77. [T03875] The Forest of Bere Exh. 1808
TATE GALLERY AND THE NATIONAL TRUST (LORD EGREMONT COLLECTION) PETWORTH HOUSE
Canvas, 35 × 47 (88·9 × 119·4)
Signed ‘... Turner R A’ at bottom, right of centre
Coll. Bought by Lord Egremont from Turner's gallery in 1808; by descent to the third Lord Leconfield who in 1947 conveyed Petworth to the National Trust; in 1957 the contents of the State Rooms were accepted by the Treasury in part payment of death duties.
Exh. Turner's gallery 1808; R.A. 1871 (235) and 1888 (7); Agnew 1967 (7); R.A. 1974–5 (149); Paris 1983–4 (17, repr. in colour).
Lit. Petworth Inventories 1837, 1856 (North Gallery); Waagen 1854, iii, p. 37 as ‘Landscape, Cows and Water’; Thornbury 1862, i, p. 14; ii, p. 397; 1877, pp. 199, 202, 594; Armstrong 1902, p. 227 as ‘Pool with Willows—Evening’; Collins Baker 1920, p. 124 no. 39 as ‘Evening—the Drinking Pool’; Whitley 1928, p. 140; Finberg 1961, pp. 146, 149, 469 no. 122; Herrmann 1975, pp. 19, 229, pl. 54; Joll 1977, p. 375; Gage 1980, p. 250.
A study of a grey pony in the ‘River’ sketchbook (XCVI p. 45 verso) is probably connected with this picture.
The Forest of Bere is a few miles north of Havant. Turner had passed through it on his way to Portsmouth in October 1807 to watch the arrival of Stanhope's squadron after the surrender of the Danish fleet at Copenhagen (see No. 80, [N00481] also exhibited at Turner's gallery in 1808 but in an unfinished state).
The figures in the left foreground are engaged in barking chestnut branches for caulking and tanning, an activity that was practised on Lord Egremont's estates, which included the Forest of Bere. In introducing these figures engaged thus into his picture, Turner may have hoped that this would recommend it to Lord Egremont. If so, his ingenuity succeeded, for the purchase of this picture by Lord Egremont was reported in the Examiner on 8 May 1808. Despite the painting going straight from Turner's gallery to Petworth, it was soon shorn of its exhibition title but there can be no doubt at all of its identification after reading John Landseer's (?) detailed description of it in the Review of Publications of Art for June 1808.
Landseer praised the picture warmly, writing that ‘Though it is nothing as a subject, it is everything as a picture’, relying for its effect on ‘the rich and harmonious union of its parts’. He concluded ‘Cuyp has long enjoyed a well-deserved celebrity, for making a few cattle and a setting sun the subject of an admirable picture. The pride of Cuyp... would be humbled, we conceive, by a too near approach to this picture of Turner’.
In fact, the picture shows signs of the influence of Rubens' landscapes, which Turner was to criticise in one of his lectures as taking liberties with lighting which destroyed ‘the simplicity, the truth, the beauty of pastoral nature’. Besides Rubens, there are also strong affinities with Gainsborough in the picture, which, however, remains one of Turner's most unaffected (as well as his most sylvan) paintings. It is thus characteristic of the moment it was painted, when landscape painting in England was on the threshold of a more naturalistic phase, which was to last throughout the coming decade. And, as the catalogue of the Turner Bicentenary Exhibition suggested, this ‘return to nature’ in Turner's case may well have been the result of the experience of painting out-of-doors, an activity which Turner had recently been practising in his series of sketches of Thames subjects (see Nos. 160–94).
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984