In the following excerpt from Chapter IV of his biography of Turner, Philip Hamerton discusses the difference between Turner's landscape art and that of the more conscientiously representational water-colourist, G. A. Fripp (1819-1896). In the process he both distinguishes between topographical and landscape painting, and discusses the particular, poetic approach and effect of Turner's landscapes
The title of this excerpt comes from the running heading of pp. 85-87. Footnotes have been omitted, as have some passages which elaborate on, rather then illustrate, Hamerton's point (e.g. several extracts from Matthew Arnold's "Church of Brou"). Note that there are some inaccuracies in the original: G. A. Fripp is given as G. H. Fripp, and the Art Journal issue which contains the engraving is dated 1868 instead of 1858. The former has been corrected and the latter omitted. Click on the first image, which is not shown in the original discussion, to enlarge it and for more information about it. Page numbers are given in square brackets. — Jacqueline Banerjee
The distinction between Turner's treatment of natural material and that of the majority of landscape-painters will better be understood by an example. As we have been talking about Kilchurn, it will be a saving of trouble to the reader if I describe another view of the same place. In the Royal Collection at Osborne there is a picture of it in water-color by Mr. G. [A]. Fripp, which was engraved by Mr. Wallis for the Art Journal.... [75/76] The view here is in a different direction, but the treatment of the two artists may be very closely compared.
Mr. Fripp's picture includes the castle, the alluvial plain of the Orchay, Ben Anea, and the mountains of Glen Strae. It is not by any means a strictly accurate piece of topography, Mr. Fripp having used his liberty as an artist in various ways, which we will indicate very shortly; but he has been extremely careful to preserve what seemed to him all the most important truths of local character, so that any one who loved the place might find in the picture at least all those features which he would be likely to remember and to recognize. The feelings of attachment to locality, which are often so inextricably mingled with our admiration for natural beauty, are hurt and wounded by Turner's indifference to everything that we know and love; but in Mr. Fripp's work they find a succession of satisfactions. The castle is not minutely accurate; the nearest corbel-turret is omitted, perhaps by the fault of the engraver, but we find all the principal features — the keep, the gables, the chimneys, the staircase turret, the heavy masses of ivy, the rock on which the castle stands. This is not simply a castle quelconque; it is Kilchurn Castle, and no other. In the landscape we have the same degree of fidelity to all the leading features. There is the alluvial plain, with its stunted trees, scattered near the Orchay, but gathering into a little wood behind Kilchurn itself. There is the bay of Kilchurn between us and the castle; and across the lake, to the left, the Goose's Rock which projects into the water, with the trees about it. Mr. Fripp has not [76/77] omitted the solitary farm-house near the Goose's Rock [...], nor has he forgotten the picturesque rocks and trees on his own side of the lake, but has used them in his foreground. As I wander into Mr. Fripp's distance up Glen Strae, I remember many a real wandering in that region, and feel grateful to the artist for enabling me to live past days over again.
With so much local fidelity, what, then, is the artistic liberty used by Mr. Fripp, of which we spoke a little time since? In what does his manner of treatment differ from the strict topographic truth?
It differs, first, in being more concentrated than the natural scene. Interesting material, on the right hand and on the left, is brought nearer together, so as to get it into the picture. For example, the Goose's Rock, which is interesting, is outside the picture to the left, but it is brought in to add interest. Another alteration is that all the mountains are made higher, and their lines steeper, than in nature: the difference of steepness between a line in the picture and the same line in nature is from fifteen to twenty degrees. In all probability Mr. Fripp exaggerated height and steepness unconsciously, for artists do so almost invariably in consequence of the vivacity of their own impressions. The truth is, that although the mountains at the head of Loch Awe strike the imagination very powerfully, they are not precipitously steep. The angle of their outline in nature seldom exceeds thirty degrees. In Mr. Fripp's picture it reaches about fifty degrees. Another very decided difference between Mf. Fripp's work and nature is, that he remarkably exagger-[77/78]ates ruggedness. The slopes of Ben Anea are not, in nature, very rugged; on the contrary, that mountain is somewhat remarkable for the fine rounding of its principal parts. Mr. Fripp prefers ruggedness to roundness (thinking it more picturesque) and hews the surface of the mountain into steps and precipices; for which, indeed, there is an excuse in nature, for the rock is often visible, but no more. The other mountains are treated on the same principle. The foreground is true to local character, but is simply used as material, the rocks and trees being put where they suit the artist's convenience.
