J. M. W. Turner, Garden of the Hesperides, 1811.
USKIN most elaborately applies his mythological theories to art criticism when he explains Turner's Garden of the Hesperides (1806) and Apollo and Python (1811) in the fifth volume of Modern Painters. He begins his reading of the earlier canvas by first explaining the significance of the Hesperid nymphs and the dragon, then comments upon the Goddess of Discord and the gloomy atmosphere of the picture, and finally draws his conclusions. First, he explicates the moral ideas embodied in the nymphs. "Their names are, Aegle, — Brightness; Erytheia, — Blushing; Hestia, — the (spirit of the) Hearth; Arethusa, — the Ministering" (7.396). He then comments that these four were perfectly fitted to guard "the golden fruit which the earth gave to Juno at her marriage":
Not fruit only: fruit on the tree, given by the earth the great mother, to Juno (female power), at her marriage with Jupiter, or ruling manly power (distinguished from the tried and agonizing strength of Hercules). I call Juno, briefly, female power. She is, especially, the goddess presiding over marriage, regarding the woman as the mistress of a household. Vesta (the goddess of the hearth), with Ceres, and Venus, are variously dominant over marriage, as the fulfilment of love; but Juno is pre-eminently the housewives' goddess. She therefore represents, in her character, whatever good or evil may result from female ambition, or desire of power: and, as to a housewife, the earth presents its golden fruit to her, which she gives to two kinds of guardians. The wealth of the earth, as the source of household peace and plenty, is watched by the singing nymphs — the Hesperides. But, as the source of household sorrow and desolation, it is watched by the Dragon. (7.395-96)
The dragon, to whom Ruskin devotes the largest part of this explication, embodies covetousness and the fraud, rage, gloom, melancholy, cunning, and destructiveness associated with it. Thus, whereas "Geryon is the evil spirit of wealth, as arising from commerce . . . the Hesperian dragon is the evil spirit of wealth as possessed in households; and associated, therefore, with the true household guardians, or singing nymphs" (7.403)
Turning to the Goddess of Discord, Ruskin finds that in this painting she signifies essentially "the disturber of households" (7.404), though in fact she is the same power as Homer's spirit of the discord of war. "I cannot get at the root of her name, Eris. It seems to me as if it ought to have one in common with Erinnys (Fury); but it means always contention, emulation, or competition, either in mind or in words; — the final work of Eris is essentially 'division,' and she is herself always double-minded; shouts two ways at once (in Iliad, xi. 6), and wears a mantle rent in half (Aeneid, viii. 702). Homer makes her loud-voiced, and insatiably covetous" (7.404). According to Ruskin, Turner combined this conception of discord with Spenser's symbolical grotesque Ate in the fourth book of the Faerie Queene, adding a "final touch of his own. The nymph who brings the apples to the goddess, offers her one in each hand; and Eris, of the divided mind, cannot choose" (7.405-406). The presence of the Goddess of Discord, who darkens the joys of home and family, also accounts in part for the unusual gloom with which Turner rendered the Hesperid Garden, though the artist's darkened palette "was certainly caused chiefly by Spenser's describing the Hesperides fruit as growing first in the garden of Mammon"(7.406-407). Color, like form, according to Ruskin, bears allegorical significance in this painting, and the critic who would explicate it in full must pay close attention to this essential aspect of technique.
After he has thus interpreted the major elements of the Garden of the Hesperides, Ruskin concludes:
Such then is our English painter's first great religious picture; and exponent of our English faith. A sad-coloured work, not executed in Angelico's white and gold; nor in Perugino's crimson and azure; but in a sulphurous hue, as relating to a paradise of smoke. That power, it appears, on the hill-top, is our British Madonna: whom, reverently, the English devotional painter must paint . . . Our Madonna, — or our Jupiter on Olympus, — or, perhaps, more accurately still, our unknown God. (7.407-408).
In brief, Turner's darkened, dragon-watched garden sets forth in visible form the spiritual condition of England. It testifies that England, having exchanged faith in God for faith in gold, turns away from the path of life, embracing that of death, and longs to enter an earthly paradise that will be, not Eden, the garden of God, but the garden of Mammon in which the head of the serpent, unbruised by Christ, gazes about in icy triumph. Ruskin calls this a religious picture because it expounds the faith by which his contemporaries live and work, the faith, that is, to which their deeds, though not their words, testify. In "Traffic," a lecture he delivered in April 1864, he mentions "the real, active, continual, national worship; that by which men act, while they live; not that which they talk of, when they die. Now, we have, indeed, a nominal religion, to which we pay tithes of property and sevenths of time; but we have also a practical and earnest religion, to which we devote nineteenths of our property, and six-sevenths of our time. And we dispute a great deal about the nominal religion: but we are all unanimous about this practical one; of which I think you will admit that the ruling goddess may be best generally described as the 'Goddess of Getting-on,' or 'Britannia of the Market'"(18.447-448). Like the Evangelicals who continually emphasize the difference between nominal and practical, or true, Christianity, Ruskin frequently informs the unconverted that they profess a nominal worship but live by a far different "practical and earnest religion." England, having traded caritas for cupiditas, has chosen to live, not by love and cooperation, the laws of life, but by competition, the law of death. In Sesame and Lilies (1865), for instance, he warns that England busily engages itself in exchanging greatness for gold and life for death:
A great nation [does not] send its poor little boys to jail for stealing six walnuts; and allow its bankrupts to steal their hundreds of thousands with a bow, and its bankers, rich with poor men's savings, to close their doors "under circumstances over which they have no control," with a "by your leave"; and large landed estates to be bought by men who have made their money by going with armed steamers up and down the China Seas, selling opium at the cannon's mouth, and altering, for the benefit of the foreign nation, the common highwayman's demand of "your money or your life," into that of "your money and your life." Neither does a great nation allow the lives of its innocent poor to be parched out of them by fog fever, and rotted out of them by dunghill plague, for the sake of sixpence a life extra per week to its landlords; and then debate, with drivelling tears, and diabolical sympathies, whether it ought not piously to save, and nursingly cherish, the lives of its murderers.... And, lastly, a great nation does not mock Heaven and its Powers, by pretending belief in a revelation which asserts the love of money to be the root of all evil, and declaring, at the same time, that it is actuated, and intends to be actuated, in all chief national deeds and measures, by no other love. (18.82-83)
Five years before Ruskin thus charged that Victorian England had sacrificed all to Mammon, he wrote that Turner's mythological painting proclaimed the same practical worship: "The greatest man of our England, in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the strength and hope of his youth, perceives this to be the thing he has to tell us of utmost moment, connected with the spiritual world.... Here, in England, is our great spiritual fact for ever interpreted to us — the Assumption of the Dragon" (7.408). Turner, the greatest of England's artists, looks about him, observes the triumph of Mammon, and firmly, if sadly, sets down in the guise of a symbolical grotesque the truth he has observed.
He darkens his palette to "a sulphurous hue, as relating to a paradise of smoke" (7.407-408), for, in truth, "the fair blooming of the Hesperid meadows fades into ashes beneath the Nereid's Guard" (7.408). Choosing to live beneath the watchful glance of the Dragon of Mammon which guards the Nereids, England, says Turner, has entered the dark ages. In a previous volume of Modern Painters Ruskin had pointed out that
the title "Dark Ages," given to the mediaeval centuries, is, respecting art, wholly inapplicable. They were, on the contrary, the bright ages; ours are the dark ones. . . . We build brown brick walls, and wear brown coats.... There is, however, also some cause for the change in our own tempers. On the whole, these are much sadder ages than the early ones; not sadder in a noble and deep way, but in a dim wearied way, — the way of ennui, and jaded intellect, and uncomfortableness of soul and body. (6.321)
When he comes to interpret Turner's Garden of the Hesperides Ruskin concludes that the ennui, the sadness, the lack of light and color arise, as he believed Turner to have stated, in the worship of the Goddess of Getting-on.
