J. M. W. Turner “The Falls of the Riechenbach”
Over the holiday we took our children to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie “A Game of Shadows” . The thrilling denouement of this film takes place at the brink of the Riechenbach Falls in Switzerland, a stage-set just as exciting in the film as it was in this 1804 watercolour by JMW Turner. I was happily reminded that this painting was a huge influence on my training as a watercolour painter. I remember seeing the painting in the flesh at ‘The Great Age of British Watercolours’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1993. That’s the same Royal Academy which has just appointed Tracy Emin to the post of Professor of Drawing.
At that time I wrote an essay for students at the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture where I was teaching, a piece which explored the development of watercolour – “that great underrated medium”. In that essay I wrote that ‘The Great Falls of the Reichenbach’ “shows more than any other work what Turner was capable of doing at only the age of twenty-nine. This is not just drawing or sketching, this is the highest form of watercolour painting, up there with the best of oil paintings. This waterfall was a popular tourist attraction in the early 19th century, providing a glimpse of towering rocks and thundering water which embodied the whole concept of the sublime, making the viewer feel vulnerable and insignificant” (as movies endeavour to do today). “Turner grasped this subject because it represented everything which excited him: raw, magnificent and overpowering.”
“Turner’s technique had developed to handle this intensity of work, his skills already superior to his contemporaries with their more static and considered views of topography and the picturesque. Turner had built up this painting with layered washes of cool and warm, dividing the paper into foreground, middle and far distance, drawing the eye into the subject. The waterfall rushes over the edge of the cliff as crisp white scratches into the paper, falling into an oblivion of mist and spray where he has washed and blended the colours and then half rubbed them out again, blurring his perception of mere reality. He has scraped and gouged at the paper with his fingernails, he has pulled the colour out again with wet cloths and darkened the shadows with gum arabic, a deep varnish which accentuates the dark colours. In the foreground the jagged broken trees jab upwards at the mountain and the water gushes on downwards to our feet. This was an experience far better than the real thing. If people went to Switzerland for an experience of the sublime in Nature, then this painting of Turner’s would knock their socks off in London!”
Actually, all these techniques are what taught me to paint in watercolour, gouging at the paper with a knife (I’ve since been using an electric grinder with a wire brush attachment), making huge washes of mixed tone and then lifting them off again. ‘The Falls’‘ is a large piece at 40 x 27 inches -103 x 70 cm, on a scale in deliberate competition with oils. If paper had been large enough, Turner would have painted even bigger. (I have larger paper and I have just completed my biggest watercolour at 120 x 60 inches – 3 x 1.5 metres, but that’s another story).
My essay continues: ”Watercolour began as a means of tinting ink drawings, maps and plans. Albrecht Durer was the first to use the medium to create works of art, as paintings. By the 1750s it was a popular medium for creating topographical pictures to supply a popular demand for images of contemporary life and places. As a portable medium it was easily employed to record facts: buildings, events, landscapes. Topographical draughtsmen accompanied patrons on their travels to perform the same function which a camera does on holiday today.”
“Architectural draughtsmen recorded buildings in meticulous detail, coloured with watercolour and often reproduced as engravings which were also hand-coloured. These engravings were published as books and became immensely fashionable as substitutes for travel – the origin of the armchair traveller.”
“The success of these images spawned studios where production-lines employed young artists to colour prints. Thomas Malton ran such a studio and one of his artists was the young Turner. An early work by Turner in that exhibition at the Royal Academy showed the beginning of his transformation of watercolour into high art. The painting is of burning of the Pantheon Club in Oxford Street, London in 1792. Turner, at the age of 17 was sent out to the scene like a young journalist recording what had happened. His drawing is precise, as Malton would have required but the action is breaking with tradition; there is a bustle of activity, a drama which takes this work beyond the controlled rules of the picturesque and into the anarchy of art. This was the precursor of photo-journalism and Turner’s hand added the magic of the cinematographer. His talent was based in rigorous technical training and here he breathed a new spirit into a good drawing, breaking away from mere reality and into the world of inspiration, of the sublime, the mundane promoted to the essence of spirit.”
Art serves to uplift the soul, to inspire the imagination and to challenge the mind, so it must be founded on real expertise, on a firm foundation of tradition from which the flights of the fancy can be successfully launched. Hopefully the Royal Academy’s Professor of Drawing will have something worthwhile to teach. Bring on the crazy ideas, the harsh observations or the soggy fantasies but serve them with conviction, brilliance and with awe, whether in the art gallery or the cinema. How else will we walk out into the rainy street at the close of a movie with the feeling that we have been transported into another world, with smiles or tears on our faces? How else will we return home just that little bit disappointed with reality?