A random Saturday in Tate Britain

It must have been 20 years’ ago that I went to the Tate to see the Turner collection. I’d heard about it and thought it about time that I saw the collection for myself. Uninformed and unprepared, I looked at the pictures – particularly the later ones – not with awe, but rather with disdain. Part of the reason for this was my upbringing. My mother was an amateur and self-taught artist. She painted largely from postcards. Hers were the only pictures in the family house. My father framed them for her. Her masterpiece, Chester (left), has pride of place our bedroom. The problem was, however, that my mother’s art informed us more generally about what good art was. Consequently, Turner started okay with realistic landscapes, but went downhill rapidly when he started all of that light and abstract nonsense.

To get to the Turner collection at Tate Britain, one has to walk through the galleries for the 1920s and 1930s. These are two decades that I like a lot, and not just for British art. There are some old friends in there, not least the disturbing “Totes Meer” (right) by Paul Nash. The washed-up planes are a stark reminder war’s destruction; but I like to think that Douglas Adams borrowed this idea for the Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy when Arthur and Ford are rescued by the the Heart of Gold in its infinite improbability mode only to find themselves at Southend, though with the buildings washing up on the shore rather than the sea.

Maybe Nash has some Turner in him? Certainly I like to think that Winifred Nicholson’s “Sandpipers” (left) from 1933 does. Though Nicholson did something that perhaps Turner did not do – he was very much a studio painter – incorporate real sand into his pictures. The abstraction is there, certainly.

Turner’s “The Chain Pier” in Brighton dating from 1828 (right) has all of the Turner qualities. Wonderful light, marine backdrop – here, ships and piers. There are some figures on the ships. The figures in the later abstractions are chilling, ghostly and translucent. For example, “A disaster at Sea” (1835, left) is thought to be the scene of the wreck of the Amphitrite, off Boulogne, whose cargo was 108 female convicts and 12 children, abandoned to their fate by the captain. They were supposed to be going to Australia.

Finally, the most curious of all, Napoleon on St. Helena (right) after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. There he is in full military uniform, as we all imagine him, against a backdrop of extraordinary colour created by an island sunset. Ah, the metaphors.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: