JMW Turner

Tempest and Tranquility

by Dean Hines

Banner Image: JMW Turner, Ullswater, Cumberland c.1835 © Wordsworth Grasmere, with thanks

The artist JMW Turner visited Ullswater only once, but the experience of that summer in 1797 was to inspire him throughout his prolific career.

The late eighteenth-century witnessed the English Lakes as a commercial focal point for artists recording picturesque views in oil paintings for affluent patrons or to be translated into engravings for guidebooks and affordable prints. In the August of 1797, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) then only twenty-two, arrived in Keswick as part of an extensive sketching tour of northern England. His ‘Tweed and Lakes’ sketchbook with his preparatory notes, provides insight into Turner’s development as a landscape painter profoundly affected by the changing elements. The results are evidential in the atmospheric oil paintings of the Coniston Fells, Buttermere and Crummockwater he exhibited in 1798.

Turner possibly planned his tour by conversing with water-colourists such as Joseph Farington, Thomas Hearne and Edward Dayes, all former visitors to the Lakes.

From Keswick on to Grasmere, Turner appears to have reached Patterdale by ascending Grisdedale Hause, the economy of walking granting an elevated first view of Ullswater. His stay was brief, no more than two days due to his schedule. Undeterred by the wet weather, he traversed the western shores of Ullswater as far as Gowbarrow and Aira Park, pencilling sketches looking back towards the head of the lake.

Although confounded by cloud cover, (Turner mistook Hartsop Dodd for Helvellyn), the scene inspired a finished watercolour Ullswater Lake, from Gowbarrow Park Cumberland (c.1815). Highly picturesque in its composition, Turner frames the lake with trees, dramatically increasing the scale of the mountains Place Fell, Glenridding Dodd and St Sunday Crag in the centre.

Returning to Patterdale, Turner captured the setting sun in two further sketches. From these, the finished watercolour, Ullswater, Patterdale Old Church looking north to the Lake (c.1802) was engraved for Mawman’s, Excursion to the Highlands of Scotland and the English Lakes (1805). The weather improved the next morning and Turner's final sketches were of Goldrill Bridge before journeying to Brothers Water and Ambleside.

JMW Turner, Ullswater, Cumberland c.1835 © Wordsworth Grasmere, with thanks

After 1815, it would be twenty years before Turner returned to the subject of Ullswater, for Charles Heath’s monumental series of engravings, Picturesque Views in England and Wales (published 1827-1838). Ullswater, Cumberland (c.1835), is inspired by the viewpoint at Aira Park, but is largely imaginative and in part, a homage to Claude Lorrain’s mythological landscapes in tone and subject. Dusk draws in as cattle drovers and milk maids gather to bathe, their naked forms alluding to classical nymphs, transforming this contemporary English landscape into an ancient Arcadia. The ethereal light reduces the ruggedness of the mountains into molten forms of soft yellows and purples creating an atmosphere of blissful peace but a somewhat strange emptiness. This is Turner’s subtle use of landscape as social commentary. The cattle appear malnourished, the humans are waif-like, the billycans lie empty. Traditional agriculture was in decline as Parliament’s Enclosure Acts ensured common land for free grazing was divided and enclosed by wealthy landowners to increase crop yield and counteract vagrancy. For Turner, dusk ultimately is a motif for the passing of a way of life, as this human landscape gradually fades into history.

by Dean Hines