The Genius of Hard Work

I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.” J.M.W. Turner

Lending his name to the Turner Prize, held annually at Tate Britain, J.M.W Turner is one of the most notable artists in British history. Galleries across the UK and further afield display Turner’s paintings, and Tate Britain devotes their Clore Gallery to a permanent exhibition of Turner’s work. Since 2020, a self-portrait of Turner has decorated British £20 notes, with a backdrop of his painting, The Fighting Temeraire. So, what makes Turner one of Britain’s most loved artists?

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in April 1775 in Covent Garden, London. He preferred to go by his middle name, William, the same name as his father, who worked as a barber and wig maker. Turner’s mother, Mary, gave birth to his little sister in 1778, who passed away shortly before her fifth birthday. Mary suffered greatly from this loss and spent time in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics and Bethlem Hospital until she died in 1804.

Following his sister’s death, Turner went to live with his maternal uncle and namesake, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford. The earliest examples of Turner’s artwork were produced at this time, before being sent to Margate, Kent, in 1786. While in Margate, Turner painted scenes of the town, which his father displayed and sold in his shop for a few shillings each, boasting that his son “is going to be a painter”.

In 1789, Turner started studying with Thomas Malton (1748-1804), an English painter of topographical and architectural views. Malton specialised in views of London and taught Turner by getting him to copy examples of his work and prints of British castles and monasteries. In the same year, 14-year-old Turner entered the Royal Academy of Arts, earning a place as an academic probationer the following year when he submitted a watercolour to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

During his first few years at the Academy, Turner focused on watercolours. He travelled around Britain to produce sketches of architectural buildings, particularly those in Wales and Cambridge. In 1793, he painted a watercolour of Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge. The painting reveals the spires of King’s College Chapel hidden behind the hall and the River Cam flowing in front. Instead of submitting this artwork to the Summer Exhibition, Turner sent in The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent’s Rock Bristol, which is now lost. Yet, comments given at the time suggest older artists were impressed with Turner’s “mastery of effect”.

In 1796, Turner turned his hand to oil painting and exhibited Fishermen at Sea at the annual exhibition. The artwork depicts fishermen on a boat upon a rough sea off the coast of the Isle of Wight. On the left, the Needles, a row of jagged, chalk rocks look threatening in the gloom of the stormy sky. The cold light of the moon shines through a break in the clouds, which contrasts with the warm glow of the fishermen’s lamp. Critics commented on Turner’s ability to combine the fragility of human life with the power of nature. The painting helped establish Turner as both an oil painter and a painter of maritime scenes.

Turner gained one of his earliest patrons in 1797 at the age of 22. Walter Ramsden Fawkes (1769-1825), a politician, invited Turner to visit him at Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire. Fawkes allowed Turner to explore the grounds belonging to the Hall and commissioned a series of watercolours of the area. In one painting, Turner depicted Fawkes and his companions grouse shooting on Beamsley Beacon in the Yorkshire Dales.

Around 1802, Turner travelled to Europe, visiting several countries, including France, Switzerland and Italy. While in France, Turner studied at the Louvre in Paris but also spent some time on the coast, capturing the stormy sea on canvas. He particularly enjoyed trips to Venice, where he combined two of his favourite subjects, architecture and water.

Turner did not always paint the landscape as he saw it. Instead, he imagined scenarios, such as Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps during a snowstorm, which he painted in 1812. Turner took inspiration from several places, including the Alps in Europe and a storm he witnessed while staying at Farnley Hall with his patron. Combining these elements with his imagination, Turner depicted the Carthaginian general, Hannibal (247-182 BC), leading his troops across the Alps in 218 BC. Whilst the general is not visible, the tiny silhouette of an elephant in the background represents his presence. According to the history of the Second Punic War, Hannibal invaded Italy with North African war elephants.

The stormy painting of Hannibal crossing the Alps shared parallels with the ongoing Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. The conflicts began in 1803, shortly after Turner studied at the Louvre. Turner painted the scene three years before the end of the conflicts when the winning country remained uncertain. It is unusual for a British artist to depict their enemy as Hannibal, but Turner was referencing Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps in 1800. After already taking power in France, Napoleon was determined to seize parts of Italy.

Not all of Turner’s European scenes contained storms and he showed an equal talent for depicting calm skies. In 1817, Turner visited Dordrecht in the Western Netherlands, where he made sketches of the harbour. The following year, Turner produced a painting based on these drawings, which he titled Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed. Known as The Dort for short, the painting depicted “a canal with numerous boats making thousands of beautiful shapes,” as John Constable (1776-1837) recalled in 1832. Constable also thought it was “the most complete work of a genius I ever saw.”

After displaying The Dort at the Royal Academy in 1818, where critics rated it “one of the most magnificent pictures ever exhibited,” Turner sold the painting to Walter Fawkes for 500 guineas. This is the equivalent of more than £40,000 today.

Around 1820, Turner returned to Farnley Hall, where under the guidance of Walter Fawkes, he produced illustrations for the five-volume Ornithological Collection. Fawkes was a keen natural historian and animal lover, allegedly purchasing a wild zebra to live on his land. Turner’s watercolours of birds and fishes prove his capability for producing detailed, delicate studies, not only expressive landscapes.

Art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) praised Turner’s natural history drawings, particularly “the grey down of the birds and the subdued iridescences of the fish”. Whilst Turner also painted animal studies later in his career, particularly of fish, this style of artwork is often left out of biographies and exhibitions about Turner. Yet, those who come across these animal pictures are struck by the differences between these paintings and Turner’s landscapes. French artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), for instance, wrote enthusiastically to his son after seeing Turner’s watercolours of fish in the National Gallery.

Whilst Turner’s animal paintings are not amongst the artist’s well-known works, there is more information about them than his personal life. Turner had very few friends and spent the majority of time with his father, who worked as Turner’s studio assistant for 30 years. William Turner Senior’s death in 1829 greatly affected his son, who suffered bouts of depression. Much of Turner’s life is told through letters and accounts by other people, particularly artists at the Royal Academy, who either admired or despised him.

Turner allegedly had an affair with an older woman called Sarah Danby and fathered two daughters, Evelina and Georgiana. According to the 2014 biopic Mr. Turner, Turner refused to acknowledge and support the children. The film also revealed he spent 18 years living with the widow Sophia Caroline Booth. During this time, he went by the name “Mr Booth” to disguise his true identity.

Irrespective of his private life, Turner continued painting expressive landscapes, which became less detailed, focusing instead on colour and light. On the evening of 16th October 1834, a fire broke out at the Houses of Parliament, turning the sky dark with smoke. Thousands of people witnessed the blaze, including Turner, who felt inspired to capture the colours of the fire and sky on two canvases. Whilst the crowds stood on the other side of the River Thames, watching in horror as the fire spread rapidly throughout the building, Turner hired a boat to take him closer to the inferno, where he filled two sketchbooks with drawings from different vantage points. The watercolours on canvas are based on these sketches and were not painted en plein air.

By 1838, Turner’s reputation had spread to the continent, where King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850) of France presented him with a gold snuff-box. In the same year, Turner painted one of his most famous works, The Fighting Temeraire. The watercolour shows the HMS Temeraire, one of the last ships used in the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed up the Thames towards Rotherhithe. Some art historians believe Turner added symbolic meaning to the composition. The famous ship appears almost ghostly in comparison to the dark tugboat, potentially symbolising the ship’s fate. When the Temeraire reached its destination, it was broken up for scrap. The setting sun may also symbolise the end of the ship’s life.

Turner painted The Fighting Temeraire from sketches he made, which was Turner’s preferred approach. Turner’s Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, completed in 1839, is another example of this method. Turner visited Rome twice, yet spent twenty years painting views of the city. Modern Rome is the final artwork in the series, depicting a mix of Classical, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. In the foreground, Turner included an imagined group of goatherds and other modern workers, going about their work in a city rich in history.

Some of Turner’s landscapes involve events he did not witness, for example, Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, yet he usually combined elements from sketches made throughout his career to produce dramatic scenes. The Slave Ship, painted in 1840, is one such example. Originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on depicts a scene that only those on board the ship witnessed. In 1781, a slave ship owner ordered 132 sick and dying slaves to be thrown overboard so that he could claim insurance payments. The insurance policy did not cover slaves who died of natural causes onboard the ship.

The crew on the slave ship Zong kept quiet about the incident, but the British public soon learnt of the massacre after one of the surviving slaves, Olaudah Equiano (1745-97), confided in Granville Sharp (1735-1813), one of the first British campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade. Sharp argued with the slave-owner, accusing him of murder, but received the response, “the case was the same as if assets had been thrown overboard.” Whilst a judge ruled that the shipowner could not file for insurance due to lack of evidence, the man got away with slaughtering innocent lives. Nonetheless, the incident inspired abolitionist movements and turned many people against slavery, including Turner.

In hindsight, Turner’s late landscapes bordered on Impressionism, an art movement that did not appear until the 1860s. Yet, Turner is never described as an impressionist, and his style drew mixed reactions from his contemporaries. When commenting on Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), one critic likened it to “soapsuds and whitewash”, greatly offending the artist. John Ruskin, on the other hand, wrote that the painting was “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas.”

To some viewers, Snow Storm is a smear of dark, grey colours, and to others, it depicts a paddle steamer caught in a snow storm. Rather than using watercolour, Turner painted with oils but tried to replicate the same style. Instead of blending colours, Turner built the scene in layers, giving the picture texture. The monochromatic colours emphasise the darkness caused by the storm, but the steamboat is almost lost amid the swirling greys.

Whilst Turner always had a distinctive style, the looser, darker, indistinct paintings of his mature period coincided with the death of painter and clergyman Edward Thomas Daniell (1804-42). Despite the age difference, Daniell and Turner became close friends after the death of Turner’s father. Acquaintances suggest that Daniell provided Turner with the spiritual comfort needed to “ease the fears of a naturally reflective man approaching old age.”

Throughout his life, Turner always refused to let anyone paint his portrait. Before Daniell embarked on a voyage to the Middle East, he persuaded Turner to sit for John Linnell (1792-1882). Turner reluctantly agreed but only stayed long enough for Linnell to observe him during a dinner party. Linnell produced the portrait from memory.

Daniell set off to tour the Middle East in 1840, aiming to capture the foreign landscapes in watercolour. During the return trip in 1842, Daniell fell ill with malaria and passed away at the age of 38. Distraught at the news, Turner declared he would never form such a friendship again.

Turner’s paintings from the 1840s may represent his grief, but they also capture the changes in Britain. Turner lived during the height of the Industrial Revolution, which saw a rise in factories, machines and electricity. In 1844, he painted Rain, Steam and Speed, which depicts an oncoming steam train in the countryside during a summer rainstorm. In 1838, the Great Western Railway, engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), ran its first trains. Turner captured the train travelling over Maidenhead Railway Bridge, also designed by Brunel.

Although the railway and steam train are the main focus of Rain, Steam and Speed, the hazy atmosphere almost obscures them from view. Art historians often comment that Turner was ahead of his time and among the very few painters who considered industrial advancement an appropriate subject of art. The blurred elements of the painting suggest the train is travelling at speed. It also symbolises that modern technology is advancing forwards at a rapid pace. At almost seventy years of age, Turner had seen more changes in Britain than any of his predecessors.

