Curator's Blog: Turner in Surrey so far

18 December 2017

Turner in Surrey is a milestone exhibition for The Lightbox. Taking place in our tenth anniversary year, we are proud and thrilled to have brought the work of Britain's greatest landscape painter to Surrey. In this week's blog, our Curator Peter Hall looks back on how his exhibition came together, and contemplates how Turner would have captured these fleeting bucolic scenes.

Turner in Surrey is a very special exhibition. It has been long in the planning and celebrates the work of one the nation’s most famous and talented artists. We all have our ‘favourite’ Turner, but this exhibition places James Mallord William Turner firmly in our locale, with several previously unseen or rarely seen works, due to their preparatory nature in the depiction of Surrey scenes, made outside in the open air prior to the finished oils produced in the studio.

If you have walked or boated up and down the Thames and Wey you will recognise Turner’s moorings, the walks he must have taken in and the roads, pathways and streets that he would have had to navigate. Since the exhibition has opened, people have told me how they too have previously sat or stood on Richmond Hill, by Newark Priory or beneath St Catherine’s Hill and tried to capture the scene as Turner once did. Seeing Turner’s efforts now, these same people can understand deeply what Turner was trying to do, and the challenges he faced.

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), Thomson's Aeolian Harp, 1809, oil paint on canvas © Manchester Art Gallery, Bridgeman Images

The excitement and difficulty of trying to record something that nature offers only temporarily – in terms of light and shade, the wind, rain and sunshine, the movements of animals, of people working or moving on the land, of water alive with currents and the navigation of boats – meant that in his oil sketches Turner had to work ferociously quickly and improvise as he worked.

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), View of Richmond Hill and Bridge, 1808, oil paint on canvas, © Tate, London 2016

For the finished oils – namely ‘Thomson’s Aeolian Harp’ and ‘View of Richmond Hill and Bridge’, Turner filled countless sketchbooks with quick pencil and watercolour jottings, experimenting with how he would compose the final work and utilise the oil paint.

His subsequent finished oils contain Turner’s varied thoughts expressed on the canvas. His aspirations to fuse together the highs of classical poetry with the rudiments of working-class rural life gave Turner the platform to test his Claudean-inspired landscapes. These large and visually arresting oil paintings challenged the hierarchical power of the Old Masters and Landscape’s lowly status as a genre of art whilst featuring semi-topographical views of Surrey, London, the River Thames and Wey.

Turner in Surrey is open till 4 March 2018.

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