[The following essay first appeared in Turner Society News 130 (Autumn 2018). Thanks to Cecilia Powell and the Society for allowing us to include it in the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow]
To the general international public, J.M.W Turner is probably now best known as the protagonist of a film that bears his name. In Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014), Timothy Spall portrays the artist as ‘crude, rude, [and] porcine, yet sensitive and tender,’ in the words of Andrew Wilton. Whether or not Spall accurately reanimates Turner, a question Wilton himself has raised, his performance shows that Turner’s own person and personality remain just as fascinating as any one of his paintings, especially in episodes such as the one that led to Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth (RA 1842), which was reportedly based on a storm he experienced while tied to the mast of a ship. Since Leigh’s film, another version of this episode has been created by Peter Milton, an 88-year-old American printmaker whose magisterial draughtsmanship and unflagging inventiveness – lavishly displayed on his website (https://www.petermilton.com) – have lately reached new heights of audacity.
Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). 1842. Oil on canvas, 914 x 1219 mm. Courtesy of Tate Britain (Accession no. N00530. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856). Click on image to enlarge it.
In spite of his age, Milton is nothing if not up to date. In 2008, after etching prints for more than fifty years, he started producing them by means of digital technology. But for Milton, this turn to the digital is really just a new bend. Digital technology allows him to do more easily what he had been doing for more than thirty years before turning to the mouse: assembling, transforming, and synthesizing individual pictures – many of them photographs – by means of collage, which is the constant factor in virtually all of his work. Strictly speaking, a collage is a work of art assembled not from hand-drawn figures but from pre-existing objects – such as photographs and news clippings – that are pasted onto a flat surface, and most collages are spatially incoherent, simply juxtaposing one object – such as a text or photograph – with another on a two-dimensional plane. But Milton’s prints are radically different. While often assembled from the juxtaposition of individual pictures and photographs that are now digitally integrated, they are both spatially coherent and meticulously drawn. Their composition depends quite as much on Milton’s draughtsmanship as on the maneuvers of the mouse.
Points of Departure I: Mary’s Turn by Peter Milton. 1994. Etching and engraving on paper. By permission of the artist.
The content of his work is as remarkable as its style. Ever since Mary’s Turn (1994; fig. 1), which shows Mary Cassatt playing billiards with Edgar Degas while observed by young girls drawn from her paintings, Milton has been etching nineteenth-century artists such as John Singer Sargent working in their studios.
Tsunami by Peter Milton. 2015. Digital print on paper. By permission of the artist.
Milton’s Tsunami likewise shows Turner at his easel, but far from his studio: he paints on the deck of a three-masted schooner that is perched on the crest of a gigantic wave that might have been wrought by Hokusai (fig. 2).
In turning from Degas, Cassatt, and Sargent to the depiction of Turner, Milton also turns from serene interiors to the sea—Turner’s favorite subject – at its most turbulent. Tsunami was prompted by a story that Milton credits to Mike Leigh’s film but that originates from John Ruskin’s wellknown report of what Turner said to a clergyman about the genesis of Snow Storm: Steamboat. ‘I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe [the storm],’ he said; ‘I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did.’ In doing so, he not only impersonated Ulysses, as critics have often noted, but also reenacted the celebrated feat of Claude-Joseph Vernet, the eighteenth-century French seascape painter whose work Turner knew very well and whose feat was depicted in 1822 by his grandson, Horace Vernet, in a painting entitled Joseph Vernet Attached to the Mast Studying the Effects of the Storm.
In this depiction of a painter at work on a stormy sea, the artist is commandingly poised. Disturbed by neither the dramatically steep diagonal of the hull nor the slant of lightning at upper right, he stands boldly upright at the intersection of the one nearly vertical mast and the perfectly level horizon behind him. The stability of the artist in the picture corresponds to the stability of the artist who painted it. He carefully preserves his own vantage point from the upheaval that he tries to represent.
In Turner’s Snowstorm: Steamboat, all traditional bases of visual stability slide away. The horizon itself tilts, and instead of a vertical line in the center we find a bowed and slanted mast. The bent mast signifies Turner’s struggle to find a form that could represent what he saw from a pitching vessel in the midst of a storm. Around the anti-sun of the dark paddle wheel in the center everything else revolves, but not, significantly, in concentric circles. Instead a series of nearly straight lines radiates from the center, including the continuous line made by the mast and the right side of the triangular shadow in the foreground. By making the bent mast participate in a line that is essentially straight, Turner demonstrates his capacity to define and delineate elemental turbulence even while representing its radically destabilizing of Turner’s paintings on the deck, this dead-levelling of the schooner on the crest of a wave exemplifies the kind of liberties that Milton often takes. While meticulously delineating a set of spatially coherent objects, he sometimes frees them from gravity, as he does with the billiard balls floating over the table in Mary’s Turn.
