Turner's 'imbecile' years: New Tate exhibition hopes to revive reputation of the painter's abstract later works

 

Arts Correspondent

Towards the end of his life, one of Britain’s finest landscape painters, JMW Turner, came under brutal attack for a controversial series of paintings which critics wrote off as a product of “madness” and “the imbecility of old age”.

Over 150 years on, the Tate hopes to overturn “the myth his mind and hand increasingly failed” and instead reposition those late work as that of a “challenging and daring artist”.

Late Turner – Painting Set Free is to be the major exhibition at Tate Britain this autumn, the first major survey of the works Turner produced in the 15 years up to his death in 1851.

The curators hope to redefine the period as one of “admirable and audacious” work; rather than the criticism of a weakening mind and body that had been levelled, adding there was “no slowing of his ceaseless invention”.

“It’s a really important occasion for us,” gallery director Penelope Curtis said adding late Turner “hasn’t been explored in any real depth”.

Nine controversial canvases are being brought together for the first time as part of the exhibition, which the curators said would bring “new perspectives” on the painter’s work at the end of his life.

The works exhibited from 1843, including Shade and Darkness and Light and Colour, showed his “dramatic use of the vortex, a technique characteristic in his later work”.

Curator Sam Smiles, professor of art history and visual culture at Exeter University, said the work showed the artist “continued to innovate even in his final years. The world around Turner was changing and he was changing with it”.

Yet his contemporaries felt differently. “He faced a critical barrage, with accusations of the imbecility of old age, which was an insult thrown at him and the accusations of madness. That must have gone deep in him,” Professor Smiles.

Even art historian John Ruskin, a devotee of Turner’s work, described the pieces in 1846 as “indicative of mental disease”.

David Blayney Brown, a curator at Tate Britain, said: “These pictures met with hails of abuse from critics when they were first exhibits, who thought he had completely lost it. We are going to suggest they are a wonderful synthesis of everything that interested Turner throughout his life.”

He believed the attacks came as the critics had no frame of reference to judge such innovative style, and added: “No one else was painting pictures like this in the 1840s, let alone with such panache.”

While Turner often remained stoical in the face of criticism, there are some anecdotes, the curator said “of him being tearful, wringing his hands and spluttering with indignation about how critics had misunderstood what he was trying to do”.

Turner was a prolific painter producing about 550 oil paintings, over 2,000 watercolours, and many more works on paper. Upon his death he bestowed his legacy to the nation, with the majority of those works held at Tate Britain.

Turner turned 60 in 1835, the age believed at the time when senility started. “The idea of the aged artist still having something to say was something Turner had to challenge,” Professor Smiles said.

“There were a lot of knocking copy surrounding Turner’s works in contemporary criticism at the time, but we would say some of Turner’s most audacious and admirable works were produced in the last 15 years.”

It was also then that he undertook his most ambitious European tour with stops including Germany, Denmark, and Bohemia in the modern day Czech Republic.

This year is a big one for Turner fans. A film covering a similar period of his life, Mr Turner, directed by Mike Leigh and starring Timothy Spall, is due to be released later this year.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk