ART / Britannic Majesty: For decades critics have tended to ignore J M W Turner, or offer standard praise. We acknowledge his greatness, yet neglect it. Tim Hilton makes up for lost time

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JOSEPH Mallord William Turner took as his life's theme the history, culture and destiny of the British nation. To be sure, he had many other and more specific subjects in his painting. Nature, first and foremost, then England, ships, boyhood, travel; the rivers and cities of France; Switzerland and the Alps, then Venice and Rome; architecture; military engagements by sea and land; poetry and drama, especially that of Shakespeare, Scott and Byron; and finally, late in life, the extraordinary appearance of steam power in tugs and trains, the new workhorses of the industrial age.

All these things and more are considered by Turner's pencil and brush. None the less, to take him whole is to realise that Turner wished to be Britannia's pictorial poet. It is fitting that he should have bequeathed so many of his works to the nation. Turner is not the only artist to have devised a museum dedicated to his own work, though he may have been the first of them. But no one else has so closely identified such a museum with the self-consciousness of a native land. That was and remains the point of Turner's enormous gift. The Turner Bequest was not an act of generosity. He gave thousands of paintings, drawings and watercolours to the nation to assert that no government, king or queen knew more of Britain than he did. On 5 October the Tate's Clore Gallery - in effect, Turner's own museum - re-opens to the public. What, in 1994, are we to make of his legacy?

Turner was not a simple-minded patriot. His nationalism had international scope. Born in 1775, he lived in the age of John Bullishness and his early career was formed in the period of the Napoleonic wars. But his patriotism is subtle and tragic. He saw that the tides of fate beat equally on every shore. Turner responded to the character and history of countries that were not his own. On his many excursions into Europe he felt his way to the lives of people with whom he could not converse. A hopeless linguist, he understood foreign lands through sight alone, himself remaining anonymous. He looked like a coachman, people said, or a boatman. Short, ruddy, in old coat, hat and boots, more than a touch miserly: we imagine him over soup and black bread in the corner of a continental inn. Next to his money he guards a precious notebook. It contains the day's drawings of the surrounding countryside, with jottings, notes, scraps of poetry, maybe 'colour beginnings' - all tending towards some future glorious pictorial vision.

Turner's character is both vivid and mysterious. So also is his art. From his day to our own, there are people who have spent their lifetimes trying to understand him. They have all failed, I think. Even Ruskin's comprehension, deeper than anyone else's, ends in a miasma of confused grief. Art criticism this century has on the whole avoided Turner, or has vaguely reiterated standard praise. Some relevant questions are not addressed at all. What, for instance, were Turner's political views? Today's scholars prefer smaller to larger questions when they approach this supreme artist. We do now know many more facts about Turner and of course we enjoy greater access to his paintings and drawings than ever before. How do we really assess his greatness?

Perhaps through the specialised academic work of museums. Since it opened in 1981, the Tate's Clore Gallery has put on intensive exhibitions taken from the main body of the Bequest. They have been thoroughly catalogued by Tate curators or by the growing army of Turnerians in the universities. No other world museum has matched this remarkable series of shows. Five of the exhibitions have looked at Turner decade by decade, beginning with 'Young Turner: Early Work to 1800', which was shown in 1988, and ending with 'Turner: The Final Years', which we saw in 1993. Other surveys have been more precise. Here are some of their titles: 'Turner and the Channel', 'Turner and Natural History', 'Turner and the Human Figure', 'Turner and the Art of Engraving', 'Turner's Papers: Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1787-1820', 'Turner's Rivers of Europe', 'Turner and Byron', 'Turner's Holland', 'Turner and Linear Perspective' and 'Turner's Vignettes'.

Many more exhibitions on these lines are planned. I look forward to the show next year devoted to the graphic work in the Liber Studiorum, for I suspect that this obscure publishing venture holds many clues to the nature of Turner's ambition. Some people feel that this series of exhibitions avoids grand themes in favour of minutiae. None the less they serve some purposes well: they unravel complexities and prove that Turner deserves to be studied in detail. Meanwhile, the refurbishment of the Clore Gallery allows more of Turner's paintings to be displayed. Expect around 170 to be on display at any one time, occasionally double-hung. For the first time a room is given exclusively to Turner's marine paintings. Most importantly, perhaps, there is a new emphasis on biography. The arrangement of paintings is more clearly chronological, and the former Watercolour Room has been converted to present an overview of Turner's life and times. Here we will see letters, books, examples of Turner's poetry and other archival material.