Such is the exact degree in which Mr. Fripp will deviate from nature in his drawing, and in this degree of deviation he resembles the majority of our more conscientious artists. They alter nature in order to make their work look more pictorial, but they do not, as a general rule, abandon the endeavor to render local character to the best of their ability. There are great differences in their success, and differences in the license they allow themselves: but the general feeling amongst artists is, that when a picture is called by the name of a place, it ought to bear some resemblance to that place.
One or two of the most earnest young English artists have gone further than this, and attempted genuine portraiture, trying to draw things really and truly as they are. They met with an unforeseen difficulty in the constitution of the human mind. All men when they are struck by anything in nature exaggerate it. I mean, that they see the real thing in nature bigger and more important than it really is. The consequence of this is, that a represen- [78/79]tation of the thing which only gives the true importance of it relatively to other objects, is at once rejected as inadequate. There is a wide distinction between the really apparent size of objects and the size which we imagine them to appear. The first can be measured scientifically at any time with the utmost accuracy, and precisely stated in terms of degrees and minutes, just as we can measure the exact inclination of a mountain slope; the second is purely a mental impression. We admit then, and consider it a settled question, that pure topography is not to be expected from an artist, and we will even admit that such deviations as those of Mr. Fripp are lawful; because though he may not care for truth of minute detail, he does evidently care for truth of character, and try to preserve it. But what are we to say of Turner? Is his system, or his absence of system, compatible with the degree of veracity we have a right to expect from an artist?
There is certainly a moral question here which deserves a little consideration. An artist sells a picture as being representative of a certain place, and on examination it turns out that the picture does not resemble the place, and that it is a mere fancy of the painter's. If it were perfectly understood that no resemblance was attempted, there would be no deception. If you order a picture of Adam and Eve in Paradise you know, without being told, [79/80] that the figures are not partraits of Adam and Eve, but that they are either pure inventions or studies from Academy models; but if the subject of the picture were Prince Albert and Queen Victoria you would expect some degree of likeness, and consider yourself unfairly treated if they were not recognizable. There is a moral question, also, about the naming of pictures after places. It is done to profit by the interest which people take in places that they have heard of or read about, and it is not strictly honest to sell to them as portraits of places designs which are all but imaginary. Turner was an excellent man of business in his own way, and he knew that people liked to fancy that they were looking at the portrait of some definite place, and not at a mere "composition." The temper of the public on this subject is well understood by experienced artists. One successful old painter said to me, "If I paint a landscape and call it a composition, people are not satisfied and think it too artificial, because they are aware that it is composed; but if I call the same picture by the name of some place that they can find on the map, they are satisfied and look upon it with perfect faith, as a true representation of nature."
There is, however, a certain remote relation between such a work as Turner's Kilchurn and the place it professes to represent. It bears about the same relation to reality that our dreams do when we dream of some place that we have visited. We then see places oddly jumbled together, and our memory, retentive enough of certain things, entirely omits others of equal or still greater importance. You may dream, for example, if you have been [80/81] reading about Mount Blanc and St. Paul's Cathedral, that you see St. Paul's in the valley of Chamouni with Mount Blanc for a background, but that the Cathedral has neither dome nor belfry, just as Turner's Kilchurn had neither chimney nor turret; and you may perhaps see in your dream, without surprise, the waters of Lake Leman within a mile of the Mer de Glace. If Turner had simply visited Kilchurn without making a sketch, and afterwards made this picture of it from memory, intending it to be accurate, we should say that his memory was singularly defective. The experiments of M. Lecoq de Boisbaudran in the "Education de la Memoire pittoresque" have produced results with which no effort of Turner's memory, of which we have any evidence, will bear the slightest com- parison. This work of Turner's is not remembering, it is dreaming, and drawing or painting the dream.
At length, then, after examining Turner's work and comparing it with nature and with the work of another [81/82] artist, we have arrived at this conclusion, that in the year 1802 he had begun to paint his dreams. This is worth all the trouble we have taken about it, because the general belief is that Turner did not become a dreamer till a much later period.
And now let us ask, What are the nature and qualities of the dream? Is it mere confusion, or is it orderly with an order of its own, which is not the order of reality? The answer is, that the dream has great order and unity. Even the treachery of the artist's memory has helped the unity of the impression. A believer in the infinite perfection of Turner's mental faculties might affirm that he remembered everything, but purposely rejected what he did not consider necessary to his artistic intention. This would be a simple assertion which can be made of any one, and which, in the case of Turner, is without the slightest evidence in its support. It is a theory which may be eagerly accepted by those who have a blind faith in the genius of the artist, but when you come to examine his genius according to the methods of scientific criticism you will not accept such a theory so easily; certainly not until you are convinced that there is strong evidence in its favor. The real operation of Turner's intellect upon his materials appears to have been a selection, both by the fidelities of his memory and by what I have just called its treacheries. I may illustrate this by a piece of advice which was given to me by a distinguished critic of literature. "Take as many notes as you like," he said, "but never refer to them, except by the memory, when you are actually writing. Your memory will select for you those [82/83]which you ought to use, and reject for you, without any conscious trouble on your part, those which would only be an encumbrance to your work." Without stopping to consider whether this was good or bad advice (it would not be good in all cases), I may say that it describes very accurately the operation of the imaginative intellect in art. The imaginative memory retains what is necessary to its work, and drops what is unnecessary. In the case of the picture before us we must not allow ourselves to be misled by the mere title. The artist calls his work Kilchurn Castle to catch the public; it is the tradesman, and not the poet, who names the picture. Kilchurn had not become so famous as Wordsworth and Scott made it afterwards, but it had already a romantic interest from the story of the "Bridal," and an interest of locality from its fine situation in the Highlands, which a few English tourists had already begun to explore. The real motive of the picture was not Kilchurn, but the play of clouds about the crest of a Highland mountain, which mountain signified little. The mountain is any mountain you please; it resembles Ben Lomond nearly as much as Ben Cruachan: the castle is any castle you please; it resembles Ardhonnel more closely than Kilchurn, though Turner probably never saw Ardhonnel. The clouds play about the granite peak, a shower falling here from their trailing fringes, a sunbeam flashing there on the toppling silvery billows which are their everchanging summits, a level wreath of white vapor clinging in the shelter of the peak itself, great volumes rolling and surging in the abyss of the deep corrie, and on the steep stony sides of the [83/84] mountains the purple shadows fall, vast and swift, veiling each of them its hundred acres of desolation. What has all this to do with the presence, or the absence, of tower or turret in the dismantled ruin below? Who thinks of man's work when he witnesses the majesty of the storms on the everlasting mountains? The clouds played so for unnumbered centuries before the little feudal fortress was built, and they will play just as merrily when every vestige of it shall have utterly disappeared.
Let us think then of Turner henceforth simply as a poet who is not to be bound down by topographic facts of any kind. We shall find evidence, as we proceed, that he did not pay deference, either, to the higher scientific conditions of pictorial truth : but this is a part of our inquiry which it is better to reserve until we are brought to it by the story of his life.
He paid as much attention to truth of all kinds as poets generally do. He lived in a world of dreams, and the use of the world of reality, in his case, seems to have been only to supply suggestions and materials for the dreams.
Had he lived till these days and been acquainted with our contemporary literature he might fairly have said, "Why do literary men find fault with me for my free use of the poetic license." They just take as great liberties themselves. Talk of my Kilchurn, indeed! what do you say to Mr. Matthew Arnold's "Church of Brou"! Mr. Arnold tells us over and over again that the Church of Brou is in the mountains, close to the pine-forests".... [84/85] The church of Brou is not in the mountains at all, but in the low country, six miles from the first rise of the Jura hills, and the scenery about it is [85/86] that of the great plain of La Bresse....
So soon as Turner reaches perfect manhood he becomes the poet, as much as the necessity for earning a living will allow him. He is not always quite so careless of local truth as he was at Kilchurn; he knows his public and his employers, knows that they will expect the Tower of London to be different from the dome of St. Paul's, and makes his subjects just topographic enough to pass for likenesses when the places are too well known. But he hated being "mappy," as he called it in [86/87] his rough, unliterary way, and left that industry to others. It is certain that he would have abominated the work of our severely literal school, if he had lived to see it.
Most landscape-painters, as they advance in life, become more and more careless about portraiture of places; but what is surprising in Turner is, that he should have made the choice between art and nature at so early a period of his career. It is wonderful too, that a man should love nature as he did, be continually observing her, really know more about natural phenomena than any of his predecessors, and yet coolly and deliberately prefer his own dreams to the beautiful and interesting places which he travelled so far to see! It seems as if he travelled because he could not do without the suggestion, the stimulus, of fresh scenes and places; but also as if his mind, when once fecundated by the sight of nature, must produce fruit of its own kind, and in its own way. It is said that each mind lives in its own world; how true this is of Turner! how true it is that every one of his pictures or designs is chiefly interesting for us as a new glimpse of that enchanted land which belonged to him and to him only, into which we can only enter by his permission, and with his guidance, out of which he himself could never escape!
Hamerton, Philip Gilbert. The Life of J. W. Turner, R.A.. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1879. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Getty Research Institute. Web. 21 September 2022.
Created 21 September 2022