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Article Published January 22, 2020
‘A Way of Looking at the World That We Need More of...’
Pem McNerney, Living Editor

J.M.W. Turner, the legendary British painter who created his works at the height of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, was both enthralled and inspired by the changes wrought by the technological, socioeconomic, and cultural shifts that were destroying the old order and creating a new one.

And, while he lived in the late 1700s and mid 1800s, he might in some ways feel right at home in current times, says Ellen Harvey, an artist who has studied his work.

“Well, I think Turner would have been absolutely fascinated by, among other things, drones and the very idea of looking down at the world, as opposed to looking at the side of the world,” she says. “You can really see with Turner, this interest in breaking out of the frame. He would be fascinated by Google Earth. He’d really enjoy it. The thing about his paintings is that they don’t really fit into this cliché of composition. They really do feel as though they could keep on going endlessly. He has a kind of way of looking at the world that we need more of. He sees things as not limited or framed, but interconnected and, in some ways, endless.”

Harvey is one of several artists and experts who have been invited by Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic to celebrate an exhibition of Turner’s works on display there in the Thompson Exhibition Building—a building seemingly born for exactly this exhibit—with a series of Turner Talks.

Harvey, a British-born artist who works in Brooklyn, will discuss her own work, its relationship with Turner, and the relevance of Turner’s work to the issues of today on Tuesday, Jan. 28. Glenn Adamson, a senior scholar at the Yale Center of British Art, will also offer his thoughts on Turner’s work as it relates to the Industrial Revolution, how it captured the trauma of the shifts Turner saw in his time, and parallels with current times on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

The talks will be held during afternoon tea at 3:30 p.m., with the discussions beginning at 4 p.m. at the museum, 75 Greenmanville Avenue, Mystic.

The exhibit will be on display through Sunday. Feb. 23, offering a once-in-a-generation opportunity to see these works from the Turner Bequest at the Tate Britain on display in their only North American appearance. The exhibition at Mystic, J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate, includes more than 90 watercolors and 4 oils and is a comprehensive retrospective with work from the early 1790 to the 1840s. When they leave Mystic, the next stop is Paris, and then back to Tate, where they will be tucked away from the light for safekeeping.

‘A Map of Turner’s Brain’

Turner’s oil paintings are more well known than his watercolors, says David Blayney Brown, the lead curator of Turner’s work at Tate Britain in London. Brown makes the case in Conversations with Turner, the book that accompanies the exhibit, that watercolor is at the foundation of Turner’s work.

And it’s not exactly clear what Turner himself might have thought of these works going on display.

Turner bequeathed about 100 finished oil paintings upon his death to the National Gallery in London. But, when John Ruskin—the artist and art critic who served as the executor to Turner’s estate—explored Turner’s filthy, cat-filled home on Queen Anne Street in London after Turner’s death, Ruskin found what he later described as “one of the finest productions of art buried for 40 years.”

Brown, in Conversations with Turner, says, “It is a sobering thought that the immense treasure of watercolors, drawings and sketchbooks that forms part of the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain would not survive together had Turner himself had anything to do with it.”

Ruskin, rummaging around Turner’s home, discovered around 19,000 pieces of paper. Some were rotting, decaying with damp and mildew. Some were turning into dust. Mice had taken a turn or two at more than a few.

“Nineteen thousand sheaths of worked paper is far more than a glimpse into the process of a great artist—it is categorically a map of Turner’s brain; the visual key unlocking our understanding of how he consumed the world, to be spit back out (sometimes literally) into pictures of astounding originality,” writes Nicholas R. Bell, the senior vice president for curatorial affairs Mystic Seaport Museum, in Conversations with Turner. “Predictably, most of these works fall under the ‘unfinished’ label, so that our view of Turner today is fundamentally shaped by work he never intended to share.”

Bell says “how lucky we are,” to have this opportunity to see these works, “an exaltation of paper, water, and pigment.”

“Travel by large numbers of watercolors from the bequest only occurs on a generational calendar, marking their arrival at Mystic Seaport Museum as a singular occasion to wallow in Turner’s glory without the pilgrimage to London,” Bell says.

‘Solid Melts Into Air’

Glenn Adamson, a senior scholar at the Yale Center for British Art and a historian and curator specializing in craft and design who will participate in the Feb. 4 “Turner and Industry” Tea with Turner, says he became interested in Turner’s work while living in London for eight years.

“You can’t live in London without being powerfully affected by his work,” he says.