Milton also takes considerable liberties with the figure of Turner himself (fig. 4). Though gravitationally steadied with both feet on deck, he bears little resemblance to the bulky, top-hatted figure in long black coat that we typically find in pictures drawn during his lifetime, such as S.W. Parrott’s Turner on Varnishing Day (c.1846). Besides making him much leaner, giving him a low-crowned hat, and stripping him to a shirt and vest, Milton magically fuses the bound, sea-tossed artist – unable to do anything but see the storm around him – with the studio artist freely using his arms and [5/6] hands to paint. Though the work-in-progress is not clearly based on what we can see in the rest of the print, we may well imagine that Milton’s Turner may be taking some liberties of his own.
Figures 5 & 6. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
On the left side of the print, well below the crest of the wave that threatens to overwhelm it, John Constable (fig. 5) gazes calmly back at the schooner while holding the long tiller of a sloop named for Effie Gray, who married Ruskin in 1848 and then – with the marriage unconsummated – left him for his pupil, John Everett Millais. Above, floating behind sails stamped with his name, a bearded and top-hatted Ruskin (fig. 6) waves the flag of the Royal Academy (RA) and stretches out his arms toward Turner, whose later works he ardently celebrated in the five volumes of Modern Painters (1843–60). Hovering over the bow of the sloop – perhaps thrown up by the waves – are three other men in black top hats, one of whom struggles to get control of the mainsail. And while a fourth man has just tumbled out of the boat beside Constable, he seems to be not so much sinking into the waves as floating on them. All five of Constable’s fellow passengers, in fact, may be construed as somehow capable of flight, or at least of resisting gravity. What does it all mean? As a whole, the print roughly recalls the composition of Turner’s Shipwreck (1805), wherein a shallow trough of foamy waves stretches out between the sinking wreck at left and the gaff-rigged sloop at right: leaning over precariously, the sloop may or may not be able to rescue the passengers crowded into the lifeboat heaving in the foreground. But rather than leaning over, the schooner named for Turner in Milton’s print seems as airborne as the shadowy pelicans gliding across the waves [6/7] below it. Defying gravity, its prow shoots straight ahead into thin air. Also, while several shadowy vessels seem to be sinking near the horizon, there is no shipwreck in the foreground, or at least not yet: no sinking vessel, no packed lifeboat. Constable’s sloop remains afloat for now, and his calm demeanor as he sits at the tiller with his legs spread easily apart shows not the slightest trace of anxiety. He could be one of Constable’s own boatmen quietly guiding a barge along a canal.
As for Ruskin, his outstretched arms not only suggest homage or appeal but also recall the upraised arms of Turner’s Ulysses in Ulysses deriding Polyphemus (1829). In defying the monster that he and his men have just escaped, Ulysses also defies Poseidon, god of the sea as well as father of the monster, and though Poseidon later destroys nearly all of the Greeks to avenge their blinding of his son, Ulysses himself survives. Could Ruskin be likewise defying the power of the tsunami? While Milton’s notes on the print describe the sloop as ‘disintegrating,’ neither of its two chief passengers has yet capitulated to the waves. In an instant, of course, both of those passengers and their boat may be overwhelmed by the tidal wave, which Milton’s notes identify with Turner himself. Yet since we know very well that Constable’s art was not obliterated by Turner’s, that it has calmly survived for more than two hundred years, we may speculate that the one-sided contest ostensibly staged by the print is something of a draw. On the one hand, Milton’s Turner reigns supreme, mastering the mightiest waters of the universe in something like the way that the Moses of Turner’s Light and Colour …. The Morning after the Deluge – Moses writing the Book of Genesis (1843) masters – by the very act of writing about it – the orb of light that breaks through the vortex of the flood. On the other hand, Constable was never killed by Turner’s art. He somehow found a way to steer his sloop to calmer waters, or take flight into the radiant realm of his magnificent clouds. To that extent, Constable found his own way of mastering the waters of the universe.
- Ruskin’s discussion of Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth in relation to the sublime.
- Images of Crisis: Shipwrecks and Castaways in Literature and Art
Last modified 7 March 2019