Before we consider the validity of Ruskin's brilliant, if perhaps surprising, reading of this painting, let us examine his similarly complex interpretation of Apollo and Python, the second canvas to which he devotes a chapter in the fifth volume of Modern Painters. This chapter, "The Hesperid Aegle," opens as Ruskin compares this later work to the one he has just discussed at length: "Five years after the Hesperides were painted, another great mythological subject appeared by Turner's hand. Another dragon — this time not triumphant, but in death-pang, the Python slain by Apollo" (7.409). This painting, which he had earlier described in his notes to the Turner Bequest (1856) as "one of the very noblest of all Turner's works" (13.122), is far simpler than the Garden of the Hesperides. The nude Apollo, the sole figure in the picture, kneels, his head radiating light, and watches with arrow in hand the cataclysmic writhings of the dying Python, whose death pangs have splintered trees and sent huge rocks crashing down behind him. As Ruskin's chapter title emphasizes, this is essentially a picture of triumph and light, not gloom; for whereas the keynote of his discussion of the Garden of the Hesperides was the dragon, "The Nereid's Guard" of the title, he here emphasizes the Hesperid Aeglé — the nymph who embodies "Brightness."J. M. W. Turner, Apollo and Python, 1811. This color reproduction not in print edition: when I first encountered this painting in basement storage of The Tate Gallery — I believe it was Martin Butlin who showed it to me in 1963 — it had not yet been cleaned and restored; the monochrome reproduction the Tate suppplied was therefore a lot muddier looking. [Click on picture for larger image.]
Although he does not go as deeply into the literary sources of this picture as he did in the Hesperides, since he expects the meaning of this battle will appear obvious, he reads it many ways, explicating not only the physical and moral significance of the work but also its meaning as an emblem of Turner himself and of the beauties of art in general. Employing the term "type" in an extension of its figural sense, he comments that "The picture is at once the type, and the first expression of a great change which was passing in Turner's mind. A change, which was not clearly manifested in all its results until much later in his life; but in the colouring of this picture are the first signs of it; and in the subject of this picture, its symbol" (7.409). This victory of god over serpent, which represents in physical allegory the victory of sun and light over mist and darkness, further signifies, in the moral sense, the victory of love, life, and purity over sin and death. Ruskin also takes it as the perfect emblematic representation of Turner's increasing discovery of the joys and beauty of color, and as such it raises the problem of the role of color in art. He explains that Turner "had begun by faithful declaration of the sorrow there was in the world. It is now permitted him to see also its beauty. He becomes, separately and without rival, the painter of the loveliness and light of the creation. . . . Of its light: light not merely diffused, but interpreted; light seen pre-eminently in colour" (7.410). Thus, although Turner did not fully develop his coloristic gifts until after 1820, this picture exhibited in 1811 already foreshadows the artist's coming victory over the gloom of his predecessors and the brown violin of Sir George Beaumont. Telling the story in brief of Turner's artistic development, Ruskin explains how the artist "went steadily through the subdued golden chord, and painted Cuyp's favourite effect, 'sun rising through vapour,' for many a weary year. But this was not enough for him. He must paint the sun in his strength, the sun rising not through vapour. If you glance at that Apollo slaying the Python, you will see there is rose colour and blue on the clouds, as well as gold; and if then you turn to the Apollo in the Ulysses and . . . you see he is not 'rising through vapour,' but above it; — gaining somewhat of a victory over vapour, it appears" (7.411).
Turner's Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus.
The painting, then, must be seen as a symbolic representation of Turner's own victory over darkness. But it also represents a second battle, the battle with the audience, for "The public remonstrated loudly in the cause of Python.... They would neither look nor hear; — only shouted continuously, 'Perish Apollo. Bring us back Python'" (7.412). Four years earlier, in his notes on the Turner Bequest, Ruskin had explained that Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829) similarly provides an unconsciously created type of the painter's own destiny.
