On the trail of Turner: Revisit the scenes in Kent that inspired the landscape artist
The best known story about Joseph Mallord William Turner is that he had himself lashed to a mast, brush in hand, to capture the full force of a storm at sea. Like many art anecdotes, this one probably isn't true: other, lesser painters are known to have had themselves tied to bits of shipping while they worked, and one of their stories has barnacled itself to JMW. He was, after all, Britain's greatest living artist, and so by definition the most heroic. The truth may come as a disappointment, or, if you are taking the Turner Tour, as a faint relief. At least it can be done without water wings.
Instead, you can make like Turner from the safety of dry land. Consider Ramsgate. From 1826 to 1828, Turner worked on his "Ports of England" series, one picture being of the titular Kentish town. Or sort of. You can see Ramsgate in the "Turner and the Elements" exhibition – which opens at Turner Contemporary in Margate today – next to a painting of a local scene called The New Moon. Both works also feature in a new Turner tour of Kent, organised to coincide with the show by the happily named artist Stephen Turner (no relation). JMW Turner lived in Margate from the age of 11, latterly in dubious circumstances with a certain Mrs Booth in a house where Turner Contemporary now stands.
Download the Turner Tour guide from the gallery's website and take a stroll half a mile or so eastwards down Margate's seafront and you can see The New Moon for real. If the tide is out and the sun low, it is easy enough to imagine yourself back in 1840, when Turner was living with Mrs Booth. Close one eye, block out an amusement arcade and the lifeboat station and things are pretty much as they were in Turner's picture. Not so with Ramsgate.
Stand by Ramsgate harbour and the first thing you'll notice about Turner's townscape is that it isn't. The only bit of the port recognisable from his picture is its lighthouse, and even that has been replaced some time in the past 188 years with a stubbier version. What you get in Turner's Ramsgate, mostly, is the North Sea, whipped into dirty brown froth by a gale. Ramsgate itself is sidelined, there only for a bit of scale. To see it as Turner did, you would have to be out on a boat. And you really, really wouldn't want to be.
Which is a shame, because Ramsgate is rather pleasant. Turner could easily have painted the town's harbour-side Clock House, a handsome tea-caddy of a building finished 10 years before his visit, with a timepiece that chimes the hour at Greenwich over a sign reading "Ramsgate Mean Time is 5mins 41secs faster". The oddity of RMT didn't pique Turner's imagination, though, Romantic artists being preoccupied with the sublime rather than with timekeeping.
All of which is to say that using Turner's work to follow in his footsteps is not easy. As the title of the Margate show suggests, his interests lay in the interplay of natural forces – a blizzard sweeping over a choppy sea, say – which even Kent in winter cannot guarantee. Turner's ability to leave places out of his pictures verges on the bizarre and lands aspiring Turner Tourists with a problem.
Take Sunset over a Calm Sea with a Sailing Vessel, and the Coast of Kent with Reculver Church in the Distance, which Turner painted when he was 21. As its name suggests, the picture features a sunset, a calm sea, and so on, all seen from the Swale-to-Margate road. Reculver Church itself, though, appears as a pea-sized fleck of gouache on his pint-sized watercolour, a mere pictorial afterthought. This is just perverse.
Reculver is possibly the most haunting place on the Isle of Thanet, and Thanet itself is haunting enough. The village had already fallen into the sea by the time Turner painted the scene, and Reculver's church, the 12th-century beauty of St Mary's, perched on a Roman fort, was rapidly going the same way. Its flinted twin towers were shored up only in the 19th century because they were useful to sailors as navigational aids: when Turner painted them, he must have assumed they might well not be there the next time he passed by. Even the trio of caravan parks that now lap the base of St Mary's cannot detract from its ghostliness, not even the whiff of saveloys from the campsite chippie. And did Turner paint a picture called Reculver Church? He did not.
He did, on the other hand, paint Canterbury Cathedral, which is handy for the literal-minded Turner Tourist in search of exactitude. Of the 10 views in "Turner and the Elements" on which the Kent tour is based, the least changed is probably Christ Church Gate, Canterbury (though there was a man dressed as a carrot handing out leaflets for a vegetarian restaurant in front of it on the day I arrived). True, the original stone figure of Christ in the gateway, which was smashed by Cromwell's men in 1642, has been replaced by an ugly modern one in steel: Turner's view shows an empty niche. Even so, it is still easy to see why he was fascinated by the play of light on the structure's soft stone, which has the chalky feel of a Kentish cliff.
Mrs Jukes, my cathedral guide, pointed out that the building to the right of the gate is, as in Turner's day, a coffee shop. She had the scurry-along air of the White Rabbit, a hint of Joyce Grenfell, and a hat that folded into a ball. Turner would have liked Mrs Jukes.
To be frank, though, I still hadn't got the Turner buzz. It's like an extended version of Where's Wally?: you know JMW's out there, you just can't find him. He wasn't in Whitstable, for all the DFLs (Down from Londons) eating fine dressed crab at the Pearson's Arms: Turner's 1826 view of the town reduces it to a white slick, seen from distant Seasalter. He definitely wasn't in Chatham, although the artist etched the dockyard in 1832 and its astonishing ropery, a quarter of a mile long and smelling of hemp, made the rigging for the The Fighting Temeraire. In fact, I was beginning to despair of having a Turner Moment at all until, driving meditatively back to Broadstairs, I topped a hill and there it was: Richborough Power Station, with a blood-red sun going down behind it.
Built in 1962 and decommissioned a decade ago, Richborough is massive, ruinous and awesome – in a word, sublime. The Turner who painted Rain, Steam and Speed would have loved it. He didn't paint Richborough, of course, but he might have. "Art is a strange business," Turner once said. That's good enough for me.
Travel essentials: Turner's Kent
* Margate is 90 minutes or less from London St Pancras on Southeastern Trains (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk).
* Charles Darwent took the Turner Tour as a guest of Visit Kent (visitkent.co.uk).
The Independent is media partner of "Turner and the Elements", which opens today at Turner Contemporary (01843 233000; turnercontemporary.org; open daily except Monday 10am-6pm; admission free) and runs until 13 May. A PDF of the Turner Tour, taking in 10 locations of William Turner's paintings in Kent, can be downloaded from turnercontemporary.org.
* The writer stayed at The Royal Albion Hotel, Broadstairs (01843 868071; albionbroadstairs.co.uk). Doubles start at £70, including breakfast.
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