Turner’s Classical Landscapes

Hello all, and happy Christmas from all of us in the graduate common room in the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge. Actually I haven’t consulted my fellow postgrads, but I assume they wish you a happy Christmas and are not indulging in Scroogeish disdain and bah-humbuging. I happen to know that some of my archaeologist colleagues are very happy because they have been given Lego. Those of you who do not have Lego to occupy your time may be wondering how to whittle away your hours. You could, of course, go and see a film, such as Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, which looks absolutely atrocious in most respects but which will surely be redeemed by fine translations into Hittite from one of the grad common room’s denizens.

Alternatively, you could do as I did and attend the exhibition on Turner’s later work at the Tate. That is, assuming you live in easy reach of London and haven’t already been, which I realize is assuming rather a lot. If you can make it before the exhibition closes on the 25th of January, it’s well worth it. I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t been to the Tate Britain since I was a first year undergraduate, and had forgotten just how stunning its collection really is.

One of the aspects of Turner’s work that always comes as a slight surprise (at least to me) is just how many of his paintings depict classical scenes. The reason for my surprise is not, I think, just because I’m slow on the uptake and thus easy to surprise (although I am guilty on both counts). Since Ruskin, we’ve thought of Turner as a ‘modern painter’. In contrast to this image, the idea of 19th century paintings of classical antiquity calls to mind Academic artists, whose work has been denigrated as conservative and boring for most of the 20th century.

But for all of his stylistic innovation, Turner continued to paint many of the same subjects that interested neoclassical and Academic painters. Here are a few of my favourite of Turner’s Classical landscapes from the exhibition:

1. The Temple of Poseidon at Sunium

The Temple of Poseidon at Sunium (Cape Colonna) circa 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion is located on a dramatic promontory overlooking the Aegean, some 69 km south-southeast of Athens.

Turner painted this  watercolour and gouache picture in around 1834, during one of his many tours to the Continent. But he’d depicted this temple before, in an 1832 set of illustrations for a book about Lord Byron’s travels in Greece. This 5th century Temple occupied a prominent place in the Romantic imaginations of English people of Turner’s era. The Scottish mariner and poet William Falconer had set his epic poem The Shipwreck off the coast of Cape Colonna (as it was then known in English). Falconer’s work is almost entirely forgotten today but was reprinted 83 times between 1762 and 1887.

Byron visited Sunium in 1810, and (according to his own account) managed to get involved in a fight with pirates there (his trips to Greece were more exciting than most people’s). The location obviously left a lasting impression on him (and, honestly, who wouldn’t remember a place where they fought of pirates?), as he mentions it in The Isles of Greece:

Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,

Where nothing, save the waves and I,

May hear our mutual murmurs sweep

Turner depicts the Temple just as the sun becomes visible in a storm. In the left background, one can just spot a shipwreck, which is surely an allusion to Falconer’s poem. In addition to providing a splendidly romantic backdrop, the storm may of some cosmic significance. As Ruskin noted in Modern Painters, Turner ‘rarely introduces lightening striking [a building] if the building had not been devoted to religion. The wrath of man may destroy a fortress but only the wrath of heaven can destroy the temple’.

2. The Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine, Rome by Joseph Mallord Turner

Turner painted this view of the Roman Forum in 1835, but he had already depicted this scene several times in a series of sketches and watercolours dating from his tour of Europe in 1819.

Although painted only a year after his picture of the Temple of Apollo at Sounion, this is a very different work, and not only because it’s in oil rather than watercolour. Instead of placing ruins in the foreground and nature in the background, Turner reverses the perspective. The foreground is dominated by a large pine tree, as in many of Claude Lorain’s classical landscapes. Balancing out this verdancy, the sunlight is an explosion of chrome yellow (Turner’s most characteristic pigment), daubed on with the side of a brush and with the artist’s fingernail.

We have here very literally an old monument seen in a new light.

3. Regulus

Regulus 1828, reworked 1837 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Marcus Atilius Regulus was the consul in 256 BCE, during the First Punic War. Initially a successful general, he was eventually defeated by Greek mercenaries at the Battle of Tunis in 255. Taken prisoner, he was released as an envoy to negotiate a peace, giving his word that he would return to Carthage. On his return to Rome, he urged the Romans to continue the war. He then returned to Carthage as he had promised, thus keeping his word. There, according to Roman sources, he was tortured to death.

Turner painted this in Rome in 1828 and then reworked it nine years later in London. Regulus does not feature prominently in Turner’s composition — indeed, there is some debate as to which figure is intended to be him. Turner instead rejoices in the splendour of the harbour scene and of the extravagant architecture. His dept to Claude Lorrain is again evident here, much to annoyance of Ruskin who viewed this picture as a ‘wicked relapse’. But this is to ignore Turner’s extraordinary use of light. Here the sunlight dominates the centre of the composition but leaves both Carthage and her ships in the shadows. It as if the sun is rising on a new empire as it sets on an old one.

4. Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus

Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus exhibited 1839 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Germanicus (15 BCE — 19 CE)  was the nephew and adopted son of the Emperor Tiberius, and the most capable military leader of his age. He died in Asia Minor, with several ancient sources implying that he was murdered on the orders of his jealous uncle. Germanicus was cremated in the forum at Antioch, and his ashes brought back to Rome by his wife Agrippina the Elder.

The historical Agrippina landed at Brundisium on the Adriatic coast, and Benjamin West, who painted the scene in 1769 sets it there. But turner moves it to Rome, with a collosaly imagined palace of the emperor towering over all. In contrast to the this monument to absolute power, the figure of Agrippina is almost lost in the foreground. When the painting was exhibited in 1839, Turner included a short verse which celebrates the beauty of the scene, whilst simultaneously seeming to point to Rome’s decline:

‘The clear stream,
Aye,—the yellow Tiber glimmers to her beam,
Even while the sun is setting’.

5. Cicero at his Villa

(c) National Trust, Ascott; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Cicero was a fast-talking smooth operating lawyer and politician, an absolutely ruthless political operator who had no hesitation in using whatever tools were at hand to get his way. But he was also, like most members of the Roman élite, a farmer. Furthermore, and unlike most members of the Roman élite, he had a capable philosophical mind. The latter two points were not unrelated. Cicero sets many of his philosophical dialogues at his country estate.

Turner here portrays Cicero as the master of his well-ordered domain, surveying a tidy estate. With the exception of Cicero’s toga, nothing about the scene suggests an ancient estate rather than a modern one. There’s a good reason for this: the scene depicted is a modern estate, the Villa Falconieri in Frascati, in the Alban Hills south of Rome. By depicting a modern villa as an ancient one, Turner implies a continuity between the ancient Romans and the modern Italians (a belief he states explicitly in some of his writings). But there’s also an implicit message for any patrons who might wish to buy a work for their country houses: you too can be both a cultured intellectual and a devoted public servant. A flattering message indeed. Perhaps it’s no wonder that this work is still in a private collection.


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