TURNER HIMSELF could never have imagined that his life would be given this kind of scrutiny. Nor would he have welcomed such prosaic and intrusive enquiries. His painting suggests the belief that great men, of all historical ages, were to be considered through poetry and symbol. By the time that Turner first came to consider his will, and thus his Bequest, around 1830, 19th-century professional biography had begun. In his own small library were books of lives and letters, including works on Burns and Byron. He also owned Lockhart's life of Walter Scott, of particular interest because he had known and collaborated with both the novelist and his biographer. But a biography of Turner himself was not to be considered, and not simply because there were private matters he did not wish the world to know. One of the purposes of the Bequest was to disarm rather than assist enquiry into the painter's life. Turner wished his monument to be his art alone.

This attitude was transmitted to Ruskin (born 1819), who after Turner's death in 1851 was better placed than anyone to write a biography. But he would not do so and was strangely indulgent towards the misrepresentations contained in the first life of Turner. This was by Walter Thornbury, published in 1862. It is notorious. A later biographer, Jack Lindsay, wrote in 1966 that it has 'a sad distinction . . . of being the most confused, haphazard and slovenly work of biography in our language'. Lindsay's book is rather good, and we can understand how cross he was that Turner biography had been disabled from the beginning. The field for a definitive life is still open, though led by Peter Ackroyd, who has recently published biographies of Dickens and T S Eliot.

Ruskin confined himself to interpretation and a few scraps of reminiscence. His criticism of Turner's art may be unbalanced, but it has a properly elevated note. Here is some of only a little English writing on art that belongs to the nation's literature rather than the nation's books. In the impressionistic, beautiful chapter of the fifth and final volume of Modern Painters (1860), 'The Two Boyhoods', Ruskin imagined Giorgione and Turner when children: one future painter looking out to the golden ether of the Venice lagoon, the other, just a nipper from Maiden Lane in Covent Garden, where his father was a barber, running down to the odoriferous Thames and 'that mysterious forest below London Bridge':

. . . better for the boy than wood of pine or grove of myrtle. How he must have tormented the watermen, beseeching them to let him crouch anywhere in the bows, quiet as a log, so only that he might get floated down there among the ships, and under the ships, staring, and clambering - these the only quite beautiful things he can see in all the world, except the sky . . . which ships are also inhabited by glorious creatures - red-faced sailors, with pipes appearing over the gunwales, true knights, over their castle parapets - the most angelic beings in the whole compass of London world . . .

I believe Ruskin had such information from Turner's own lips, then wrote it up. Otherwise he was reserved about Turner's beginnings. Looking at the earlier works, one is initially tempted to say that Turner's apprenticeship was as modest as his last phase was extravagant. From his penny-earning childhood he made architectural drawings, views of country houses and so on. But they are more than competent. He took the picturesque and gave the convention a singular beauty. Turner was always to do this. Instinctively and with all the force of his creative spirit he imbued his paintings with a pungent loveliness - glorifying formulae that lesser artists treated by rote. This kind of enhancement is hard to describe but it makes Turner immediately recognisable (and is the reason why he's so difficult to fake).

Along with this instinct for embellishment went a liking for the most ordinary localities: Brentwood in Middlesex, for instance, where his uncle was a butcher; Sunningwell, further up the Thames valley, where the river runs no faster and there was nothing much beyond fields; and then there's this attachment to brickfields, yards, the backs of houses, inlets and jetties, the places where a boy might play and yet be not far from his father's work. Turner continually returned to those themes, especially of boys who left their fishing-rods to help dad with threshing, cooperage or whatever. It is as though he had missed his own proper childhood because he had work to do: art, which could not be shared with other lads.

Here was the initial and abiding sadness of his life, and the reason why he was to cling so emotionally to people in the same business as himself, other painters. Professional from the first, he overcame the constraints of his calling, especially its humble status, and was determined to enjoy its honours and rewards.

He could not however manage the graces of a rising professional. A woman who met the 23-year-old painter described him thus:

. . . a plain uninteresting youth both in manners and appearance, he was very careless and slovenly in his dress, not particular . . . and was anything but a nice looking man . . . He would talk of nothing but his drawings, and of the places to which he should go for sketching. He seemed an uneducated youth, desirous of nothing but improvement in his art . . .

