I believe that these works of Turner's are at their first appearing as perfect as those of Phidias or Leonardo, that is to say, incapable of any improvement conceivable by human mind.—John Ruskin
The beauty of the upper Thames with its fairy house-boats and green banks has been sung by poets, but rash is the minstrel who tunes his lyre to sound the praises of this muddy stream in the vicinity of Chelsea. As yellow as the Tiber and thick as the Missouri after a flood, it comes twice a day bearing upon its tossing tide a unique assortment of uncanny sights and sickening smells from the swarming city of men below.
Chelsea was once a country village six miles from London Bridge. Now the far-reaching arms of the metropolis have taken it as her own.
Chelsea may be likened to some rare spinster, grown old with years and good works, and now having a safe home with a rich and powerful benefactress. Yet Chelsea is not handsome in her old age, and Chelsea was not pretty in youth, nor fair to view in middle life; but Chelsea has been the foster-mother of several of the rarest and fairest souls who have ever made the earth pilgrimage.
And the greatness of genius still rests upon Chelsea. As we walk slowly through its winding ways, by the edge of its troubled waters, among dark and crooked turns, through curious courts, by old gateways and piles of steepled stone, where flocks of pigeons wheel, and bells chime, and organs peal, and winds sigh, we know that all has been sanctified by their presence. And their spirits abide with us, and the splendid beauty of their visions is about us. For the stones beneath our feet have been hallowed by their tread, and the walls have borne their shadows; so all mean things are transfigured and over all these plain and narrow streets their glory gleams.
And it is the great men and they alone that can render a place sacred. Chelsea is now to the lovers of the Beautiful a sacred name, a sacred soil; a place of pilgrimage where certain gods of Art once lived, and loved, and worked, and died.
Sir Thomas More lived here and had for a frequent guest Erasmus. Hans Sloane began in Chelsea the collection of curiosities which has now developed into the British Museum. Bishop Atterbury (who claimed that Dryden was a greater poet than Shakespeare), Dean Swift and Doctor Arbuthnot, all lived in Church Street; Richard Steele just around the corner and Leigh Hunt in Cheyne Row; but it was from another name that the little street was to be immortalized.
If France constantly has forty Immortals in the flesh, surely it is a modest claim to say that Chelsea has three for all time: Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot and Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Turner's father was a barber. His youth was passed in poverty and his advantages for education were very slight. And all this in the crowded city of London, where merit may knock long and still not be heard, and in a country where wealth and title count for much.
When a boy, barefoot and ragged, he would wander away alone on the banks of the river and dream dreams about wonderful palaces and beautiful scenes; and then he would trace with a stick in the sands, endeavoring, with mud, to make plain to the eye the things that his soul saw.
His mother was quite sure that no good could come from this vagabondish nature, and she did not spare the rod, for she feared that the desire to scrawl and daub would spoil the child. But he was a stubborn lad, with a pug-nose and big, dreamy, wondering eyes, and a heavy jaw; and when parents see that they have such a son, they had better hang up the rod behind the kitchen-door and lay aside force and cease scolding. For love is better than a cat-o'-nine-tails, and sympathy saves more souls than threats.
The elder Turner considered that the proper use of a brush was to lather chins. But the boy thought differently, and once surreptitiously took one of his father's brushes to paint a picture; the brush on being returned to its cup was used the next day upon a worthy haberdasher, whose cheeks were shortly colored a vermilion that matched his nose. This lost the barber a customer and secured the boy a thrashing.
Young Turner did not always wash his father's shop-windows well, nor sweep off the sidewalk properly. Like all boys he would rather work for some one else than for "his folks."
He used to run errands for an engraver by the name of Smith—John Raphael Smith. Once, when Smith sent the barber's boy with a letter to a certain art-gallery with orders to "get the answer and hurry back, mind you!" the boy forgot to get the answer and to hurry back. Then another boy was dispatched after the first, and boy Number Two found boy Number One sitting, with staring eyes and open mouth, in the art-gallery before a painting of Claude Lorraine's. When boy Number One was at last forcibly dragged away, and reached the shop of his master, he got his ears well cuffed for his forgetfulness. But from that day forth he was not the same being that he had been before his eyes fell on that Claude Lorraine.
