Mark Harden's Artchive Turner, Joseph Mallord William
Snowstorm
1842
Oil on canvas
91.5 x 122 cm (36 x 48 in.)
National Gallery, London

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For information regarding possible commercial licensing of this image from Scala Group, Art Resource or Bridgeman Art Library, click here. Text from Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures.

MY FIRST EMOTION is sharpened by amazement. There is nothing else remotely like it in European art, except, of course, other pictures by Turner, and I can understand why, until recently, critics brought up in the classical tradition were unwilling to accept such a freak. Not only is the subject exceptional, but the whole rhythmic organization is outside the accepted modulus of European landscape painting. We have been brought up to expect inside a frame a certain degree of balance and stability. But in Turner's Snowstorm nothing comes to rest. The swathes of snow and water swing about in a wholly unpredictable manner, and their impetus is deflected by contrary movements of spray and mysterious striations of light. To look at them for long is an uncomfortable, even an exhausting, experience.

Of course other painters have attempted to render the movement of rain and sea; but rough sea usually has a theatrical pasteboard look, and when it comes to rain even the greatest artists have found it necessary to formalize what they cannot accurately describe. Leonardo da Vinci comes nearest to Turner in his desire to render elemental power. But as he contemplated the movement of water (and no man has looked at it more searchingly) he fastened on those rhythms which had some relation to geometry. In his drawings at Windsor of a deluge the curling loops of rain end in circular vortices equivalent to the logarithmic spirals of a shell. These are the highly intellectual forms which his hand traced, consciously or unconsciously, when he came to represent universal destruction. Similarly, in Chinese art, the movement of waves and rain nourishes the ancient tradition of cursive ornament, and clouds are formalized till they become the commonest motif of decoration. Between the Dragon scroll at Boston and Hokusai's Views of Fuji oriental painting is full of rough seas and threatening skies; but how delightfully harmless they are. Perfect taste has cast out fear.

Looking again at the Snowstorm, with these decorative deluges in mind, I am astonished by the way in which Turner has accepted the apparent disorder of nature, but I do not question that his version of the subject is correct. it has the visual tremor of an immediate experience. The chaos of a stormy sea is portrayed as accurately as if it were a bunch of flowers.

Turner, who was well aware of the licence he often took with nature, was unusually insistent on the truth of this particular scene. In the Royal Academy catalogue of 1842 the entry reads 'Snowstorm - steam boat off a harbor's mouth making signals in shallow water, and going by the lead. The author was in this storm on the night the Ariel left Harwich.' There were no quotations from Byron or 'The Fallacies of Hope'. And when the Rev. Mr Kingsley told Turner that his mother liked the picture, Turner said, "I only painted it because I wished to show what such a scene was like; I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it; I was lashed for four hours and did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did. No one has any business to like it."

But of course the Snowstorm is very far from rapportage. It is the essence of all that Turner had discovered about himself and his art during forty years of practice. In 1802 the Peace of Amiens had given him his first opportunity to travel on the continent and visit the Alps, and in his drawings of the source of the Arveron and the falls of Reichenbach he suggests for the first time how the power of nature would force him into a new means of expression. At this time, and for some years to come, he was still engaged in an imaginary competition with his predecessors in the art of landscape painting. But however hard he tries to build his designs in the manner of Claude and Poussin, they will not settle down. They rock and wobble and go off at tangents and contradict themselves in a wholly unclassical manner. And underlying many of them is a curious movement, half-way between the fling of a lasso and the cross section of some hard pressed rock, a movement which has no ready assonance in geometry, but which, once we recognise it, we rediscover everywhere in nature.

This is the rhythm of his first great storm at sea, the Shipwreck of 1805, which was also painted from personal experience. And how superbly it renders the destructive power and weight of the waves. What more can painting do with that particular subject? The unforeseeable answer is the Snowstorm.

