Copying from Turner’s work is not a new exercise. During the 1790s Turner himself took on a number of pupils, probably for the purposes of earning some money (according to his contemporary, Joseph Farington, Turner charged five shillings a lesson). One of his teaching methods was to make his own ‘copy drawings’ to be studied and reproduced. These didactic studies illustrate the basic principles of watercolour painting such as leaving in areas of white and working in progression from light to dark. Turner was capable of far more sophisticated watercolour effects than this but the simplified individual component stages of the ‘copy drawings’ could be easily identified and reproduced by a student.
The famous critic and active champion of Turner’s work, John Ruskin (1819-1900) encouraged students of art to make copies directly from Turner’s watercolours in order to try and unlock the secrets of his technical genius. He donated Turner watercolours from his own collection to the university museums at Oxford and Cambridge and was also instrumental in arranging parts of the Bequest for this purpose. During the nineteenth century it was possible to copy a reserve series of framed Turner watercolours in the basement of the National Gallery.
Turner and copying
The practice of copying from another artist’s work as a didactic exercise was well established in Turner’s day and formed an important part of artistic training and education. In the schools of the Royal Academy students drew endlessly from plaster casts of antique statues until they were deemed sufficiently proficient to graduate to the life class.
In parallel with his official training Turner also attended the informal ‘academy’ held at the house of Dr Thomas Monro, a physician, amateur artist and enthusiastic collector. Talented young artists were invited to study Monro’s collection of old master drawings and watercolours by artists such as Thomas Hearne, Edward Dayes, and Michelangelo Rooker. In particular Monro encouraged Turner and his contemporary, Thomas Girtin, to make copies of the outlines or unfinished drawings of John Robert Cozens from which the precocious youngsters created finished compositions. The philanthropic doctor paid the couple two or three shillings and a supper of oysters for these ‘copies’, many of which survive in the Bequest. On many occasions the two artists worked in collaboration together, Girtin apparently supplying the outline drawing and Turner providing the washes.
The best opportunities for study were provided during Turner’s travels in France and Italy. One sketchbook (LXXII) used during Turner’s first trip to Paris in 1802, is full of copies and notes on the paintings in the collection of the Louvre: Raphael, Titian, Ruisdael, Poussin, Correggio, Rubens and Rembrandt. Turner backed up his visual records with discerning written comments on the colour, composition and subject matter of the works.
During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most people would have experienced works of art in engraved form. Turner was fortunate in being able to study art first hand in the collections of his patrons such as Sir Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead and Lord Egremont at Petworth House.
He continued to learn by copying the work of other artists such as William Gilpin and James Basire. He produced copies in oil of two paintings by the Welsh landscape painter, Richard Wilson (1713-82), Diana and Callisto and Tivoli and the Roman Campagna, and also after Thomas Gainsborough’s Wooded Landscape with Figures, Cows and Distant Flock of Sheep. In each case Turner replicated the basic elements of the composition but also introduced his own pictorial additions suggesting that the exercise was more about dissecting, emulating and refining the old masters, rather than imitating them.