There is arguably no greater insight into the working techniques of a great artist than the unique collection that is the Turner Bequest, the contents of the studio of J.M.W Turner, bequeathed to the nation after his death in 1851. In addition to finished oil paintings and watercolours, the Bequest includes approximately 37,000 drawings and watercolours ranging from fully worked-up studies to the scrappiest sheet recalling the briefest touch of the artist’s hand. Whether complex design or cursory doodle, the Bequest as a whole represents a rich, visual record of a lifetime’s endeavour.
It is through study of the drawings, the most immediate trace of an artist’s creative impulse, that it is possible to understand Turner’s methods and the way that he approaches his work. Even from the distant viewpoint of the twenty-first century, it is as though we are able to glance over his shoulder as he works (a privilege we would probably not have been afforded during his lifetime since Turner preferred not to be observed whilst he was working). The Drawing from Turner project sought to revitalise the tradition of copying from another artist’s work in order to gain insight and understanding.
The fifty-eight artists participating in the Drawing from Turner project were able to choose from a representative group of thirty-five drawings chosen from amongst the thousands available in the Bequest.
The selection included sketches made during the course of over half a century, the earliest being a picturesque Welsh scene from 1791 when Turner was just sixteen years old, and the latest was a dynamic study in pen and ink from 1844 showing shipping in a French harbour. The variety of works also illustrates Turner’s myriad drawing techniques which he employed or developed according to his needs and purposes. The large drawing of the interior of Ely Cathedral from 1794 for example, employs precise pencil lines to accurately record complex perspective and architectural detail and is completely different in purpose and execution to the energetic study of a gorge in the Alps, 1802, which combines chalk, gouache and a soft pencil on a buff coloured grounds to describe dramatic, tonal changes in light and shadow.
Many of the drawings are visual memoranda gathered during Turner’s extensive travels across Britain and Europe. In some cases, multiple sketches on the same sheet of paper testify to rapid experimentation in the field with various viewpoints of the same vista.
Similarly, pages from bound sketchbooks such as the lively sketch of a man talking to an oyster seller, demonstrate the artist’s ability to witness and capture impressions of daily life and reveal that his interests were not merely restricted to landscape.