He was not a man for the drawing room. He drove a hard bargain and was to use a tough agent. But he did have patrons, both from the old aristocracy and the rising middle class, and that they too could be difficult men, with the same obsessive streak as the painter himself.

HIS APPRENTICESHIP finished at the age of 21, when he began to exhibit at the Royal Academy. Now he began to invent his own watercolour techniques, a sign of personal confidence. Public confidence was proudly demonstrated by his first Academy picture, Fishermen at Sea. It was painted to show others what he could do, and there is already a hint of performance in the canvas. Although he was not an eloquent man, Turner was indeed a performer by nature. Secretive in many ways, he would still paint in public, and it's possible that the mood of his art was affected by the theatre of the day, its relish for bombast and high emotion.

The purely pictorial influence on the early sea paintings is of course Dutch. Early Turner often appeared as an individual follower of his admired Ruysdael, though a follower with more sense of scale and majesty. Calais Pier of 1803 is the masterpiece of this tendency to follow the Dutch masters. Other paintings from the turn of the century show that he was not beholden to a single model but had a flexible style that could engineer grand variations on a number of revered Renaissance and Baroque painters. This was so especially after his first visit to the Louvre in 1802. Now he could suddenly paint the powerful Tenth Plague of Egypt, a tragic subject that shows his assimilation of the differing styles of Poussin and Salvator Rosa. When he was most confident, Turner could deal with almost any former European artist who had adumbrated his own concerns.

The exception was Claude. It sometimes happens that artists, even great artists, are not only influenced but haunted by a predecessor. However much they try they cannot escape the shade that stalks their imagination. Turner could not exorcise Claude, who prevented him from becoming a totally original painter. We first hear of Turner considering Claude in a disturbing story of the time. The London merchant John Julius Angerstein had a collection of Old Masters. Turner was allowed to see them:

Angerstein came into the room while the young painter was looking at 'The Sea Port' by Claude, and spoke to him. Turner was awkward, agitated, and burst into tears. Mr Angerstein enquired the cause and pressed for an answer, when Turner said passionately, 'because I shall never be able to paint anything like that picture'.

Observe that this is a tale of distress. Turner did not cry because of the exquisite calm of the Claude painting. He wept because of the sudden certainty that Claude would always frustrate his wish to paint incomparable landscapes. In this way simple comparability with Claude became part of Turner's personal programme. He should not have thought about the Frenchman so much. But he did, and so was never completely rid of him.

The outcome of the scene at Angerstein's is still with us. Both wealthy and public-minded, Angerstein gave his collection of pictures to form the National Gallery. This was in 1825. In fact, our national collection was originally in Angerstein's Pall Mall home and did not move into its Trafalgar Square premises until 1838. Between just these dates Turner was devising his first will or mulling over its possible codicils. The germ of his bequest was already in his mind and now - 20 years before he died - he stipulated that two of his own paintings were always to be hung in the National Gallery next to two comparable paintings by Claude.

To this day his wishes are respected at Trafalgar Square, where we find Sun Rising Through Vapour (1807) and Dido Building Carthage (1815) alongside Claude's Seaport with the Queen of Sheba and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. And this is refreshing, because in the Clore Gallery we see too much of Turner by himself. What, though, are the results of the comparison Turner wished us to make? As he had no doubt calculated, his paintings not only stand up to Claude's but in some respects overpower them. That is because of their modern palette and freer handling. Turner chose his colour and applied pigment in ways that could not have been allowed by French taste in the 17th century. Still, the format and general inspiration is Claudian. In this competition the haunting dictated the rules. Turner was not painting free pictures.

TIME AND again in the Turner Bequest we find pictures absorbed in the classical spirit. Some are quiet and lucid. Others are agitated and portentous. Of the first sort, I love Crossing the Brook (1815), which apparently records a real place on the river Tamar between Devon and Cornwall. It serenely surpasses similar paintings by Constable. In the more difficult pictures we discover that Turner competed with Claude by means of exaggeration. Claude never exaggerated. Turner threw his art into excess with more seeming recklessness than any other painter of the pre-modern period. That is why he is often called an early modernist. He was no such thing, but a classicist in desperate thrall to the traditions of classicism.