Not all of Turner’s later works were dark and stormy. Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845), for instance, shows an early morning view of Norham Castle from across the River Tweed. Turner visited the Northumbrian castle in 1797, where he produced a highly detailed watercolour painting. His later version of Nordham Castle is based on the original but much less refined with vague outlines of the scenery. The castle appears to be shrouded in mist, which the sunlight is fighting to shine through.

On 19th December 1851, Turner passed away from cholera while staying with Sophia Caroline Booth at her house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. Royal Academician Philip Hardwick (1792-1870) took charge of Turner’s funeral arrangements after writing to friends and family “I must inform you, we have lost him.” Turner is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral near Sir Joshua Reynolds, who played a large part in establishing Turner as an artist.

Turner bequeathed his finished paintings to the British nation, leaving instructions for a special gallery to house them. After 22 years of debating the location of the gallery, the British Parliament allowed Turner’s paintings to be distributed and lent to museums and galleries, thus going against Turner’s wishes. Fortunately, the art collector Henry Vaughan (1809-99) purchased over one hundred of Turner’s watercolours, which he bequeathed to British galleries instructing they should be “exhibited to the public all at one time, free of charge”.

In 1910, a large number of Turner’s paintings arrived at the Duveen Turner Wing at the National Gallery of British Art, now called Tate Britain. In 1987, the gallery constructed a new wing, known as the Clore Gallery, specifically for their collection of Turner’s work. The gallery was met with approval from The Turner Society, established in 1975, who declared that Turner’s will had finally been carried out.

The prestigious Turner Prize, established in 1984 in the artist’s honour, annually awards one controversial British artist £25,000. Whilst many critics debate whether some of the entries count as art, the artists are encouraged to change the course of art history and step away from traditional methods. Turner’s work may appear traditional today, but at the time, many found his style controversial and modern.

In 2005, the BBC conducted a poll to discover Britain’s greatest painting. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire won first place, followed by John Constable’s The Hay Wain. The Bank of England selected the same painting for the background of the first £20 British banknote printed on polymer, which came into circulation on 20th February 2020. The note also features Turner’s self-portrait from 1799.

Whilst Tate Britain boasts the largest collection of Turner’s work, his paintings and drawings belong to galleries throughout the world. In London, the British Museum holds several watercolours, and the National Gallery displays Rain, Steam, and Speed and The Fighting Temeraire amongst others.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Advertisement

Late Constable

Until 13th February 2022, The Royal Academy of Arts is looking back at the work of one of their graduates, John Constable. Rather than look at all of his paintings, the Academy has chosen examples from the final twelve years of Constable’s life, illustrating his more radical and expressive side. Between 1825 and his death, Constable experimented with plein air painting, dramatic weather phenomena, enthusiastic brush strokes, and the possibilities of printmaking. Despite his connection with the Academy, the RA has never staged a major retrospective of Constable’s work until now.

John Constable was born at East Bergholt House in Suffolk on 11th June 1776 to Golding (1739-1816) and Ann (Watts) Constable (1748-1815). His older brother was intellectually disabled, so Constable’s parents expected John to work in the family corn business. Instead, Constable’s younger brother Abram took over the running of the mills, allowing Constable to wander the Suffolk and Essex countryside making amateur sketches. Constable later said the scenes “made me a painter, and I am grateful.”

After persuading his father to let him pursue a career as an artist, Constable entered the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer in 1799. After a year of studying the Old Masters and attending drawing classes, Constable officially became a Student at the Schools. After graduating, he turned down the position of drawing master at Sandhurst because he wanted to focus on producing art rather than teaching. Instead, Constable concentrated on his first submission to the Royal Academy’s Annual Exhibition of 1802 (now known as the Summer Exhibition).

In 1816, Constable married Maria Bicknell (1788-1828) at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Maria’s father, a solicitor to King George IV (1762-1830) and the Admiralty expressed his concern that Constable had no money to his name. Yet, before the marriage went ahead, both of Constable’s parents died, leaving him one-fifth of the family business.

Maria’s poor health was a persistent worry for Constable, but he continued with his painting and participated annually in the Royal Academy’s exhibitions. In 1819, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and exhibited his first “six-footer”. The term refers to six monumental landscapes depicting the River Stour, each painted on a six-foot canvas. Fellow painter Charles Robert Leslie (1794-1859) predicted the first of the six, The White Horse, would be “on many accounts the most important picture Constable ever painted.”

Every year, people admired, talked about, and eventually purchased one of the “six-footers”, including The Hay Wain (1821), which now resides at the National Gallery and remains one of Constable’s most famous paintings. The success continued until 1826 when Constable exhibited his final “six-footer”, The Leaping Horse. It was the only artwork in the series that failed to sell during Constable’s lifetime. 

The RA displayed The Leaping Horse next to a full-size sketch that Constable made in situ. Several small drawings also show the artist’s experimentation with elements of the landscape. In the sketch, a small tree stands in front of the horse and rider, but in the final painting, the tree is at the rear. The horse, which leaps over one of the barriers erected along the river path, was walking in Constable’s preparatory work. There is a visible mark where Constable removed one of the trees in the background. He did this after failing to sell the painting at the 1825 Annual Exhibition.

After failing to sell The Leaping Horse, Constable directed his attention away from the River Stour towards lanes, dells and panoramic vistas. Whilst no longer painting canals, Constable did not avoid water scenes. This is evident in his 1826 Annual Exhibition piece, The Cornfield. Constable preferred the name The Drinking Boy to describe this painting, which shows a young shepherd boy quenching his thirst in a pool of water. The boy’s dog waits patiently for his master while the sheep carry on up the path.

The lane depicted in The Cornfield is Fen Lane, which leads from Constable’s childhood home in East Bergholt towards Dedham in Essex. Constable frequently ran along the pathway on his way to and from school, passing through cornfields along the way. Constable grew up surrounded by similar scenes, which explains his preference for these idyllic landscapes and picturesque views.

When Constable’s wife started displaying symptoms of tuberculosis, he purchased lodgings in Brighton where he thought the sea air would help Maria’s condition. The family spent their summers in Brighton between 1824 and 1828, during which time Constable frequently studied and painted the sand, sea and sky. One painting from this period, Chain Pier, Brighton, was exhibited at the 1827 Annual Exhibition.

Erected in 1823, the Royal Suspension Chain Pier was the first major pier in Brighton. It was designed by Captain Samuel Brown of Netherbyres (1776-1852), intending to start boat trips to Dieppe in France. It is fortunate that Constable and other artists captured the pier on canvas because a storm demolished it in 1896.

When not in Brighton, the Constable family lived in Hampstead, London, from where Constable frequently returned to familiar places of his childhood. One such place was Dedham Vale, which Constable painted for the 1828 Annual Exhibition. Constable depicted the view from Gun Hill in Suffolk, which reveals Dedham church in the far distance. Many believe Constable based Dedham Vale on a painting by Claude Lorrain (1600-82) called Hagar and the Angel. The art collector George Beaumont showed Constable the painting before he joined the Royal Academy Schools. Since Beaumont (1753-1827) died a year before Constable painted Dedham Vale, its similarities to Lorrain’s work suggests it is a tribute to the late collector.

The success of Dedham Vale earned Constable the position of a full Royal Academician in 1829, something for which he had yearned for a decade. Unfortunately, Maria passed away in 1828 and did not get to see her husband achieve his goal. Greatly affected by her death, Constable chose to wear black for the rest of his life. In a letter to his brother, he wrote, “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me.” As well as continuing with his artwork, Constable needed to care and provide for his seven children: John Charles, Maria Louisa, Charles Golding, Isabel, Emma, Alfred, and Lionel.

The turmoil and distress of Constable’s mind following his wife’s death are evident in his paintings from this period. For the 1829 Annual Exhibition, Constable painted Hadleigh Castle, a ruined fortification in Essex, overlooking the Thames Estuary. He first visited the castle in 1814, where he produced several sketches. From these drawings, he produced a six-foot oil painting of the castle, with stormy clouds in the background. Constable often studied and painted clouds in the early years of his marriage, but they were usually white and fluffy. The clouds in Hadleigh Castle are dark and foreboding, suggesting life without Maria was dark and gloomy.

Constable often referred back to his old sketches when preparing large paintings for the Annual Exhibitions. In 1817, Constable witnessed the opening of Waterloo Bridge in London, commemorating the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Over the following years, Constable produced many drawings and oil sketches of the bridge and the festivities on opening day.

For the 1832 Annual Exhibition, Constable produced a large oil painting showing the Prince Regent (George IV) boarding the Royal barge at Whitehall stairs, with Waterloo Bridge in the background. As a royalist, Constable wanted to capture the event and the Royal family’s involvement for posterity. In the sky, grey clouds form, either indicating the weather on the day of the event or reflecting Constable’s mental state following the death of his wife.

Many of Constable’s paintings contain bold touches of red to highlight figures or lead the viewer’s eye to the main focus of the artwork. It is unlikely that everyone Constable depicted in his landscapes wore red, but it helped bring the picture to life. When displaying paintings for the Annual Exhibition, some artists added final touches to their canvases. On the wall next to The Opening of Waterloo Bridge hung J.M.W Turner’s (1775-1851) seascape Helvoetsluys. When Turner noticed the red highlights in Constable’s painting, he added a blob of red paint in the centre of his work to draw everyone’s attention away from the neighbouring artwork.

During the early 1830s, Constable began teaching life drawing at the Royal Academy Schools. He also started experimenting with other media, such as watercolour and printmaking. Whilst the majority of Constable’s submissions to the Annual Exhibitions were oil paintings, he occasionally submitted watercolours. Constable discovered printmaking, particularly mezzotints, a powerful way of expressing light and shade. Using his wife’s inheritance money, Constable collaborated with David Lucas, a British mezzotinter, to create 40 prints of his landscapes. Trial and error meant several versions of each design were printed before settling on the final 40 to publish in a folio. Unfortunately, the project was not a financial success, and Constable never saw the money he spent again.

In 1834, illness prevented Constable from working on an oil painting for the Annual Exhibition, so the only piece he submitted was a watercolour called Old Sarum. The scene is based on Constable’s sketches of Old Sarum, a ruined and deserted site of the earliest settlement of Salisbury in Wiltshire. The old settlement is visible on a mound in the distance while grey clouds billow overhead. Constable added a strip of paper on the righthand side to include the hint of a rainbow. Old Sarum is one of the 40 landscapes Constable used in his English Landscape series of mezzotints.

Between 1833 and 1836, Constable delivered a series of lectures about the history of landscape painting. He wished to raise the status of landscapes, which were once considered superior to other art forms but no longer popular. Throughout his career, Constable painted scenes that interested him rather than what other artists and buyers preferred. Whilst this hindered his attempts to become a Royal Academician for many years, it has earned Constable recognition for revolutionising the genre of landscape painting. Since many of his paintings depict the area he lived and grew up in, Suffolk is now known as “Constable Country”.

