Joseph Mallord William Turner

Crossing the Brook

exhibited 1815

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1930 × 1651 mm
frame: 2060 × 2350 × 180 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Turner developed this painting of the Tamar valley from sketches he made in Devon in 1811 and 1813. His watercolours and drawings of the area were fresh and informal. Here he creates a more self-consciously artful image. This was meant to evoke the 17th-century classical landscapes of French painter Claude Lorrain. The painting was exhibited in the year of the battle of Waterloo. Viewers at the time would have been alert to the patriotic subtext of such an imposing depiction of the British landscape.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

130. [N00497] Crossing the Brook Exh. 1815

Canvas, 76 × 65 (193 × 165)
Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (7, ‘Crossing the Brook’ 6'3" × 5'4 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1956.

Exh. R.A. 1815 (94); Turner's gallery 1835; Tate Gallery 1931 (60, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (164, repr.).

Engr. By R. Brandard 1838/1842.

Lit. Farington Diary 5 June 1815; Ruskin 1843, 1851, 18572 and letters (1903–12, iii, pp. 241, 267, 297, 587; xii, p. 367; xiii, pp. 276–7; xxxvii, p. 13); Cunningham 1852, pp. 29, 32, 44; Cyrus Redding, Fifty Years' Recollections 1858, i, pp. 199–205; Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 171, 210–11, 219, 297–8; 1877, pp. 96, 122, 146–7, 152–3, 345, 378, 432–3; Hamerton 1879, pp. 151–5: Monkhouse 1879, p. 93; Bell 1901, pp. 62–3, 96 no. 133; Armstrong 1902, pp. 59, 106–7, 113, 220, repr. facing p. 110; Finberg 1910, p. 87; MacColl 1920, p. 12; Whitley 1928, pp. 241–4; Falk 1938, pp. 42–3; Davies 1946, pp. 149, 185; Clare 1951, pp. 55–7, repr. p. 50; Finberg 1961, pp. 212, 218–20, 238, 241, 252, 340, 386, 476 no. 188, pl. 17; Kitson 1964, p. 74, repr. pp. 28–9; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 32–4, colour pl. vii; Lindsay 1966, pp. 114, 152, 157, 242 n. 33; Gage 1969, pp. 39, 90, 171; Reynolds 1969, pp. 80, 96, 106, 186, colour pl. 72; Gaunt 1971, p. 6, colour pl. 14; Herrmann 1975, pp. 23–4, 57, 230, colour pl. 78; Kroeber 1978, p. 153 n. 8, pl. 55; Storch 1978, pp. 201–3, pl. 55; Wilton 1979, pp. 126, 135, 149, 157, pl. 125; Gage 1980, pp. 73, 207, 244; Hill 1981–2, pp. 2–3.

This highly Italianate, Claudian landscape, developed from Mercury and Herse (No. 114), is in fact a product of Turner's visit to Devon in 1813 (see Nos. 213–25 [D09207-D09217, D40046, D40028]), as was recognised in a review known from a press-cutting in the Victoria and Albert Museum, annotated 5 May 1815 but without the name of the publication: ‘Notwithstanding the buildings are Italian, the scene is found in Devonshire.’ Further evidence comes from two people who were with Turner for part of this tour. Cyrus Redding ‘traced three distinct snatches of scenery on the river Tamar’ when he saw what seems to have been this picture later in Turner's gallery and mentions how ‘Turner was struck with admiration at the bridge above the Wear, which he declared altogether Italian’.

According to Charles Eastlake ‘The bridge ... is Calstock Bridge; some mining works are indicated in the middle distance. The extreme distance extends to the mouth of the Tamar, the harbour of Hamoaze, the hills of Mount Edgcumbe, and those on the opposite side of Plymouth Sound. The whole scene is extremely faithful’ (Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 210–11, 219). There are drawings of the countryside represented but not actually copied in the picture in the ‘Plymouth, Hamoaze’ sketchbook (CXXXI, e.g., p. 118, repr. Reynolds 1969, pl. 60) and a small composition sketch in the ‘Woodcock Shooting’ sketchbook (CXXIX-52).

Despite the strong Claudian elements the Repository of Arts for June 1815 could write, ‘We perceive no affinity to any style or any school in these works of Mr. Turner [Crossing the Brook and Dido building Carthage, No. 131 [N00498]]; we think his manner and execution are as purely original as the poetic forms which create his compositions ... Never have we seen a more elegant landscape than this’. The Champion for 7 May described the same two paintings as of the class of ‘achievements that raise the achievers to that small but noble groupe, formed of the masters whose day is not so much of to-day, as of “all-time”.’

However, Sir George Beaumont was of the contrary opinion as reported by Farington on 5 June 1815: ‘Of his picture “Crossing the Brook” He sd. it appeared to Him weak and like the work of an Old man, one who had [sic] no longer saw or felt colour properly; it was all of peagreen insipidity. — These are my sentiments said He, & I have as good a right & it is as proper that I shd. express them as I have to give my opinion of a poetical or any other production. As to the Portrait Painters [e.g., Thomas Phillips] who are particularly loud in their praise, unlimited, of these pictures I can only repeat what I have often said that I never knew a Portrait Painter excepting Sir Joshua Reynolds who had a right feeling and judgment of Landscape Painting.’ Perhaps because of the criticism of this influential connoisseur Turner failed to sell the picture, though Dawson Turner asked about it in 1818 when the price was 550 guineas. The picture was on view again in Turner's gallery in 1835 when it was noted by the Spectator for 26 April as ‘a lovely scene of the verdrous valley of the Tamar’.

In a letter to Charles Eliot Norton of 7 August 1870 Ruskin retails an anecdote of Turner's indifference to seeing ‘a piece of paint out of the sky, as large as a fourpenny piece, ... lying on the floor [of Turner's gallery]... “How can you look at the picture and see it so injured?” said Kingsley. “What does it matter?” answered Turner; “the only use of the thing is to recall the impression.”’

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984


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