He was transformed, as much so as was Lazarus after he was called from beyond the portals of death and had come back to earth, bearing in his heart the secrets of the grave.
From that time Turner thought of Claude Lorraine during the day and dreamed of him at night, and he stole his way into every exhibition where a Claude was to be seen. And now I wish that Claude Lorraine was the subject of this sketch, as well as Turner, for his life is a picture full of sweetest poetry, framed in a world of dullest prose.
The eyes of this boy, whom they had thought dreamy, dull and listless, now shone with a different light. He thirsted to achieve, to do, to become—yes, to become a greater painter than Claude Lorraine. His employer saw the change and smiled at it, but he allowed the lad to put in backgrounds and add the skies to cheap prints, just because the youngster teased to do it.
Then one day a certain patron of the shop came and looked over the shoulder of the Turner boy, and he said, "He has skill—perhaps talent."
And I think the recording angel should give this man a separate page in the Book of Remembrance and write his name in illuminated colors, for he gave young Turner access to his own collection and to his library, and he never cuffed him nor kicked him nor called him dunce—whereat the boy was much surprised. But he encouraged the youth to sketch a picture in water-colors and then he bought the picture and paid him ten shillings for it; and the name of this man was Doctor Munro.
The next year, when young Turner was fourteen, Doctor Munro had him admitted to the Royal Academy as a student, and in Seventeen Hundred Ninety he exhibited a water-color of the Archbishop's palace at Lambeth.
The picture took no prize, and doubtless was not worthy of one, but from now on Joseph M.W. Turner was an artist, and other hands had to sweep the barber-shop.
But he sold few pictures—they were not popular. Other artists scorned him, possibly intuitively fearing him, for mediocrity always fears when the ghost of genius does not down at its bidding.
Then Turner was accounted unsociable; besides, he was ragged, uncouth, independent, and did not conform to the ways of society; so the select circle cast him out—more properly speaking, did not let him in.
Still he worked on, and exhibited at every Academy Exhibition, yet he was often hungry, and the London fog crept cold and damp through his threadbare clothes. But he toiled on, for Claude Lorraine was ever before him.
In Eighteen Hundred Two, when twenty-seven years of age, he visited France and made a tour through Switzerland, tramping over many long miles with his painting-kit on his back, and he brought back rich treasures in way of sketches and quickened imagination.
In the years following he took many such trips, and came to know Venice, Rome, Florence and Paris as perfectly as his own London.
When thirty-three years of age he was still worshiping at the shrine of Claude Lorraine. His pictures painted at this time are evidence of his ideal, and his book, "Liber Studiorum," issued in Eighteen Hundred Eight, is modeled after the "Liber Veritatis." But the book surpasses Claude's, and Turner knew it, and this may have led him to burst his shackles and cast loose from his idol. For, in Eighteen Hundred Fifteen, we find him working according to his own ideas, showing an originality and audacity in conception and execution that made him the butt of the critics, and caused consternation to rage through the studios of competitors.
Gradually, it dawned upon a few scattered collectors that things so strongly condemned must have merit, for why should the pack bay so loudly if there were no quarry! So to have a Turner was at least something for your friends to discuss.
Then carriages began to stop before the dingy building at Forty-seven Queen Anne Street, and broadcloth and satin mounted the creaking stairs to the studio. It happened about this time that Turner's prices began to increase. Like the sibyl of old, if a customer said, "I do not want it," the painter put an extra ten pounds on the price. For "Dido Building Carthage," Turner's original price was five hundred pounds. People came to see the picture and they said, "The price is too high." Next day Turner's price for the "Carthage" was one thousand pounds. Finally, Sir Robert Peel offered the painter five thousand pounds for the picture, but Turner said he had decided to keep it for himself, and he did.
In the forepart of his career he sold few pictures—for the simple reason that no one wanted them. And he sold few pictures during the latter years of his life, for the reason that his prices were so high that none but the very rich could buy. First, the public scorned Turner. Next, Turner scorned the public. In the beginning it would not buy his pictures, and later it could not.
