides this damp green woodland with its meres and marshes, wherein they hunted, a terror to its four-footed inhabitants and themselves afraid.
– A Shortened History of England – G.M. Trevelyan
What manner of a man must Sir Launcelot du Lac have been to induce the melancholy, Lady of Shalott, to leave her loom and suffer the curse of certain death? One fleeting glance reflected in the mirror. Launcelot, Knight of the Holy Grail, a raven-haired, sun baked beauty. The medieval bad boy whose seduction of his liege’s queen ultimately led to the downfall of the Kingdom of Camelot. Were that we could bottle that enchanted essence today.
Gustave Caillebotte, Les Rabateurs de Parquet (The Floor Scrapers), presented to The Paris Salon of 1875, is one of the first occasions that members of the urban proletariat had been displayed to the general public. The jury, shocked by its crude realism but voyeuristically fascinated, rejected it as “vulgar subject matter”. In choosing to submit himself simply to the rigorous formulae of traditional realist painters, Caillebotte eschews any of the political, social or moral messages of his contemporaries like Courbet or Millet. It is as if he were a documentarian exposing us only to gestures, tools and the accoutrements of these stripped down modern heroes of antiquity. One year later he, along with Edgar Degas, were the toast of the town. … Could there be a more apropos moment to take note that a working class hero is something to be?