For the 1835 Annual Exhibition, Constable briefly returned to his earlier style of painting. The Valley Farm, also known as Willy Lott’s House after the landowner, depicts a scene on the River Stour, not far from Constable’s childhood home. It is based on two of his previous paintings of the area, The Ferry (1814) and Willy Lot’s House from the Stour (1816-18). Constable reworked the landscape to make it more expressive than earlier versions and modified the house so that it appeared grander. Whilst Constable felt pleased with the result, critics disapproved of the artist’s adjustments and accused Constable of ruining the natural landscape. Nonetheless, Constable had a buyer before the opening of the Exhibition. The self-made businessman Robert Vernon (1774-1849) paid Constable £300, the largest sum Constable had received for a painting.

Despite returning to some of his earlier themes, Constable continued experimenting with watercolour, as seen in his painting of Stonehenge. The painting, which featured in the Royal Academy’s final Annual Exhibition at New Somerset House in 1836, combined a dramatic sky with a well-known British landmark. Since painting Hadleigh Castle and Old Sarum, Constable’s fascination with ruins grew. These decaying man-made structures succumbing to the elemental power of nature, metaphorically express Constable’s emotions following his wife’s deaths along with two close friends, Archdeacon John Fisher (1788-1832) and John Dunthorne (1798-1832).

Alongside Stonehenge, Constable displayed Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Due to poor health, this was the only oil painting Constable completed for the exhibition. It depicts the memorial to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), the first President of the Royal Academy, that Sir George Beaumont built in the grounds of his home at Coleorton Hall in Leicestershire. Beaumont planned to erect several monuments to friends and people he admired but died before the project could get underway. In some ways, Constable’s painting is also in memory of Beaumont, who helped him become a professional artist.

Constable visited Coleorton in 1823, where he made pencil drawings of the monument. He only started working on the oil painting ten years later and just finished it in time for the 1836 Annual Exhibition. As well as the cenotaph, Constable included two busts in tribute to the Old Masters, Michelangelo and Raphael. In one of his last lectures, Constable praised Raphael’s artwork. He also called the Royal Academy the “cradle of British art” and received cheers from attending students.

In the early hours of 1st April 1837, Constable died from heart failure at the age of 60. He was buried beside his wife in the family tomb in the graveyard of St John-at-Hampstead Church. His children inherited all their father’s remaining sketches and unsold paintings, which they kept for the rest of their lives. The only artwork they relinquished was Arundel Mill and Castle, which Constable was working on at the time of his death. He had intended to submit it to the Royal Academy’s first Annual Exhibition in Trafalgar Square. Since it looked almost finished, Arundel Mill and Castle was displayed as Constable intended.

In 1888, Constable’s last surviving child, Isabel (1823-1888), gave the remains of her fathers work (95 oil paintings, 297 drawings and watercolours and three sketchbooks) to the South Kensington Museum (V&A). Since then, the artworks have been sold and distributed between several art galleries. The Late Constable exhibition marks the first time the Royal Academy has staged a major retrospective of Constable’s work, bringing together twelve years worth of paintings, drawings and prints. Not only does the exhibition demonstrate Constable’s artistic abilities, but it also reveals how grief and emotions play a part in creative output. Whilst the death of Constable’s wife was tragic, it changed the way Constable tackled his paintings, allowing his audience to see a more versatile side of the artist.

Constable painted the scenes he wanted to paint. The landscapes held meaning for Constable, and he did not concern himself with attempting to please the audience by conforming to modern tastes. Late Constable tells a story about an artist struggling with grief whilst striving to achieve the same accolades as his peers. The Royal Academy is finally giving Constable the recognition he deserved during his career through this retrospective exhibition.

Late Constable is open until 13th February 2022 in the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries at Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy of Arts. Tickets cost £19, but Friends of the RA may visit for free. All visitors must book tickets in advance.


My blogs are available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Destination Moon

It has been fifty years since Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind and stepped onto the moon. In celebration of this anniversary, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London is currently staging the UK’s biggest exhibition dedicated to our celestial neighbour, The Moon. With over 180 objects, including artefacts from NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, the exhibition explores what the Moon has meant to us from the beginning of time to the original “Space Race” and the potential plans for the future.

81kzaej9s-l

We have all seen the Moon: we have seen it when it is full and we have seen it when it is only partially visible. It is general knowledge that the Moon orbits the Earth but what is it? Why is it there? What is its purpose? What are its secrets? The exhibition opens with a look at the workings of the Moon and how we began to discover everything we know now.

The Moon is Earth’s natural satellite and formed roughly four and a half billion years ago. Throughout this time, it has been visible to the naked eye and observed by billions of people. Different cultures have related to the Moon in various ways, however, by the constant study of the Sun, Moon and Earth, philosophers, scientists, and astronomers have come to understand the Moon’s relationship to our planet.

fig3_bm_134701_02-1024x881

One of the earliest artefacts in the exhibition is a fragment of a Mesopotamian tablet dated 172 BCE. Inscribed in cuneiform, the tablet describes the rituals that took place during a lunar eclipse. Today, a lunar eclipse is an exciting phenomenon and is usually advertised and talked about long before the event. For the Ancient Mesopotamians, however, a lunar eclipse represented evil forces and bad omens. Astronomers relied on the Sun and Moon to regulate their calendars and interpret signs from their gods. Darkness caused by a lunar eclipse was something to be feared and the natives spent the day banging kettledrums and singing funeral songs to chase away any evil spirits.

Suffice it to say, the Mesopotamians did not understand the occurrence of a lunar eclipse, therefore, it was only natural that they were afraid. A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon, Earth, and Sun are exactly or very closely aligned; the Sun on one side of the Earth and the Moon on the other. The Earth completely blocks any direct sunlight from reaching the Moon; the only light it reflects comes from the Earth itself, giving the Moon a reddish glow.

