Last weekend Mr PP and I visited nearby Petworth House to see the new exhibition “Mr Turner, and exhibition” which opened a few days ago. This new exhibition follows on from the major exhibition of Turners work which was exhibited at Petworth a couple of years ago (and more about which can be found on this blog from 2013).
Petworth House exhibition flyer
Anticipating crowds, I had booked an early entry time which proved to be a good move. After comprehensive instructions from the volunteer receptionists about how to visit the exhibition we made our way to the Exhibition Room where we were ‘held’ in a room with loads of chairs. clearly the NT are expecting long waiting times for entry to this room! What was most bizarre was that while there were several people in the Exhibition Room, it was by no means full, yet the Very Enthusiastic and somewhat autocratic young volunteer steward insisted that we had to wait before we were allowed in, the reason given was to allow other visitors “time to read, digest and consider” what was on show. All very laudable, if the room was packed to bursting point, but it wasn’t and there was plenty of space at the beginning to see what was what. However, we finally gained entry and set about the “trail” around the room following the exhibition.
This first part deals with background to Turners life and while it does include a small amount of (mostly) small-scale works on paper (with a couple of larger exceptions) the majority of the work on view is not actually by Turner, but instead by contemporaries and others. There are several actual Turner artefacts in display including his fishing rod, a travelling watercolour box and some pages from notebooks written in the great mans own hand. To contextualise all of this there are copious text panels beside every display piece. Now I don’t object to information in the form of display panels, but I do think there is a right and wrong way to use these, and unfortunately I think that in this case there are far too many information panels, they are also too small making it difficult to read the text, and for those who are especially myopic this causes pinch points around certain exhibits. Obviously this is not unique to this exhibition and is a perpetually challenging problem for curators. However, in the case of Petworth’s Mr Turner exhibition it is compounded by a poor room layout caused by the insertion of a divider wall and unfortunate placement of two large display glass cabinets which combine to interrupt the natural flow of visitors. Early on a Sunday morning it wasn’t too bad but I can see that later in the day this could cause huge problems and could be quite frustrating.
Turner painting in the studio at Petworth (now the Library)
First room done, we crossed the inner courtyard and into the main house to visit the private library of Lord Leconfield where the second part of the exhibition is housed. This part was for me, the best and most interesting. The library is not usually open to the public as it is part of Lord Leconfields private apartments and houses many ancient books and manuscripts. It is also the room in which Turner (and other artists) is known to have painted during his visits to Petworth, and this alone makes it a fitting place to house and exhibition of Turner-related ‘stuff’. For this exhibition the library displays various large drawings and paintings by Timothy Spall (who plays Turner in the recent film which is was the catalyst for this current exhibition).
Scene from the film Mr Turner recreates the above painting
I quite like Spall as an actor, I think he has done some interesting work, and for me the one which stands out in my mind is the Stephen Poliakoff BBC TV drama “Shooting the Past” (1999) which is about a photo library threatened with closure. Spall plays Oswald Bates for whom the archive has become his life’s work. It is a powerful drama in typical Poliakoff style full of dark comedic tragedy about the frailty of the humans. (If you haven’t seen it, it is brilliant and worth watching, Spall is fantastic and supported by a great small cast including a young Emelia Fox, Andy Serkis (better known now as Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy), Lindsay Duncan and Billie Whitelaw). Spall took lessons in painting and drawing to play the role of Turner, and the work on show shows his progress and the emerging of some artistic ability; it would be interesting to see if these works were sold, and what they would make with their provenance! Also to be found in the library are props from the film including dummy pigments, palettes, brushes and general artistic paraphernalia. For non-painters it might have been interesting to see that paint in Turners day was mixed up from powdered pigments and oil and not straight from the tube as today. Also, the content of the paint was quite toxic and many pigments contained quantities of heavy metals such as cadmium, zinc and lead. Modern paints contain lesser quantities of these and more synthetic substitutes – just a sign of the times. Opposite the Spall paintings are some of the paintings created for the film by professional artist Charlie Cobb as well as a series of contemporary portraits of some of the actors in the film.
The final part of the exhibition is comprised of Petworth’s own Turners, collected by the 3rd Earl which are on permanent display followed by a 12 minute documentary about the making of the film Mr Turner starring Timothy Spall and directed by Mike Leigh.
Front and back of film flyers for Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner starring Timothy Spall
It is an easy exhibition requiring no particular knowledge of Turner, great if you have seen Mike Leighs film Mr Turner (which I haven’t yet!). Personally I would have liked to have seen more film related props and costumes and perhaps artworks. I was a bit ‘lukewarm’ about the main exhibition room, but it does provide some degree of context to Turner and his everyday life. The actual Turner paintings in the Petworth collection were for me at least, not that inspiring and certainly not in the league of his best known work such as The Storm, The Fighting Temeraire, Morning after the Deluge and the Shipwreck. However, I loved the Library exhibition and it would have been nice for this to have been expanded and more information available. All in all it’s worth seeing, but maybe not one for the kiddies.
Photography was not allowed in any part of the exhibition so the images here are from the exhibition catalogue and exhibition flyers. All credit is to the National Trust, Petworth House, Lord and Lady Leconfield and Mike Leigh and Thin Man Films.
Mr Turner, and exhibition is open at Petworth House, West Sussex from 10 January to 11 March 2015. Entry costs £12 (including NT members) and entry is by timed ticket only. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworthturner