Press Release

Vanishing Point: The Perspective Drawings of JMW Turner

Tate Britain  Clore Galleries
24 May – 7 November 2004

An exhibition presenting JMW Turner’s perspective drawings will open at Tate Britain on 22 May. For thirty years (1807-1837) Turner was Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy and the drawings he created to illustrate his lectures look quite unlike other works by him. Primarily rendered in bold strokes of red and black watercolour, with text often scrawled above or below the diagram, some of the pieces are more reminiscent of early twentieth century Constructivist works than Turner watercolours. Many of the drawings have not been previously exhibited and this display therefore offers many visitors a new dimension to the art of one of Britain’s greatest painters.

Turner gave six lectures annually on the principles of linear and aerial perspective and sought to teach his students both the theory and practice of the discipline. He produced about 180 perspective drawings in all, now part of the Turner Bequest housed at Tate Britain. Vanishing Point links thirty-five of these works to the sources and themes of Turner’s lectures, providing both an insight into his role as professor and a general introduction to perspective. The first room focuses on a series of diagrams that Turner used to demonstrate various historical methods for the drawing of a cube. The second is divided into specific themes treated in each lecture, such as colour theory, the nature of reflection and refraction, and the basic terms and procedures of linear perspective. Besides the more abstract diagrammatic drawings, the exhibition will also feature conventional watercolours such as a representation of Pulteney Bridge in Bath. Some drawings of globes offer glimpses of Turner’s studio reflected on the curved surfaces.

Turner was regarded as a poor public speaker - he was disorganised, frequently mumbled and often lost his place while lecturing. One reviewer in the New Monthly Magazine found his cockney accent particularly embarrassing, and attacked the “vulgarity of his pronunciation…for he was apt to pronounce mathematics as ‘mithematics’ and spheroids as ‘sphearides’”. On one occasion Turner left his lecture notes and diagrams in a hackney cab and the painter Henry Fuseli (then the Academy’s Professor of Painting) covered for him. The manuscripts of Turner’s lectures (now held at the British Library) remain unpublished. However, many of his contemporaries came to his lectures primarily to see the drawings. The great writer and critic John Ruskin praised them as ‘exquisitely tinted’ and ‘illustrating not only directions of line, but effects of light, with a care and completion which would put the work of an ordinary teacher to utter shame.’

An accompanying publication written by the exhibition’s curator Andrea Fredericksen, the former Samuel H Kress Fellow in Tate Collections, will provide further context for many of the works in the display.

Open every day 10.00-17.50