Exaggeration, not nature, explains Turner's flaring colour and his contradictory, flying and plunging perspective. Our eyes tell us that there was something crazy here. In fine art there is no such thing as correct perspective, and never has been. Academics shy away from this truth (so also did Ruskin) and an awkwardness of Turner's career is that he was made Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy. He loved being an Academician but hated giving lectures on a topic he understood through instinct, not knowledge. Turnerians fly from the failure of his perspective lectures because they cannot admit that he was intellectually lacking. But it will not do to pretend that Turner's wrongness and his failures did not exist. They were part of the forward gaucheness that produced his real triumphs. If he had possessed a smoother intellect - like Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose eminence he respected - or a more equable temperament - like Constable, a countryman without Turner's London guile and opportunism - or a more social manner - the absence of which was often lamented - then Turner could not have attained his most exciting mode, which was to be heroic. Recognising that he could never fully become a figure painter he attempted heroism within his own speciality, landscape, and lifted this formerly reflective genre towards action, epochal events and disaster. Visitors to the Clore Gallery will choose the epic paintings they find the most stirring. Mine is Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps of 1812. Here British painting attains the grand style, in a manner never seen before, or since.

We know that the Hannibal picture recalls a storm that Turner had witnessed in Yorkshire two years before he began this thrilling work. The subject is also more up to date than is suggested by the painting's title. Turner was thinking as much of Napoleon's invasion of Italy as of the Carthaginian general's doomed venture of centuries before. But, further, modern research suggests that this painting, and many others too were concerned with the general fate of empire. Turner thought not only of Carthage, Italy or France, but also of contemporary England. This is what he thought: empires rise and will always fall, their kings and commanders slain or dying through pride and avarice, their folly and glory always mixed, the people killed along with the nobles who had pressed them into foreign battles, the soul of a nation thus corrupted and slaughtered.

Here were the themes of Ruskin's Turnerian epic The Stones of Venice, conceived as the old painter was dying. So Turner did have a legacy in literature even though there were no significant painters who followed his example. Even though it is not explicitly about England, the basic premise of The Stones of Venice was that if England could not be true to herself then she too would fall and perish. Venice and its architecture presented an allegory of the dilemma of a quite different modern state. People who tease out the meanings of Turner's large subject pictures now believe that his themes were similar and that his depictions of architecture (often in ruins or, as in his House of Commons picture, in flames) are symbolic of the fabric of societies past and present. In other words, he had a sophisticated mind that blended mythology and history, so that a painting on such a remote subject as The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire of 1817 actually carried an immediate moral for Regency England.

These matters are as cloudy as they are elevated. It is difficult to be specific about any of Turner's beliefs. Jack Lindsay, himself a man of the left, wanted to interpret Turner as a radical too. I think it more likely that Turner was an old-fashioned Tory of the sort that practically disappeared after the Reform Bill of 1832. The signs are that he shared this Toryism with Walter Scott, with many of his patrons, with the Ruskin family and with many others of Turner's generation, for it was also the Toryism of the shires and of humble people. The London artist came to know the rural and small-town poor of England during travels that were as important in their own way as his expeditions to Paris or Rome. He first went abroad in 1802, didn't get to Italy until 1819, but had been touring Britain since 1794, looking for watercolour subjects that could then be translated into profitable engravings. And what he found was not the picturesque but the state of his own country.

Here was another sadness of his life. Emotionally, the most formative British tour was that of 1811. This was a year of Turnerian high art, when he showed an astonished audience his Hannibal picture and that daring foray into ancient Greek culture, Apollo and the Python. But this was also the year of a long tour of the West Country and Cornwall, the Channel and Atlantic coasts. Here Turner saw and lamented the unchanging wretchedness of rural life, the unsung bravery of fishermen (always a favoured subject of his) and the poverty of those who tilled the land. Why should people live in this way, in our own England, and also be threatened by war? John Gage, who is the most experienced of all our Turner scholars, is quite clear about the art that came from this trip. He writes: 'Though his commission was simply to gather material for the publication Picturesque Views, Turner himself conceived of the enterprise as a commentary on the political and moral state of the nation at the height of the struggle against Napoleon.'

Of course Turner, a famous and sought-after artist from quite early in his career, was acquainted with aristocracy no less than peasantry. Lovely sequences of paintings in the Bequest tell us of life at Farnley Hall, the seat of Sir Walter Fawkes and a kind of second home to Turner during his middle years. Perhaps more significant were his stays at Petworth in Sussex, the home of Lord Egremont. There, I suspect, Turner looked deeply into his abilities and his own nature. When he did this, Rembrandt was in his mind. The relation between Turner and Rembrandt is unexplored, alas. But for real satisfaction in looking at art I would rather see a Turner hanging next to a Rembrandt than a Claude. Dissimilar painters they may be but Turner and Rembrandt have something in common: their sensuality.

In one of his characteristically baffling lectures Turner remarked: 'Rembrandt depended on his chiaroscuro, his burst of light and darkness to be felt.' Surely, one thinks, chiaroscuro is experienced by the eye. But the statement does tell us something about the peculiarly tactile and even lascivious touch that Turner inherited from the Dutch master. He got other things from Rembrandt too, especially drama of lighting, but it's the palpable, smearing, licking and caressing brushstroke that convinces us that Turner, even when painting the sky and its clouds, was a sensual man, maybe grossly so.

Ruskin, who was not a prude, knew about this sensuality and was well aware that Turner had lived in secretive and perhaps squalid circumstances with women to whom he was not married. Furthermore he know so much about Turner's art that he had to be the first person to sort and catalogue the thousands of works in the Turner Bequest. This was in 1858. Down among the boxes and portfolios in the National Gallery basement Ruskin found out even more about Turner. His cataloguing work disturbed him. But it is not true, though often claimed as fact, that Ruskin himself destroyed the erotic drawings that were contained in Turner's effects. He could not do so, for they were the property of the nation. Therefore it fell to a civil servant, the National Gallery curator Ralph Nicholson Wornum, to light the flame.

Far more interesting than this episode is Ruskin's belief that Turner went mad. No Turner scholar has examined this judgement, yet it ought to be taken seriously. After all, Ruskin was Turner's champion, and knew him and observed him all the more keenly because he thought he was a genius. The question is complicated because Ruskin became the more certain of Turner's madness during the later 1870s, when he himself had succumbed to damaging periods of insanity. If Turner was haunted by Claude, Ruskin was haunted by Turner. Other personal matters cloud Ruskin's account but somehow bring the two men closer together. Turner's mother had unhinged bouts of violence and was eventually locked in an asylum. Afterwards he would refer to the Royal Academy as his mother. Ruskin worried that he was the child of a cousin-marriage and remembered his grandfather's insane suicide: John Thomas Ruskin had cut his own throat.

WE ALL hear stories about Turner's eccentricities, ought to admit that we don't understand what he was doing in his later art, and in general concede that he is beyond us. Unsurprisingly, though, a theory that he was deranged is unacceptable to the establishment. How could Turner be both mad and the great icon of British art? That would never do. So here there is an embarrassment for the curators of the Clore Gallery. Personally I do not think that he was clinically mad, whatever that means. But I cannot agree with John Gage that he was an intellectual. He picked up ideas that were in the air and jumbled them to his own satisfaction. Far more reasonable is the recent proposal that he was dyslexic, like so many artists, and that his desperate attitudes to his own inchoate poetry, his thought and his admirer Ruskin were all born of this disorder.

Here is Ruskin's diary entry for the day he first met Turner in 1840:

Introduced today to the man who beyond all doubt is the greatest of the age . . . Everybody had described him to me as coarse, boorish, unintellectual, vulgar. This I know to be impossible. I found in him a somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English-minded gentleman: good-humoured evidently, bad-tempered evidently, hating humbug of all sorts, shrewd, perhaps a little selfish, highly intellectual . . .

Half a century later Ruskin looked up the passage and commented: 'Pretty close, that, and full, to be seen at first glance, and set down the same evening.' But he had not then attempted to look into the depths of the man. Even today, with all our busy curators and cataloguers, Turner is still enigmatic. In late life he gave up his heavy symbolism, concentrated on pure descriptions of haze, mist, sunshine. We read of him gazing into pools, or lying in a boat all afternoon to study the skies. Of course, when the Academy called, he could pull off scenes of thunder and grandeur. But perhaps he did not care much about exhibiting towards the end.

Having made his bequest, he knew that all the rest of us would still be puzzling about him for centuries to come. So why try to explain himself further while he lived?

Clore Gallery, 071-887 8000, re-opens 5 Oct.

(Photographs omitted)