A frivolous public and a shallow press, from his first exhibition, when fifteen years of age, to his last, when seventy, made sport of his originalities. But for merit there is a recompense in sneers, and a benefit in sarcasms, and a compensation in hate; for when these things get too pronounced a champion appears. And so it was with Turner. Next to having a Boswell write one's life, what is better than a Ruskin to uphold one's cause!
Success came slowly; his wants were few, but his ambition never slackened, and finally the dreams of his youth became the realities of his manhood.
At twenty, Turner loved a beautiful girl—they became engaged. He went away on a tramp sketching-tour and wrote his ladylove just one short letter each month. He believed that "absence only makes the heart grow fonder," not knowing that this statement is only the vagary of a poet. When he returned the lady was betrothed to another. He gave the pair his blessing, and remained a bachelor—a very confirmed bachelor.
Perhaps, however, the reason his fiancee proved untrue was not through lack of the epistles he wrote her, but on account of them. In the British Museum I examined several letters written by Turner. They appeared very much like copy for a Josh Billings Almanac. Such originality in spelling, punctuation and use of capitals! It was admirable in its uniqueness. Turner did not think in words—he could only think in paint. But the young lady did not know this, and when a letter came from her homely little lover she was shocked, then she laughed, then she showed these letters to a nice young man who was clerk to a fishmonger and he laughed, then they both laughed. Then this nice young man and this beautiful young lady became engaged, and they were married at Saint Andrew's on a lovely May morning. And they lived happily ever afterward.
Turner was small, and in appearance plain. Yet he was big enough to paint a big picture, and he was not so homely as to frighten away all beautiful women. But Philip Gilbert Hamerton tells us, "Fortunate in many things, Turner was lamentably unfortunate in this: that throughout his whole life he never came under the ennobling and refining influence of a good woman."
Like Plato, Michelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton and his own Claude Lorraine, he was wedded to his art. But at sixty-five his genius suddenly burst forth afresh, and his work, Mr. Ruskin says, at that time exceeded in daring brilliancy and in the rich flowering of imagination, anything that he had previously done. Mr. Ruskin could give no reason, but rumor says, "A woman."
The one weakness of our hero, that hung to him for life, was the idea that he could write poetry. The tragedian always thinks he can succeed in comedy; the comedian spends hours in his garret rehearsing tragedy; most preachers have an idea that they could have made a quick fortune in business, and many businessmen are very sure that if they had taken to the pulpit there would now be fewer empty pews. So the greatest landscape-painter of recent times imagined himself a poet. Hamerton says that for remarkable specimens of grammar, spelling and construction Turner's verse would serve well to be given to little boys to correct.
One spot in Turner's life over which I like to linger is his friendship with Sir Walter Scott. They collaborated in the production of "Provincial Antiquities," and spent many happy hours together tramping over Scottish moors and mountains. Sir Walter lived out his days in happy ignorance concerning the art of painting, and although he liked the society of Turner, he confessed that it was quite beyond his ken why people bought his pictures.
"And as for your books," said Turner, "the covers of some are certainly very pretty."
Yet these men took a satisfaction in each other's society, such as brothers might enjoy, but without either man appreciating the greatness of the other.
Turner's temperament was audacious, self-centered, self-reliant, eager for success and fame, yet at the same time scorning public opinion—a paradox often found in the artistic mind of the first class; silent always—with a bitter silence, disdaining to tell his meaning when the critics could not perceive it.
He was above all things always the artist, never the realist. The realist pictures the things he sees; the artist expresses that which he feels. Children, and all simple folk who use pen, pencil or brush, describe the things they behold. As intellect develops and goes more in partnership with hand, imagination soars, and things are outlined that no man can see except he be able to perceive the invisible. To appreciate a work of art you must feel as the artist felt.
Now, it is very plain that the vast majority of people are not capable of this high sense of sublimity which the creative artist feels; and therefore they do not understand, and not understanding, they wax merry, or cynical, or sarcastic, or wrathful, or envious; or they pass by unmoved. And I maintain that those who pass by unmoved are more righteous than they who scoff.