"He had been himself shut up by one-eyed people, in a cave 'darkened by laurels' (getting no good, but only evil, from all the fame of the great of long ago) — he had seen his companions eaten in the cave by the one-eyed people — (many a painter of good promise had fallen by Turner's side in those early toils of his); at last, when his own time had like to have come, he thrust the rugged pine-trunk — all ablaze — (rough nature, and the light of it) — into the faces of the one-eyed people, left them tearing their hair in the cloud-banks . . . and got away to open sea as the dawn broke over the Enchanted Islands." (13.136-137)
Turner, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be
Broken up, 1838.
When Ruskin compares this painting to the Temeraire of a decade later he points out how the changed subjects embody the career and life of the artist, as if his sympathy were best evoked by situations similar to his own:
The one picture, it will be observed, is of sunrise; the other of sunset.
The one of a ship entering on its voyage; and the other of a ship closing its course for ever.
The one, in all the circumstances of its subject, unconsciously illustrative of his own life in its triumph.
The other, in all the circumstances of its subject, unconsciously illustrative of his own life in its decline. (13.168-69)
Although Ruskin does not hold that Turner intended such a personal allegory, one might argue, with Jack Lindsay, that the artist included covert personal reference in many of his works. Arguing from the evidence of Turner's unpublished poetry, for example, Lindsay deduces from Turner's poem, "Love is a raging ocean," that the painter early "used the shipwreck-image for personal disaster." Ruskin, who had access to Turner's notebooks and who emphasized the significance of his poetry, may well have drawn his conclusions from such evidence. But whether he did or not, Ruskin's elaborate exegesis of Turner's works in this manner testifies to his sense of the painter's career, his feeling for the painter's concerns, and, most important, for his confidence that art bears meaning.
After Ruskin has pointed out the implicit, if possibly unintended, significance of Apollo and Python as a symbol of Turner's battle with his public, he examines the meaning of the cry, " 'Perish Apollo. Bring us back Python.' . . . for herein rests not merely the question of the great right or wrong in Turner's life, but the question of the right or wrong of all painting. Nay, on this issue hangs the nobleness of painting as an art altogether, for it is distinctively the art of colouring, not of shaping or relating. Sculptors and poets can do these, the painter's own work is colour" (7.4l2). Here, then, seventeen years after he had begun his defense of Turner the great colorist, Ruskin once again defends the role of color, bright color, in art; and despite the many changes that have taken place in his knowledge of art, religious belief, and theoretical emphases, one is not too surprised to see him explicate the glories of color the way he had much earlier explicated the glories of beauty — with an appeal to types. First, he points out Turner's particular gift to art: "the perfection of the colour chord by means of scarlet. Other painters had rendered the golden tones, and the blue tones, of sky; Titian especially the last, in perfectness. But none had dared to paint, none seem to have seen, the scarlet and purple.... His most distinctive innovation as a colourist was the discovery of the scarlet shadow" (7.413). Continuing the battle of the Rubenistes against the Poussinistes, of Delacroix against Ingres, of Turner against the reviewers, Ruskin asks, is color, in fact, sensual, immoral, the lesser, debasing part of painting? Are the Hesperides, Aegle and Erytheia, "sensual goddesses, — traitresses" (7.413). In a footnote which occupies almost six pages in the Library Edition, he sets forth his arguments in favor of color, but the main point, which he emphasizes in the text, is simply "that colour generally, but chiefly the scarlet, used with the hyssop, in the Levitical law, is the great sanctifying element of visible beauty, inseparably connected with purity and life" (7.414-15). Not wishing, he says, to discuss in detail "the mystical connection between life and love, set forth in that Hebrew system of sacrificial religion to which we may trace most of the received ideas respecting sanctity, consecration, and purification" (7.416), he refers the reader to Leviticus and limits himself to the assertion that color is "the type of love (7.419).
The sky and its clouds, the medium which bears the golds and scarlets of the sun to man, is, for Ruskin as he believes for Turner, what he later called a natural myth. The cloud, or the firmament, Ruskin advises the reader,
signifies the ministration of the heavens to man. That ministration may be in judgment or mercy — in the lightning, or the dew. But the bow, or colour of the cloud, signifies always mercy, the sparing of life; such ministry of the heaven as shall feed and prolong life. And as the sunlight, undivided, is the type of the wisdom and righteousness of God, so divided, and softened into colour by means of the firmamental ministry . . . is the type of the wisdom of God, becoming sanctification and redemption. (7.418)
Arguing once more from his knowledge of the typical sacrifices enjoined in Leviticus, which prefigured a coming sanctification and redemption, Ruskin can therefore conclude that color is the symbol of love, its embodiment, the word of God's love in visible form. In art it is the Word become Flesh.
To the ancient Greek, the conflict of Apollo with Python therefore represented the battle of light and color with darkness, of life with death, of purity with sin and disease. Whereas the Hesperid dragon guarded treasure, this "worm of eternal decay," ("THE CORRUPTER,") destroys it. "Apollo's contest with him is the strife of purity with pollution; of life with forgetfulness; of love, with the grave . . . of youth and manhood with deadly sin — venomous, infectious, irrecoverable sin"(7.420). Ruskin thus reads this painting as the definitive Turnerian image of all the battles men and nations must fight, and though Apollo, the "conqueror of death"(7.420), the healer of the people, here kneels triumphant, this victory, like all over sin, death, and time, is necessarily a qualified one ever to be repeated: man can meet final defeat but not final victory in these contests. Ruskin, who elsewhere quotes Plato to the effect that "Our battle is immortal" (29.82), believes that Turner's encompassing vision of life necessarily mixes victory and new danger, the end of one battle and the suggestion of another. As evidence he points to a smaller serpent rising out of the blood of defeated Python, and he exclaims: "Alas, for Turner! This smaller serpent-worm, it seemed, he could not conceive to be slain. In the midst of all the power and beauty of nature, he still saw this death-worm writhing among the weeds" (7.420). Turner, says Ruskin, was without hope: he could not conceive final victory, he could not conceive the rose without the worm, beauty without decay. As the notes to the Turner Bequest point out: "There seemed through all his life to be one main sorrow and fear haunting him — a sense of the passing a~ray, or else the destructive and tempting character of beauty. The choice of subject for a clue to all his compositions, the 'Fallacies of Hope,' marked this strongly"(13.159). Apollo and Python thus gives us the image of Turner's mind, an emblem of the emblematic man of the nineteenth century — courageous, loving beauty, visionary but without hope, without belief, without solace.
RUSKIN'S interpretations of Apollo and Python and the Garden of the Hesperides, which skillfully apply his sophisticated theory of artistic meaning to individual paintings, not only demonstrate his ability at close analysis but also show how widely and how well he summons literary tradition to explicate pictorial art. At the heart of these readings of painting, poetry, and myth lies a characteristic Ruskinian assurance that all things bear meaning, that all aspects of a work, if examined, will reveal meanings relevant to man. His remarkable ability first to perceive the significant details of a painting or poem and then to explicate them in the light of literary, artistic, and mythological tradition produces interpretations which anticipate the methods of recent criticism. Certainly, Ruskin's uses of close reading, formal analysis, biographical data, personal symbolisms, myth, and iconographic traditions mark him as the honored predecessor of much of this century's best criticism and scholarship.
Although there thus can be little doubt about Ruskin's major importance as a defender, theorist, and interpreter of the arts, the student of his work must answer the crucial question how appropriate, how valid, are his readings of Turner. In John Ruskin (1954), Joan Evans instructs us that "Ruskin had no comprehension of Turner's vision of this world, and 'interpreted' him in the light of sciences and moralities that must have been wholly alien to a man who was a poet in paint"(93). This is a charge that must be investigated. When Miss Evans scornfully dismisses Ruskin's influential works of social criticism as "fights against windmills of political economy"(305), anyone aware of the great influence attributed to Ruskin's work by those more knowledgeable in politics and economics — including Ghandi, R. H. Tawney and numerous Members of Parliament1 — can discount her remarks with the realization that she has wandered into unfamiliar territory and has not done enough to acquaint herself with the lay of the land. Her charges about Ruskin's interpretations of Turner, on the other hand, remain more serious, since as an art historian she writes with some authority. Therefore, to determine the validity of Ruskin's approaches to the works of his favorite artist, I propose first to examine the nature of both men's assumptions about art and then look at the extent to which Turner held the political and moral views his critic attributed to him.
Certainly, Turner and Ruskin held nearly identical conceptions of poetry and painting as sister arts, for both not only considered the artist a poet but also emphasized the importance of poetic subject and method to the pictorial arts. Turner placed great value on poetic allusions and on his own "Fallacies of Hope," and Ruskin, like few others, perceived their significance for his art. Both also shared the view of the artist as prophet. Turner, for example, once wrote, "Why say the Poet and Prophet are not often united? — for if they are not they ought to be" (Quoted in Lindsay's Sunset Ship, 48).Ruskin, who quite literally transfers his notions of Old Testament prophets to men of art, asserted in the first volume of Modern Painters that Turner himself united the nature of artist and seer: "Turner — glorious in conception — unfathomable in knowledge — solitary in power — . . . [is] sent as a prophet of God to reveal to men the mysteries of His universe, standing, like the great angel of the Apocalypse, clothed with a cloud, and with a rainbow upon his head, and with the sun and stars given unto his hand"(3.264). The periodical critics attacked this description of Turner as blasphemous, and when Ruskin changed most of the chapter in which it appeared for the third edition he did not employ this passage — though he still continued to identify Turner as a prophet. (On the attacks by Blackwood and The Athenaeum see Library Edition of Works, 3.254n and my "Ruskin's Revisions of the Third Edition ofModern Painters, Volume 1.' VN: 33 (1968), 13.) Turner's Angel standing in the Sun (1852) may well be, as Jack Lindsay suggests, the artist's vindication of Ruskin's and his own conception the artist-seer (Turner, 213).
In addition to sharing these basic conceptions of art and artist, both men believed Turner's work formed a coherent Whole, a unified body of pictorial poetry. The Harbours of England (1856) thus notes the artist's "earnest desire to arrange his works in connected groups, and his evident intention, with respect to each drawing, that it should be considered as expressing part of a continuous system of thought" (13.9). As a note to the fifth volume of Modern Painters explains, Ruskin recalled Turner's injunction to him concerning his works: "'Keep them together.' He seemed not to mind how much they were injured, if only the record of the thought were left in them, and they were kept in the series which would give the key to their meaning" (7.434n; Evans's criticisms of Ruskin2)
Equally important, Ruskin both perceived and shared the artist's allegorical intentions. Turner's characteristic habits of mind appear in an anecdote related by Thornbury:
When the plate of Wickcliffe's birthplace was being engraved for Whitaker's "Yorkshire," in touching the proof he (Turner) introduced a burst of light which was not in the drawing. To the engraver's enquiry as to why he had done so he replied, "That is the place where Wickcliffe was born and there is the light of the glorious Reformation." "But what do you mean by those large fluttering geese in the foreground?" "Oh! those — those are the old superstitions which the genius of the Reformation is driving away." (Lindsay, The Sunset Ship, 62-63, quotes this passage, which, in turn, appears in one of Ann Livermore's essays.)
This anecdote clearly demonstrates that the complex and unexpected symbolical intentions Ruskin attributed to Turner are in no way, as Miss Evans believes, alien to the artist. Another example of Turner's complex symbolical and allegorical methods appears in the paintings of Carthage and Rome. Here the artist makes use of the histories of ancient times to set forth both the fallacies of human hope and the way greed and corruption destroy nations. In addition, as Jack Lindsay has shown, Turner's shipwrecks, biblical scenes, and other works often contain elaborate political and moral allegories; see, for example, Sunset Ship, 46-49.
