‘What’s the weather been like in London?’ My family and I often compare weather notes when we talk on the phone. It instantly communicates something of our day-to-day experiences: whether we’re freezing cold, boiling hot, getting rained on or snowed in as we go about our lives. When researching for The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free I found that the weather was a talking point for Turner, too. Of an experience in Switzerland in 1844, he wrote:
The rains came on early, so I could not cross the Alps, twice I tried, was set back with a wet jacket and worn-out boots. 1
His words reveal him to be an artist every bit as tenacious in his late years as he’d been in his youth, still making efforts to sketch the landscape, to do his work whatever the weather threw at him. In one letter, which you can see in the exhibition, Turner relates a bad cold he suffered the winter of 1837. He feared that doctor’s orders to ‘not stir out of doors until it is dry weather’ would make him ‘a prisoner all of the Winter’. Yet while the weather could from time to time hold him back, it was also the very thing that propelled his work forwards to bolder, atmospheric extremes.
In many of the works we’ve selected for the exhibition, you can see that Turner doesn’t just show us extreme weather, he makes us feel it. In the case of Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, Turner said he’d actually been at sea in this violent storm, that he’d ‘got the sailors to lash [him] to the mast to observe it’. Did he really do this? It’s unlikely we’ll ever know, but I don’t think it matters. It’s hard to stand in front of Snow Storm and not feel sucked in. It’s as if you’re there with him at sea, feeling – through its swirling vortex and cool colouring – disorientated, dizzy and cold.
At the other end of the barometer is the blazing heat of Regulus. It depicts the fate of the Roman general who, at the hands of his captors the Carthaginians, had his eyelids cut off and was left to stand in the blazing North African sun. Turner puts us in Regulus’s shoes by painting a sun so brilliant that it makes us stare, like Regulus was made to, blinding us with its whiteness.
I find Snow Storm and Regulus exhilarating precisely because the conditions in them are so threatening, so extreme, but I also love Turner’s quieter evocations of weather. His watercolours especially show his gift for evoking the soft soothing glow of evening sunlight, and he clearly enjoyed dragging paint about his wet paper – seemingly with his fingers – to make rain and sea in watercolours like Storm Clouds, Looking Out to Sea. This dates from a time when, to recover from illness and escape the pressures of London life, Turner went to the Kent coast to seek ‘revival by a little change of fresh air’. It’s a phrase I can identify with – at the coast, with the view pared back to land, sea and sky, there’s room to reflect, whatever the weather.
Art Maps challenge
Look the at searing sunlight of Turner’s Regulus on Art Maps, and you’ll see it pinned to its associated climate of Carthage, Tunisia. Snow Storm is thought to be inspired by coastal storms near Harwich in Essex – is this a scene that locals might be used to seeing?
What’s the weather like in your area? Is there a work of art located on Art Maps that captures the climate typical of your town? Search Art Maps and find out.
- 1. Letter to Hawkesworth Fawkes 28 Dec 1844