Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Norham Castle, Sunrise' circa 1845
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Norham Castle, Sunrise circa 1845
Oil on canvas
support: 908 x 1219 mm
frame: 1060 x 1370 x 70 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Every month, Tate Etc. publishes new poetry inspired by a work in the Tate. This June, Laura Scott was inspired by J.M.W. Turner’s Norham Castle, Sunrise, which you can see on display at Tate Britain.

Paintings instead of Wigs

His father saw it before anyone else,
the boy could paint light, could take the sky
into the bristles of his brush and lay it flat 
like ribbon around a haberdasher’s card.  

He could take the curl of cloud, the line
of sea, and drop them on to canvas
pinned and waiting for him like a spider’s
web on a window pane.  He could make

colours his father had never seen appear
in white china bowls,  grinding red lead
and smalt, madder and green slate while his
father washed bundles of hair ready for

the next day, rolling them between finger 
and thumb, smoothing the shafts so they lay
as flat as fish scales.  In the morning,
when the light was at its sharpest, Joseph lit

the colour with water  and gum, stirring in
honey so the Prussian blues and milky greens,
the scarlets and viridians, could breathe across
the hatched threads of the canvas. And while 

his father knotted and threaded the hair
into silken caps, weaving it into clusters
of curls,  the boy split shafts of light until
they shimmered on the tip of his brush. 

And for a moment, the father looked up
from his work and was scared by the boy
who could paint God’s light across the water, 
the air’s joy at being empty handed.