Closely related to this employment of ancient history was Turner's knowledge and use of mythology. Although the painter may not have known or drawn upon the precise texts Ruskin cited in his explications, there is little doubt that Turner knew a great deal of mythology and that he understood it essentially the way his interpreter claimed. According to the editors of the Library Edition, much of Turner's knowledge of myth came from Lempriere's Classical Dictionary. They comment: "It is often objected that Turner had no deep mythological meanings in his classical compositions, for that Lempriere was his only source of inspiration. Such criticism shows a want of acquaintance with that book, for the author nearly always adds to his bald versions of the myths an interpretation, according to his lights, of their physical and moral meanings" (13.108-109n). One need not, however, rest one's defense of Ruskin on the argument that Turner's major source, Lempriere, advanced such intricate allegorical readings of mythology; for, indeed, as Jerrold Ziff and Jack Lindsay have shown, the artist's debt to Akenside accounts for much of his intimate knowledge of classical culture. For example, the argument to Akenside's Hymn to the Naiads explains:
The Nymphs, who preside over springs and rivulets, are addressed at day-break in honour of their several functions, and of the relations which they bear to the natural and to the moral world. Their origin is deduced from the first allegorical deities, or powers of nature; according to the doctrine of the old mythological poets, concerning the generation of the gods and the rise of things. They are then successively considered, as giving motion to the air and exciting summer breezes; as nourishing and beautifying the vegetable creation; as contributing to the fulness of navigable rivers, and consequently to the maintenance of commerce; and by that means, to the maritime part of military power. Next is represented their favourable influence upon health, when assisted by rural exercise: which introduces their connection with the art of physic, and the happy effects of mineral medicinal springs. Lastly, they are celebrated for the friendship which the true Muses bear them.(Quoted by Lindsay, Turner, 145)
Akenside's use of mythology reads much like Ruskin's and provides another source of the ideas the critic attributed to the Garden of the Hesperides. A self-educated man, Turner did not possess Ruskin's knowledge of original classical sources, but he had encountered considerable uses of myth, not only in classical dictionaries, and the work of other artists, but also in the poems of Thomson, Akenside, Pope, and other eighteenth-century poets; then, too, he knew Ovid, Homer, and other sources of mythology in translation. Therefore, neither the knowledge nor the employments of myth Ruskin attributed to Turner was in any way foreign to the artist.
Furthermore, Turner, whose deathbed utterance is reputed to have been "The Sun is God," clearly held the views about light and color which his chief advocate attributed to him (Quoted by Lindsay, Turner, 213). In particular, the painter employed color with precise allegorical or symbolical intentions. The first volume of Modern Painters describes the "crimson and scarlet" of The Slave Ship as a judgment upon the guilty vessel: "It labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, and, cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea" (3.572). In the notes to the Turner Bequest he points out that the lines the artist appended to War, another crimson work, "are very important, being the only verbal expression of that association in his mind of sunset colour with blood . . .: —
'Ah, thy tent-formed shell is like
A soldier's nightly bivouac, alone
Amidst a sea of blood. — ' (13.160)
By the last volume of Modern Painters he had found other corroboration and explained that "the very sign in heaven itself which, truly understood, is the type of love, was to Turner the type of death. The scarlet of the clouds was his symbol of destruction. In his mind it was the colour of blood. So he used it in the Fall of Carthage. Note his own written words —
While o'er the western wave the ensanguined sun,
In gathering huge a stormy signal spread,
And set portentous
So he used it in the Slaver, in the Ulysses, in the Napoleon [War], in the Goldau" (7.437-438n). As Ruskin probably knew from arranging the Turner Bequest, the artist had made this association between sunset crimson and blood as early as his 1806-1808 sketchbook in which he wrote the words "Fire and blood" over a setting sun (Sunset Ship, 25).