A solar eclipse, on the other hand, must have been equally, if not more, scary for the ancient population. When the Moon perfectly aligns between the Sun and the Earth, a small portion of the Earth is engulfed in shadow. From Earth, the Moon can be seen to pass over the Sun, completely covering it for a couple of minutes. Unaware of the astronomical explanations, to the Ancient Mesopotamians, it would appear that the Sun had disappeared, which they attributed to supernatural causes.

By 1000 CE, astronomers were beginning to understand the movements of the Moon, however, they still used it to make predictions. In The Principles of Astrology by the Persian astronomer Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Al-Bīrūnī (973-1050), the different phases of the Moon are explained to be caused by reflected sunlight. Initially, people believed the Moon produced light, like stars, however, this was eventually found to be false.

the20phases20of20the20moon20by20james20reynolds
It takes the Moon 29.5 days to make a complete orbit of the Earth. During this time, the Moon appears to change shape each night, going from full to a tiny slither and back again. The shape we see is the shape of the directly sunlit portion of the Moon as viewed from Earth. The angle of the Sun, Moon and Earth’s position, dictates the amount of sunlit Moon we see, as shown in James Reynolds’ diagram.

There are eight key phases of the Moon that have been named. When we can see a full circle, the Moon is aptly called a Full Moon. A half-circle is either the First Quarter or Last Quarter of the cycle, and complete darkness is called a New Moon. Between the New Moon and the First Quarter, the shape is known as a Waxing Crescent, and between the Third Quarter and New Moon, a Waning Crescent. The phases between a Full Moon and the Quarter Moons are called Waxing Gibbous and Waning Gibbous respectively.

James Reynolds also published information about the Moon’s influence on the Earth’s tides. The Moon has a slight gravitational pull on the planet, causing the oceans to rise towards it, thus causing high tides. When the waters are not directly in line with the Moon, they remain low. The Sun also has a gravitational pull on the planet, so when the Moon and Sun align, which they do twice a month, the tides are at their highest. These are known as Spring Tides, deriving from the concept of the tide “springing forth,” and has nothing to do with the time of year. During the First and Third Quarter Moon, the tides are at their lowest. This is called a Neap Tide.

orrery20new

Orrery

Whilst studying the Moon and Sun, astronomers began to look further out into space, discovering other planets and stars. By watching these astronomical bodies, it has been possible to work out the relative motions of the planets in our solar system. An orrery, such as the one on display made by John Addison, represents these motions. When moving, the model planets revolve around the sun at the same ratio as the real planets. This model also contains the Moon, which rises and falls, mimicking the tilt of its orbit.

Before the world learnt about the Moon’s function, many theories and beliefs developed that usually tied in with various religions. When looking at the Moon, particularly when it is full, it is possible to see different shapes and shadows, which we know now to be craters and highlands. Before this was common knowledge, people made up stories about the shapes they could see, the most famous being the “man in the moon”. Others claimed to be able to see a woman in the moon and others a “banished man” carrying a bundle of sticks. The latter comes from a European story about a man who was banished to the Moon as punishment for collecting sticks on the Sabbath, the day of rest.

From the Pacific Northwest Coast of America, people believed they could see the shape of a toad on the Moon. A story claims that a wolf fell in love with a toad, however, the toad did not trust the wolf and in an attempt to escape, leapt onto the Moon. In China, on the other hand, the shapes take the form of a rabbit with a pestle and mortar. This rabbit, named Yutu, was the companion of the Moon Goddess Chang’e, who was banished to the Moon for stealing the elixir of life.

In Hinduism, the moon god is known as Chandra. One story claims he was cursed by twenty-six of his wives for spending too much time with his twenty-seventh wife. Plagued by illness, he waxed and waned in a cycle similar to the lunar phases.

In Greek Mythology, the Moon goddess Selene fell in love with a mortal, Endymion. To preserve their love forever, Selene put her lover into an eternal sleep so that she could visit him every night. A scene from this myth is shown in a painting by the French artist Victor-Florence Pollet (1811-83).

Pagan’s often celebrated the Full Moon, believing it was the perfect time to cast spells. Witches and wizards gathered on the night of the Full Moon to perform incantations around a cauldron of flickering flames. Other cultures also used the Moon as a cause for celebration. The Kwak’wala speaking tribes on the Northwest Coast of Canada hold potlach gatherings where high ranking members of the community wear carved Moon Masks and compete in ceremonial dances. The dancer who earns the audience’s approval is the “better” Moon. An example of a mask dating from 1983 is on display as part of the exhibition.

As well as worshipping the Moon in various ways, ancient civilisations used the Moon as a guide to the passing of time. Religious festivals were marked by the Moon’s phases and many of these traditions are still in use today. The majority of the world uses the solar (Gregorian) calendar to determine the date and time of year. Some cultures, such as Chinese and Islamic, continue to use the lunar calendar. Unlike the solar calendar that consists of 365 days, the lunar year lasts 354 days. Due to being shorter, each year begins eleven days later than the previous in relation to the solar calendar. This is why the dates of Muslim festivals, such as Ramadam, occur earlier each year. The first sighting of the Crescent Moon is a sign of a new Islamic month.

241fd0b81fbe9d2025cd500ddceaf767

In China, traditional events occur concerning the position of the Moon. For example, Chinese New Year happens on the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice (21st December). Events such as these were recorded in almanacs, such as the ancient manuscript on display at the museum. Customarily, old almanacs were burnt to release their powers back to the Moon, however, this manuscript (877 CE) was discovered in a hidden cave in China at the beginning of the 20th century, thus has been preserved for posterity.

Many cultures gave the Full Moons names in relation to the weather or festivities held during those seasons. Before calendars were invented, people could keep track of the time of year by counting the Full Moons. In some North American communities, the twelve Full Moons were known as Wolf Moon, Snow Moon, Sap Moon, Worm Moon, Planting Moon, Strawberry Moon, Thunder Moon, Grain Moon, Harvest Moon, Hunter’s Moon, Beaver Moon, and Cold Moon. The Planting Moon, which occurs in May, and the Harvest Moon (September) were guides and instructions for farmers. Snow Moon (February) and Thunder Moon (July) warned of extreme weather conditions.

The old names for the Full Moon have mostly been confined to the past, however, the Harvest Moon is occasionally still referenced. The Harvest Moon is traditionally the Full Moon that takes place closest to the autumn equinox (21st September). Unlike the other Full Moons of the year, the Harvest Moon rises closest to the sunset, allowing it to shine brightly all night. Before artificial lighting, farmers were able to use the moonlight to continue harvesting crops after sunset. John Linnell (1792-1882), an English landscape artist, painted families returning from the fields with the Harvest Moon lighting their way.

The Moon has been a regular feature in artworks throughout the centuries. As well as Linnell’s Harvest Moon, the exhibition features a handful of paintings by a variety of artists, including J. M. W. Turner’s (1775-1851) Moonlight on River. Landscape artist Henry Pether (d.1865) also produced a painting of the Moonlight reflecting on the river. The Thames and Greenwich Hospital by Moonlight highlights the blueish glow the Moon casts across the water. John Constable (1776-1837) used similar blue shades in his painting of Netley Abbey by Moonlight. The colours give Southampton’s medieval monastery a melancholy, mystical air.

Contemporary artists continue to feature the Moon in their artworks, such as Leonid Tishkov (b.1953), who created the giant mobile installation of a crescent moon that hangs in the centre of the gallery. The Russian artist takes his installation around the world, photographing it in a variety of landscapes and city spaces. When the photographs, such as one showing the Moon in bed, are placed together, they tell the story of a man who discovered the Moon in his attic and decided to spend his life with her despite being a rather unconventional couple.

SCIENCE Moon 142961

Of course, these artworks featuring the Moon are not scientifically accurate. The first drawing of the Moon from telescopic observations was produced by Thomas Harriot (1560-1621). The mathematician and astronomer who founded the English school of algebra noticed the various contours and shapes on the Moon and produced the first lunar map based on these. We now refer to the shaded lunar plains on the map as seas.

Whilst Harriot was celebrated for his achievement, it was the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) who received the most praise for his telescopic observations of the Moon. Galileo interpreted the shadows on the Moon as craters and mountains, claiming that the Moon had a similar landscape to Earth. This led Galileo to make the groundbreaking announcement that the universe was not Earth-centred. Through his observations of the Moon, planets, and stars, Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius containing his theory that the planets revolved around the Sun and not around the Earth as previously believed. Despite these findings, it took the population of the world a while to accept his ideas. The Catholic Church condemned Galileo for “vehement suspicion of heresy”.

The English artist John Russell (1745-1806) who produced portraits during the day, spent the night making detailed images of the Moon. Using a telescope, most likely an earlier version of James Nasmyth’s (1807-1890) on display in the exhibition, Russell spent twenty years making pencil sketches of the Moon. Later, using pastels, Russell produced a series of Moon portraits showing the various stages of the Moon, which included all the visible shapes and shadows. Russell preferred Gibbous Moons because they gave off the strongest contrast of shadows.

Russell’s detailed studies of the Moon allowed for the Moon’s libration – the slight wobble of the Moon on its axis – to be modelled on a globe known as a Selenographia. The brass globe also maps out the various shapes and shadows that Russell observed and painted.

5a74540e15482990a10c47945f24b7be

Images of the Moon became more accurate after the invention of photography in the early decades of the 19th century. The first lunar photographs are believed to have been taken in the 1840s, however, not many survive. On loan from the Science Museum Group are two daguerreotypes of the Moon taken in approximately 1850. Daguerreotypes were an early method of photography made on specially-treated silver surfaces. The examples on display were taken by John Whipple (1822-91) and George Bond (1825-65) and were seen by millions of people at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Through the aid of telescopes and photography, astronomers were able to produce fairly accurate maps of the Moon. Working from hundreds of drawings, the amateur astronomer Hugh Percy Wilkins (1896-1960) was able to produce the most detailed lunar map ever made. This map was used by the Soviet Union and NASA during their “Space Race”.

The Space Race began during the Cold War in 1957 and lasted until 1969. Whilst the Soviet Union and the USA could not attack each other violently, they competed to prove their superiority and technological power by racing to become the first nation to reach the Moon. In 1955, the USA announced their plans to launch an artificial satellite into space, however, once the Soviets learnt of the plan, they fought to beat them to it, launching Sputnik 1 in 1957. The satellite orbited the Earth for three weeks after which the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, with Laika the dog on board. Sadly, the dog died within a few hours of the launch, however, that did not deter the Soviets or the USA who began sending various animals into space.

The Soviet Union became the first nation to land a man-made object on the Moon. Their robotic probe Luna 1 travelled close to the Moon at the beginning of 1959, however, half a year later, Luna 2 (crash)landed onto the surface.

In 1958, the US government founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in order to compete with the Soviet Union. NASA’s first space program, Project Mercury, launched two chimpanzees into space to test the future of human space flight. Once again, the Soviet Union beat them to it and on 12th April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934-68) completed one orbit of the Earth. A mere few weeks later, Alan Shepard (1923-98) became the first American man in space.

Once they knew human beings could be successfully launched into space, NASA launched its Apollo Space Programme, the programme that would eventually see humans walk on the Moon. Before that, the Soviet Union launched the first woman into space. To date, Valentina Tereshkova (b.1937) has been the only woman to fly solo on a space mission. She spent three weeks in space during which time she orbited the earth 48 times.

