I do so enjoy seeing a good exhibition and during the course of a typical year I see a large number of exhibitions of art and craft in all media ranging from blockbuster shows in major London galleries to smaller shows in provincial galleries and also shows in local hire spaces. I think it is important to experience Art at different levels, high and low in order to fully understand and appreciate current artistic ideas and thinking. I do have a definite preference for art of a Modern or Post Modern nature, but I also enjoy seeing work by artists from history. Imagine then how excited I was to discover that Petworth House, a local National Trust owned stately home was showing an exhibition of work by the great JMW Turner! Such a great show quite literally on my doorstep could not be missed!
Turner’s association with Sussex is well documented, he was a regular visitor to Petworth House during the 1820’s and 30’s as guest of his patron, the 3rd Earl of Egremont who collected 20 paintings in oil from Turner from 1802. Indeed, such a frequent visitor to the house was Turner that he was afforded his own bedroom and space where he could work uninterrupted. During his many visits to Petworth Turner made over 200 drawings and sketches of the house and its surroundings. These now form the Turner Bequest which is held at Tate Britain.
Having duly pre-booked and purchased my ticket I arrived at the allotted hour and gained entry to the exhibition; oh dear, all my anticipation drained away this wasn’t what I was hoping for at all. The ‘newly refurbished exhibition gallery’ was the same long room as it has always been and the only difference I could see was the addition on two long low benches down the middle of the room. I am not even sure if there had been any redecoration as the room was so poorly lit. Now I do understand that delicate artwork needs to be protected from strong light, but I did have to squint at some of the smaller pieces. The main thrust of the exhibition is to show some of Turner’s more diverse work in the wider Sussex and includes mainly small-scale watercolours and etchings along with a few works in pencil and also gouache. Most of the work was also very traditional in style which was disappointing as I have always thought of Turner as THE master of atmospherics – wide skies and swirling seas and while his obvious interest in seas and skies was evident in some of the works such as Rye, Sussex c1823; Petworth Park Sunset, 1827 and Moonlight over the Sea and Fishermen at Sea both from 1796; the remainder of the work on view showed a much tighter and controlled hand.
By far the most interesting works in the exhibition room were Study for Hastings from the Sea c1818 and Study for Fishmarket, Hastings c1824. On a larger scale these two watercolour studies showed a freer hand and looser more spontaneous brushwork in the style which has been suggested influenced the Impressionists. Definitely my favourites pieces in the entire exhibition.
The show as a whole includes an opportunity to see the Petworth Turners, all 20 of which are hanging in the rooms for which they were originally purchased by the 3rd Earl of Egremont. Some of these works depict scenes around the House and Park, while others are views of other areas such as the Thames at Eton in Surrey and one portrait. These paintings are again not what I would immediately associate with Turner.
A third part of the entry fee includes a tour lasting some 20 minutes to the Old Library above the Chapel in the main House. This room is not normally open to the public as it forms part of the private quarters of the current Lord and Lady Egremont as part of their lease with the National Trust. The Old Library as its name suggests is indeed old. Not only that it is also very very cold and while not noticeably damp, there are many stains on the ceiling and upper walls which suggest that water has indeed penetrated this room at some time. The walls are panelled and painted a matte grey and dotted around the edge of the room are various unremarkable paintings, as it would have been in Turners day. Artists would use the work on the walls would be used as inspiration or for exercises in sketching and painting. The lower walls are lined with hundreds of volumes of books, many in apparently relatively poor condition, although some may well be undergoing preservation work. These books are the private property of the current Earl and include a set of white bound books which originally belonged to the 9th Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, who was also known as the Wizard Duke due to his passion for scientific and alchemical experiments! During Turner’s time at Petworth the house would often be filled with visiting artists and writers patronised and befriended by the 3rd Earl and other frequent artistic visitors included John Constable, George Romney, C R Leslie and the sculptor John Flaxman, all of whom would most likely have spent time working in the Old Library.
Sadly due to copyright restrictions it was not possible to take photographs at the Turner exhibition, so I have included photographs of images used in the accompanying catalogue and entry ticket leaflet. Apologies for the poor quality of images but hopefully they give a suggestion of what can be seen at this exhibition. Turner’s Sussex can be seen at Petworth House until 13th March and tickets must be pre-booked through the property page on the National Trust website. (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house). Although not one of my favourite exhibitions I am glad I went to see it as it has made me appreciate what I consider to be the great Turner’s – those that depict raging seas and fiery sunsets, swirling clouds and dewy rainbows – not of course that I am a romantic at heart!