Turner to Monet
Turner looks to Claude Lorrain, the great artistic model of seventeenth-century Classical landscape painting, for his composition of Crossing the brook. Devices include framing trees to left and right, while Turner also uses light to lead the eye through a curving central valley until it meets a limpid white sky, which dissipates upwards into palest blue. Dark planes intersect in the foreground across the front of the water, down through the foliage and tunnel path on the right. A spotlight picks out three figures who ford the brook: one girl has waded across, then looks back to her dog in midstream. The animal helps by carrying her basket, while another young woman prepares on the far bank by removing her shoes and tucking up her dress.
Further along the valley are an aqueduct and large waterwheel. We are not in the Roman campagna, however, but rather in an equivocal English Arcadia. The brook leads into the River Tamar, which divides Devon from Cornwall, while the arches belong to Calstock Bridge. The wheel drives water for a clay pit: this is modern Britain at the end of the Napoleonic wars. War with France has lasted more than twenty years; Britain is all but bankrupt, and appears to be on the verge of revolution. Turner, always a history painter, manages to meld a Classical manner with a contemporary subject. Rural England now includes industry and urbanisation, implying a new vision of beauty.
Between 1811 and 1814 Turner made three journeys into the West Country. These were extended summer tours, primarily to make watercolours for an engraving commission, Picturesque views of the south coast of England, which was published in sixteen parts from 1814 to 1826. In his last trip in 1814 Turner ‘sketched around the River Tamar, making studies of the river valley at Gunnislake and Calstock’.1
The artist exhibited two large oils, Crossing the brook and Dido building Carthage, at the Royal Academy in 1815. Despite the different scale of ambition that seems to mark their titles and subjects, an idyllic English scene could also be a grand history painting, to be shown at the season which marked Britain’s final victory over Napoleon. The large vertical landscape was well received, and praised by most. Not everyone liked it, however: Sir George Beaumont, the artist’s enemy, characterised it as ‘weak and like the work of an Old man, one who had no longer saw or felt colour properly; it was all of peagreen insipidity’.2Contemporary viewers may disagree with his sour verdict. Crossing the brook is a masterpiece of nineteenth-century landscape, which encapsulates local and national views of ideal Classical painting. It presents these views in a grand yet succinct form. In 1815 Turner summed up the hopes of a war-weary Britain in this naturalised Claudean landscape of observed incident and eternal pleasure.
1 James Hamilton, Turner: a life, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997 p. 168.
2 Kathryn Cave (ed.), The diary of Joseph Farington: volume XIII – January 1814 – December 1815, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984, p. 4638, quoted in David Blayney Brown, The art of J. M. W. Turner, Secaucus: Wellfleet Press, 1990, p. 128.