The Soviet Union also became the first nation to launch the first multi-person crew. In 1964 Vaskhod 1, carrying three people, reached an altitude of 336 km (209 miles). Two years later, the Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (b.1934) completed the first space walk. To prove the Americans could do it too, Ed White (1930-67) achieved the same feat three months later.

y3nvg7sp5f6vwgftknrtfl-320-80

Earthrise

Although the Soviets were the first to launch a multi-person crew, on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 became the first crewed mission to orbit the Moon. They were the first humans to see the far side of the Moon and were witness to the Earth rising beyond the Moon, as photographed by Bill Anders (b.1933).

Finally, on 21st July 1969, the USA won the “race” when Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) stepped out onto the Moon. Watched by millions of people on television back home on Earth, Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon, shortly followed by Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (b.1930).

It took over 400,000 people to get Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon, as well as the ten men that followed. The photograph of the Cape Kennedy Space Launching Station taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) in 1967 shows only a small section of the Mission Control Center.

The hype surrounding the Apollo missions increased the closer it got to the reality of men walking on the Moon. Toys, magazines, books and films were produced and sold in honour of the momentous event. British textile designer Eddie Squire (1940-95) was inspired by the lunar landing and produced designs in commemoration. This includes a denim jacket (on show in the exhibition) and Lunar Rocket furnishing fabric.

Before the launch of Apollo 11, American artist Paul Calle (1928-2010) was granted privileged access to the astronauts. He watched them go about their preparations to enter the spacecraft, making on the spot sketches all the while. Apollo 11 was a mission full of danger and the astronauts were aware these could be their final moments on Earth.

img_4962-e1563527825278

Thankfully, the astronauts returned to Earth as heroes. Armstrong and Aldrin explored a small portion of the Moon for 21 hours whilst Command Module Pilot Michael Collins (b.1930) orbited the Moon alone in the spacecraft Columbia. Whenever Collins flew behind the Moon, all communication signals were cut off with Earth; he was truly alone.

The crew kept in contact with NASA’s ground control via special headsets, such as the “Snoopy Cap” worn by Buzz Aldrin. Named because it resembled the head of the beagle Snoopy in Charles M. Schulz’s (1922-2000) Peanuts Cartoons, the dog also became a mascot for the mission.

diplomatic20moon20rock20presented20by20richard20nixon20to20british20minister20harold20wilson2c20196920280102920mod20crown20copyright202019

The astronauts left the US flag and a note saying, “We came in peace for all mankind,” and returned with a sample of moon rock. President Richard Nixon (1913-94) ordered that all nations on Earth be given a sample of moon rock as a diplomatic gift. Although 270 “goodwill” moon rocks were presented, 180 are now unaccounted for, either lost or stolen. Fortunately, the United Kingdom is still in possession of their particles of moon rock embedded in plastic, which is on display as part of the exhibition.

There have been a total of 17 Apollo missions and twelve men have walked on the Moon, however, no one has been there again since 1972. The first Apollo mission resulted in disaster when a launch test in 1967 went wrong, causing a fire and killing all three crew members. After this, Apollo missions 2 through to 6 were un-crewed and stayed relatively close to Earth. The first successful crewed Apollo mission took place on 11th October 1968. The crew stayed close to the Earth’s orbit and tested command and service modules for almost eleven days.

As mentioned earlier, Apollo 8 became the first mission to orbit the Moon. Setting off on 21st December 1968, the crew reached the Moon on Christmas Eve, returning to Earth six days after launch. Apollo 9 spent 10 days in low-Earth orbit so that the astronauts could test engines, life-support, and navigation systems. This was all in preparation for the eventual touchdown on the Moon. Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the Moon landing; the craft stopped 15.6 km (9.7 miles) from the surface of the Moon before returning home.

The entire world celebrated the first Moon landing in 1969, however, the Apollo missions did not stop there. In November of the same year, two more men walked on the Moon. Apollo 12 focused on extracting rock from the Moon’s surface.

Apollo 13 was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded, leaving the crew with limited life-support. With help and advice from the ground crew, the astronauts put makeshift repairs in place and returned safely to Earth. In January 1971, Apollo 14 successfully reached the Moon where they stayed for two days. During this time, the astronauts conducted experiments and had a game of golf.

In July 1971, the Apollo 15 team were able to explore 17.5 miles of the Moon’s surface. Before returning, they left a memorial on the Moon to commemorate the fourteen astronauts and cosmonauts who died during the Space Race. Apollo 16 brought back more samples of moon rock, and one astronaut left a photo of his family on the Moon. Finally, Apollo 17 broke records with the longest stay on the Moon, the longest moonwalk and the largest collection of lunar samples. There were plans for Apollos 18, 19 and 20, however, significant budget cuts meant they had to be abandoned.

“The Moon is a mysterious world to us. We have a responsibility to explore and understand it.”
– Wu Weiran, Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, 2019

The exhibition ends with a look at the plans for a future visit to the Moon. It may take another 15 to 30 years to get humans back on the Moon, but a British team are building an experiment to fly on the Luna 27 in 2023.

The future for the Moon is uncertain. Will humans walk on it once more? Will we be able to live on the Moon? Many signs point to the answer “yes”, however, this leads to further questions, such as, “Who owns the Moon?” and “Would we end up causing damages?” Most importantly, the moral debate as to whether it is right to experiment with the Moon causes us to wonder if we should leave it alone.

The Moon exhibition takes visitors on a journey from the ancient past to the distant future. From myth and legend to scientifically proven fact, the National Maritime Museum has succeeded in delivering the biggest, most interesting exhibition about the Moon. With an in-depth look at the Apollo 11 mission, it is a perfect way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing.

With tickets priced at £9 per adult and £4.50 for students, The Moon can be visited up until 5th January 2020.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!