Perhaps most important to our investigation is the fact that both men shared the belief that the worship of Mammon destroyed nations and was threatening England. "O Gold," one of the artist's manuscript poems, relates "Chaotic strife, elemental uproar wide" (101) to the love of money, while his painting of William III's arrival in England bore the following note: "The yacht in which His Majesty sailed was, after many changes and services, finally wrecked on Hamburg Sands, while employed in the Hull Trade." Lindsay points out that "even when expressing what he considers a high moment of Liberty, Turner reminds us of the twist that distorts men's aims and hopes; the triumphant ship of Liberty is wrecked in the end as the mere instrument of trade" (62n). One may add that Turner's mention in another poem of "Shipowners frown/ Gingling their money" (112) would support Lindsay's interpretation. The clearest indication that Turner espoused Ruskin's attitudes toward the effects of greed and gold appear in the last lines of the poem he appended to The Slave Ship: "Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!/ Where is thy market now?" One must agree with Lindsay that this painting attacks not only the already dying slave trade but also English society, a society joined by the cash-nexus, as well (51). Whether or not one wishes to accept the interpretation of this particular painting, one must admit that Turner's continual connection in his Carthage series of greed, luxury, and corruption as the cause of national decay demonstrates that painter and critic hold the same moral attitudes, condemnation of Mammon, and estimate of its effect on past and present times.
Turner’s Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. Exhibited 1812. Oil on canvas, 1460 x 2375 mm. Courtesy of Tate Britain Accession no. NO0490. Not in print version. [Click on image to enlarge it]
Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps and The Decline of Carthage, for example, reveal that Turner's conceptions of history and the use of an earlier nation as a model for England precisely match Ruskin's beliefs and methods both in The Stones of Venice and his reading of the Garden of the Hesperides.
Turner’s The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire. Exhibited 1817. Oil on canvas, 1702 x 2388 mm. Courtesy of Tate Britain. Accession no. NO0499. Not in print version. [Click on image to enlarge it]
Lastly, Ruskin correctly observed Turner's sense of isolation, lack of belief, pessimism, and sorrow at the passing of beauty. The sense of being alone, which Ruskin so emphasized in the last volume of Modern Painters, appears, for instance, in these lines the artist addressed to a hostile world:
Let my works
Outlive the maker who bequeaths them to thee
For well I know where our possessions end
Thy praise begins few there be who weave
Wreaths for the Poet ('s) brow, till he is laid
Low in his narrow dwelling with the worm.(127)
Although, as Turner stated in another poem, art "Reclaims . . . fleeting footsteps from the waste/ Of Dark Oblivion" (128), he realized that the world too often pays little enough attention to art, which grants such gifts, and he mourns the passing of the noble and beautiful: his painting of the Temeraire, for example, conveys this sense of loss, this sense of the death of nobility, while his verses "On the Demolition of Pope's House at Twickenham" complains that his nation too quickly forgets to honor the "British Maro" (117).
Perhaps the only important point on which one can fault Ruskin's interpretations of Turner is that they do not adequately emphasize the artist's covert political allegories. According to the recent work of Lindsay and John McCoubrey, Turner concerned himself with contemporary political events, including the Napoleonic wars and the bills to reform Parliament. Far more a republican than his critic, Turner comments on the continuing battle of liberty and tyranny.3 Despite the more specific commentary on contemporary issues than Ruskin perceived, Turner, who often relates his political allegories to his attacks on Mammon, frequently arrives at positions similar to Ruskin. Another point of divergence, perhaps, is that Turner may not have developed his elaborate social and political commentaries until 1812, whereas Ruskin interprets paintings exhibited in 1806 and 1811 (60). The last volume of Modern Painters, of course, discusses Apollo and Python and the Garden of the Hesperides as paintings which signal the approaching change in Turner's art, and it is therefore quite possible, though not certain, that Ruskin may have anticipated Turner's allegorical works, reading into earlier ones themes and methods of those painted later. Although Ruskin may possibly have read too deeply in these particular paintings, there can be no doubt that he well understood Turner's aims and methods, and that Turner found in Ruskin a better interpreter and defender than any other artist has had the good fortune to encounter.
Last modified 6 May 2019