If I should attempt to explain to my little girl the awe I feel when I contemplate the miracle of maternity, she would probably change the subject by prattling to me about a kitten she saw lapping milk from a blue saucer. If I should attempt to explain to some men what I feel when I contemplate the miracle of maternity, they would smile and turn it all into an unspeakable jest. Is not the child nearer to God than the man?
We thus see why to many Browning is only a joke, Whitman an eccentric, Dante insane and Turner a pretender. These have all sought to express things which the many can not feel, and consequently they have been, and are, the butt of jokes and jibes innumerable. "Except ye become as little children," etc.—and yet the scoffers are often people of worth. Nothing so shows the limitation of humanity as this: genius often does not appreciate genius. The inspired, strangely enough, are like the fools, they do not recognize inspiration.
An Englishman called on Voltaire and found him in bed reading Shakespeare.
"What are you reading?" asked the visitor.
"Your Shakespeare!" said the philosopher; and as he answered he flung the book across the room.
"He's not my Shakespeare," said the Englishman.
Greene, Rymer, Dryden, Warburton and Doctor Johnson used collectively or individually the following expressions in describing the work of the author of "Hamlet": conceit, overreach, word-play, extravagance, overdone, absurdity, obscurity, puerility, bombast, idiocy, untruth, improbability, drivel.
Byron wrote from Florence to Murray:
"I know nothing of painting, and I abhor and spit upon all saints and so-called spiritual subjects that I see portrayed in these churches."
But the past is so crowded with vituperation that it is difficult to select—besides that, we do not wish to—but let us take a sample of arrogance from yesterday to prove our point, and then drop the theme for something pleasanter.
Pew and pulpit have fallen over each other for the privilege of hitting Darwin; a Bishop warns his congregation that Emerson is "dangerous"; Spurgeon calls Shelley a sensualist; Doctor Buckley speaks of Susan B. Anthony as the leader of "the short-haired"; Talmage cracks jokes about evolution, referring feelingly to "monkey ancestry"; and a prominent divine of England writes the World's Congress of Religions down as "pious waxworks." These things being true, and all the sentiments quoted coming from "good" but blindly zealous men, is it a wonder that the Artist is not understood?
A brilliant picture, called "Cologne—Evening," attracted much attention at the Academy Exhibition of Eighteen Hundred Twenty-six. One day the people who so often collected around Turner's work were shocked to see that the beautiful canvas had lost its brilliancy, and evidently had been tampered with by some miscreant. A friend ran to inform Turner of the bad news. "Don't say anything. I only smirched it with lampblack. It was spoiling the effect of Laurence's picture that hung next to it. The black will all wash off after the Exhibition."
And his tender treatment of his aged father shows the gentle side of his nature. The old barber, whose trembling hand could no longer hold a razor, wished to remain under his son's roof in guise of a servant; but the son said, "No; we fought the world together, and now that it seeks to do me honor, you shall share all the benefits." And Turner never smiled when the little, wizened, old man would whisper to some visitor, "Yes, yes; Joseph is the greatest artist in England, and I am his father."
Turner had a way of sending ten-pound notes in blank envelopes to artists in distress, and he did this so frequently that the news got out finally, but never through Turner's telling, and then he had to adopt other methods of doing good by stealth.
I do not contend that Turner's character was immaculate, but still it is very probable that worldlings do not appreciate what a small part of this great genius touched the mire.
To prove the sordidness of the man, one critic tells, with visage awfully solemn, how Turner once gave an engraving to a friend and then, after a year, sent demanding it back. But to a person with a groat's worth of wit the matter is plain: the dreamy, abstracted artist, who bumped into his next-door neighbors on the street and never knew them, forgot he had given the picture and believed he had only loaned it. This is made still more apparent by the fact that, when he sent for the engraving in question, he administered a rebuke to the man for keeping it so long. The poor dullard who received the note flew into a rage—returned the picture—sent his compliments and begged the great artist to "take your picture and go to the devil."
Then certain scribblers, who through mental disease had lost the capacity for mirth, dipped their pen in aqua fortis and wrote of the "innate meanness," the "malice prepense" and the "Old Adam" which dwelt in the heart of Turner. No one laughed except a few Irishmen, and an American or two, who chanced to hear of the story.
Of Turner's many pictures I will mention in detail but two, both of which are to be seen on the walls of the National Gallery. First, "The Old Temeraire." This warship had been sold out of service and was being towed away to be broken up. The scene was photographed on Turner's brain, and he immortalized it on canvas. We can not do better than borrow the words of Mr. Ruskin:
"Of all pictures not visibly involving human pain, this is the most pathetic ever painted.
"The utmost pensiveness which can ordinarily be given to a landscape depends on adjuncts of ruin, but no ruin was ever so affecting as the gliding of this ship to her grave. This particular ship, crowned in the Trafalgar hour of trial with chief victory—surely, if ever anything without a soul deserved honor or affection we owe them here. Surely, some sacred care might have been left in our thoughts for her; some quiet space amid the lapse of English waters! Nay, not so. We have stern keepers to trust her glory to—the fire and the worm. Nevermore shall sunset lay golden robe upon her, nor starlight tremble on the waves that part at her gliding. Perhaps where the low gate opens to some cottage garden, the tired traveler may ask, idly, why the moss grows so green on the rugged wood; and even the sailor's child may not know that the night dew lies deep in the warrents of the old Temeraire."
"The Burial of Sir David Wilkie at Sea" has brought tears to many eyes. Yet there is no burial. The ship is far away in the gloom of the offing; you can not distinguish a single figure on her decks; but you behold her great sails standing out against the leaden blackness of the night and you feel that out there a certain scene is being enacted. And if you listen closely you can hear the solemn voice of the captain as he reads the burial service. Then there is a pause—a swift, sliding sound—a splash, and all is over.
Turner left to the British Nation by his will nineteen thousand pencil and water-color sketches and one hundred large canvases. These pictures are now to be seen in the National Gallery in rooms set apart and sacred to Turner's work. For fear it may be thought that the number of sketches mentioned above is a misprint, let us say that if he had produced one picture a day for fifty years it would not equal the number of pieces bestowed by his will on the Nation.
This of course takes no account of the pictures sold during his lifetime, and, as he left a fortune of one hundred forty-four thousand pounds (seven hundred twenty thousand dollars), we may infer that not all his pictures were given away.
At Chelsea I stood in the little room where he breathed his last, that bleak day in Eighteen-Hundred Fifty-one. The unlettered but motherly old woman who took care of him in those last days never guessed his greatness; none in the house or the neighborhood knew.
To them he was only Mr. Booth, an eccentric old man of moderate means, who liked to muse, read, and play with children. He had no callers, no friends; he went to the city every day and came back at night. He talked but little, he was absent-minded, he smoked and thought and smiled and muttered to himself. He never went to church; but once one of the lodgers asked him what he thought of God.
"God, God—what do I know of God, what does any one! He is our life—He is the All, but we need not fear Him—all we can do is to speak the truth and do our work. Tomorrow we go—where? I know not, but I am not afraid."
Of art, to these strangers he would never speak. Once they urged him to go with them to an exhibition at Kensington, but he smiled feebly as he lit his pipe and said, "An Art Exhibition? No, no; a man can show on a canvas so little of what he feels, it is not worth the while."
At last he died—passed peacefully away—and his attorney came and took charge of his remains.
Many are the hard words that have been flung off by heedless tongues about Turner's taking an assumed name and living in obscurity, but "what you call fault I call accent." Surely, if a great man and world-famous desires to escape the flatterers and the silken mesh of so-called society and live the life of simplicity, he has a right to do so. Again, Turner was a very rich man in his old age; he did much for struggling artists and assisted aspiring merit in many ways. So it came about that his mail was burdened with begging letters, and his life made miserable by appeals from impecunious persons, good and bad, and from churches, societies and associations without number. He decided to flee them all; and he did.
The "Carthage" already mentioned is one of his finest works, and he esteemed it so highly that he requested that when death came, his body should be buried, wrapped in its magnificent folds. But the wish was disregarded.
His remains rest in the crypt of Saint Paul's, beside the dust of Reynolds. His statue, in marble, adorns a niche in the great cathedral, and his name is secure high on the roll of honor.
And if for no other reason, the name and fame of Chelsea should be deathless as the home of Turner.