Castles in the air

Turner wanted his 'Liber Studiorum' to found a school of British landscape art. Did it succeed?; EXHIBITIONS
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THE GREAT romantics of English painting continue to haunt us. Last week I wrote about the love for Constable that leads people to treasure reproductions of the Cornfield. Now the Tate has opened a new Turner exhibition, devoted to his Liber Studiorum. This was Turner's "drawing book", 71 mezzotints (out of a projected 100) issued between 1807 and 1819. They were intended to demonstrate the artist's mastery over all kinds of landscape painting. They certainly confirm that Turner had a grander mind than Constable's. But, as the National Gallery's Cornfield exhibition demonstrates, Constable's painting has always been loved in simple ways, and it consoles the lonely. The Liber Studiorum usually disturbs the people who attend to its messages.

Gillian Forrester's catalogue gives us the most detailed account of Turner's enigmatic print-making project. Her writing immediately becomes the standard work on a subject that, all are agreed, was close to Turner's imaginative heart. Forrester is comprehensive, precise and apodictic. I doubt however whether she is a poetess, for she doesn't like poetry in her predecessors. Long experience of Turner (the man as well as his art) led Ruskin to find mighty spiritual themes in the Liber. "Ruskin's Weltschmertz is always seductive," snaps Forrester, letting us know that she for one has not been seduced. Of another 19th-century commentator, the Reverend Stopford Brooke, she is dismissive. His essays on the Liber are merely "aesthetic sermons".

This is harsh. Brooke was an interestingly unorthodox churchman. His book on the Liber Studiorum is still worth reading and contains some decent art criticism. It also makes us think of larger questions. One senses that Brooke, like Ruskin before him, wrote with an awesome reservation about Turner that he could never quite express. Here in England, living within their own lifetimes, was the first example of a great painter, a noble national laureate. And yet it could not be believed that he was a Christian. Therefore, pace Forrester, Brooke's essays are not at all likely to be "sermons". In fact they are possessed by thoughts about natural savagery and metaphysical doubt.

Ruskin and Brooke knew that Turner wanted future generations to ponder his intellectual legacy. Forrester is more concerned to establish facts within the artist's lifetime. The starting point for the Liber Studiorum was a rivalry with Claude's Liber Veritatis, the French painter's drawn record of his completed canvases. But Turner, using professional engravers as assistants, made mezzotints that either related to his current paintings or were independent images of his thought. His publishing enterprise was commercial, so it stopped at number 71 when sales went down. It also related to ambitions beyond commerce, especially the founding of a school of British landscape art. Forrester proves that Turner's meditations were connected with his teaching at the Royal Academy. That's fine, but something is missing. No one can easily name a student of Turner's, unless that person was an engraver who did his bidding. And there wasn't a school of English landscape. The genre died with Turner himself, in 1851.

Here's one reason why the Liber Studiorum plates nowadays look forlorn and separated from any of Britain's later concerns. There is also a despondent rather than tragic sense in Turner's subject matter. Whether he examines empire, myth, naval magnificence, castles, poetry, mountains or storms, there is always a sense that life will not get better. Turner was the last major landscape artist whose work is irretrievably in the past tense. The little boys in his pictures are often remarked, since they are a constant feature. Whether building their toy boats or helping fathers in labouring work Turner constantly represents them as ignorant, helpless or stunted. The boy in Constable's Cornfield drinks from life's fountain. Turner's lads have no future, just as the painter who imagined them saw no future for art.

Hopelessness underlies the beauties of the Liber Studiorum and is responsible for the despondent ache that one feels after peering into these mezzotints. Their brown colour is important. It pulls your eye into the nature of the print and then won't let it go. I still have a residual brownness in the retina, or wherever my brain is. I know that this happens to others. All the more reason why we should look at Turner's things and come up with brighter explanations. I appreciate Norham Castle and The Falls of Clyde most of all; but then so does everybody, so I ought to search for new hints and brilliant passages.

Here's how to do it. You don't need to go to the Tate. Sets of the Liber Studiorum are held by the following public galleries: the British Museum, Nottingham Castle Museum, Manchester City Art Gallery, Bury Art Gallery, Asley Hall, Chorley, Lancs, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. These are all taxpayers' galleries and you have a right to study the Liber in their private rooms, should you so desire. Just telephone first. Take Forrester's book with you and look out for Stopford Brooke's introduction in second-hand shops. Lots of copies are around, for it was once a popular little volume.

! 'The Liber Studiorum': Tate Gallery, SW1 (0171 887 8000), to 2 June.