Wednesday, November 09, 2011

touching turner's treasures

I’ve been fascinated by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) ever since attending an exhibition of his work at the Tate Gallery, London in early 1975. My memory is somewhat vague about precisely how it came about but, shortly after that time, I was given the chance to look at some Turner watercolours (normally kept hidden away) at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Simply wonderful.
Well, following this experience, I vowed that I’d repeat this experience one day. Now that I live a life of leisure(?), I decided that that time had come and so I e-mailed the Western Art Print Room one evening last week and asked if there was a chance of me seeing some of Turner’s watercolours – including three of his Venetian studies. By 10am the following morning, I’d received a really helpful reply (together with a very useful web-link which allowed me to select some additional pieces from their archive) and, as a result, made arrangements to meet one of the print room assistants yesterday morning.
So, Moira and I spent nearly an hour poring over about 50 of Turner’s watercolours – wonderful actually being allowed to handle these works of art (presented with large boxes of mounted watercolours, small desk easel and, of course, white cotton gloves!).
A huge privilege and a truly magical, memorable experience.
PS: The Print Room at the Ashmolean is open to “members of the public, students and visiting scholars alike for the study and enjoyment of drawings and prints from the collection” (quote from the print room brochure)… and it’s free.
PPS: Thankfully, when I went to the Tate exhibition in 1975, I’d decided to buy the accompanying exhibition catalogue and have been looking through it again over recent days. It made me query how many drawings, sketches or paintings I had undertaken in my life (so far!). 500? Perhaps 1,000? I suspect it’s far closer to 500 - even including those undertaken during my architectural career. This pales into utter insignificance when compared to Turner. He left over 19,000 sketches and watercolours in the “Turner Bequest”, hundreds of finished watercolours and well over 500 oil paintings. How on earth did he find the time (he virtually produced a sketch EVERY day of his adult life – and this doesn’t allow for his “finished” paintings!)?
My catalogue gives a pointer: “A true professional, he never stopped observing, recording. Over 250 sketchbooks at the British Museum bear witness to this. Not for him the busy private life: his social life was confined to professional functions at the Royal Academy and basic, safety-valve affairs with his housekeepers”. Brilliant quote!
PPS: The Ashmolean also has drawings and prints by Michelangelo and Raphael (amongst others) – so I’ll be making a return visit in the not-too-distant future!!
Photo: this is one of the watercolours I actually handled yesterday: “Venice: The Accademia, 1840” (this was Turner’s fourth, and last, visit to Venice).

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