Adamson says his particular interest revolves around, in part, how Turner’s work represents class and skill and hierarchies of labor. Turner, born into a lower-middle-class family, was at once famous in his time and he often lived in squalid circumstances. He retained his Cockney accent his whole life, a challenge to the status quo in the rarefied circles of those who admired his art.

Turner is particularly relevant today, says Adamson, because he represented modernity as flux.

“Both narratively and in the way he painted, solid melts into air,” Adamson says, borrowing from a passage in The Communist Manifesto. (The full passage from the 1848 manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels read: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”)

Turner conveys that sentiment visually, Adamson says, “creating energy on canvas or paper.”

“The Industrial Revolution unleashed a great set of forces, both industrial forces and social forces that were very destabilizing,” he says. “Turner understood them in an intricate way. He had a very nuanced sense of social hierarchy. When he paints boats, he has a strong sense of the lives on those boats...While he was prominent in his culture, he has the duality of the working class identity about him.”

Turner took the uncertainty of his time and “made magic out of it,” Adamson says.

“There was this real sense of the importance of having a clear-eyed relationship to your times,” he says.

Adamson says Turner’s work, when viewed in its entirety—including the sketchbooks and experimental watercolors—has an artisanal sense to it.

“I think the Mystic show exposes his process. There is this sense of building a painting,” he says.

In some ways, Turner, schooled as a draftsman when he was young, was as much a craftsman as an artist, Adamson asserts. That is consistent with Adamson’s view that craftwork should be allowed to play on the same field as the oil paintings and watercolors often favored by museums and art historians.

“You have to balance the scales in both directions,” he says. “That means Native American art, perhaps a woven basket, is as worthy of respect as a Turner painting. Of Turner, you can see his work as an artisanal product the same way a basket is, with everything being on the same playing field.”

‘We Can Only Take Away What We See...’

Harvey, who will lead the Tea with Turner discussion on Tuesday, Jan. 28, says her relationship with Turner goes back to her childhood.

“As a kid I hated Turner,” she says. “I liked paintings where you could see what was going on. I liked medieval paintings. There were no naked people in Turner. I liked paintings that had naked people. No naked people, what’s the point? I was not interested in landscape painting. Turner was constantly being crammed down your throat.”

It was only later, after she embarked on her own career in art and a landscape project in particular, that she grew to admire Turner’s work for its originality and departure from the cliches of landscape painting that were so common in his era.

“I realized he was an outlier; I became interested in him,” she says.

Once, when in conversation with another artist, Turner said, “We can only take away what we see, no matter what.”

“To me, that speaks to Turner’s lack of interest in convention,” she says. “He was incomprehensible for many people. In his paintings, by the end, you get the idea of total freedom...Turner was interested in what his eyes could see. Most artists of his era were more interested in adhering to the picturesque convention.”

Harvey’s work includes ARCADE/ARCADIA, commissioned for the opening of the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate, England, where Turner spent much of his later years. The installation is a replica of a gallery Turner built to display his works that draws its inspiration in part from the “down-at-heels” seaside resort that Margate has become, Harvey says.

In her talk, Harvey will discuss another of her works, an open-source project to be exhibited at the Turner Contemporary in Margate later this year, called The Disappointed Tourist.

“Send in a place that does not exist anymore and I will make a painting of it, or try to,” she says.

She will do as many as she can.

Current subject matter possibilities include Palmyra, the ancient city in Syria that may have existed as far back as the early second millennium B.C. that has flourished and been destroyed many times over the centuries as it changed hands, most recently during the recent wars in Syria, when it was looted and bombed. The Bamyan valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan is another option. The Buddhas of Bamyan, carved into a cliff in the 6th century, were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

Other suggestions include people’s favorite cafés and amusement parks from people’s childhoods.

“When Notre Dame burned, I had a lot of people contact me,” she says. “Children are often sad to discover the hanging gardens of Babylon cannot be visited. They were just born 2,000 years too late. So the idea is to create a map of images throughout the world that people loved. It is a map of love in a way.”

Turner’s exhibit provides an ideal point of departure, because he was such an inveterate tourist himself, always traveling, hungry for new images and ideas.

She welcomes all submissions, which can be sent to her via

She is looking forward to her talk.

“Turner is a tremendously interesting and fun person to talk about, and I think he’s somebody who does something for everyone,” she says. “It’s a fun and important subject. We need to look at our world with fresh eyes. And we need to look at what’s actually going on in the world. What is actually happening. Turner did so and so he can be an inspiration and a challenge in that way. That’s something that we all need, and a tremendous pleasure as well, to let go of conventions and say, what do I see and what do I think.”