When I look back at it across the gallery, with Turner's dark, early sea pieces in mind, I no longer think about its design, but about its colour; and I see that the dramatic effect of light is not achieved by contrast of tone (as it is in the Shipwreck) but by a most subtle alternation of colour. As a result oil paint achieves a new consistency, an iridescence, which is more like that of some living thing - in this case the flower of an iris - than a painted simulacrum. The surface of a late Turner is made up of gradations so fine and flecks of colour so inexplicable that we are reminded, whatever the subject, of flowers and sunset skies. To substitute colour for tone as a means of rendering enlightened space could not be achieved by mere observation: it was a major feat of pictorial intelligence and involved Turner in a long struggle. One can follow some of his experiments in his sketch books, where bands and blocks of colour are set down side by side to see how they influence each other, with an effect like the canvases of some modern American painters, pleasantly reduced in scale. At the same time he was attempting to convey the feelings aroused by his first visit to Italy, where the heat and glitter of the Mediterranean was symbolised by a key of colour so high that the darkest shadows are carmine or peacock blue. But these highly artificial concoctions could not satisfy him for long. He had written in the margin of Opie's lectures 'Every look at nature is a refinement on art', and it was necessary for him to relate his discoveries in the theory of colour to his acute perception of natural appearances and his marvellously retentive memory. This he achieved in the 1830s; and by the time of his last visit to Petworth, when he painted the famous Interior, he could render the visible world in progressions of colour as naturally and immediately as Mozart rendered his ideas in sound.

Having once more established a direct relationship with nature, he ceased to depend on 'poetic' subjects. Baiae was abandoned in favour of Waterloo Bridge, the Gardens of the Hesperides in favour of the Great Western Railway. In fact the new steam age suited him very well. The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth is a sentimental picture, because, as a painter, Turner was not at all sorry to see the last of sail. He disliked painting sails perhaps he was troubled by the memory of classical draperies and the intricate geometry of rigging bored him. But he loved the brilliance of steam, the dark diagonal of smoke blowing out of a tall chimney and the suggestion of hidden furnaces made visible at the mouth of a funnel. All his life he had been obsessed by the conjunction of fire and water. It is the subject of his earliest oil, the Cholmondeley sea piece, and of his many pictures of fire at sea, which often involved a certain straining of romantic imagery. The steamship gave him the opportunity of introducing it naturally. Sometimes this love of conflict between heat and cold leads to an opposition of red and blue which seems to us rather crude, although I think that the deafening discord in the Fighting Temeraire must be partly due to a change in the pigments. But in the Snowstorm everything is subordinate to the icy aquamarine of the whole, and the fires in the Ariel's stoke hole reveal themselves only in two flashes of lemon yellow. There is also a tiny red port hole, reflected twice in the waves, and there are a few delicate touches of rose madder over the paddle wheels. Otherwise the colour at the centre is cool, and was even cooler when the picture was painted, for the vertical glare of the rocket, now softened by a little dirt and yellow varnish, was once pure white. Only in the dispersing smoke and its reflection on the waves does some burnt umber give the necessary minimum of warmth.

How Turner drew from the recalcitrant medium of oil paint these refinements and transparencies is a mystery. No one ever saw him at work, except on varnishing day at the Royal Academy, and even then he took great pains to hide what he was doing. Of course he had a repertoire of technical tricks: but the delicacy of every touch is beyond mechanical skill, and leads us to look past the process to the state of mind in which such works were created.

By the time he came to paint the Snowstorm Turner's responses to nature had become extremely complex, and may be said to have operated on three or four different levels. The first response, and the only one to which he would admit, was the need to record an event. His exceptional powers of memory were deliberately strengthened by practice. Hawkesworth Fawkes, the son of his old patron, described how Turner studied a storm which they witnessed together over the Yorkshire hills, saying, when it was over, "There, Hawkey, in two years time you will this, and call it Hannibal Crossing the Alps." Besides this active and purposeful observation of the scene, there was a contemplative delight in the elements of colour and form which it presented. Turner, lashed to the mast and in danger of his life, has been able to look at the Snowstorm with aesthetic detachment. When it was over he remembered not only how the waves broke over the stern, but how the light from the engine room had taken on a peculiar delicacy when modified by the blinding snow. At every point the visual data had adjusted themselves to his pre-established understanding of colour harmony, so that this somewhat drastic look at nature was adding a refinement to art.

At another level is the actual choice of subject: the fact that he has chosen to paint this almost unpaintable episode instead of the golden beaches of Capua. Turner's deepest impulse was towards catastrophe, and Ruskin was right in recognising as one of his chief characteristics a profound pessimism. He believed that mankind was 'ephemeral as the summer fly', and his formless, intermittent poem, 'The Fallacies of Hope' which he kept going for over thirty years, is a genuine reflection of his feelings. Ruskin thought that this pessimism came over him owing to some evil chances of his life about the year 1825. 1 cannot see any evidence for this date, for Turner's compositions, from 1800 onwards, are chiefly of gloomy subjects - the Plagues of Egypt, the destruction of Sodom, the Deluge; and Hannibal crossing the Alps, where a full scale whirlwind is joined to the first quotation from 'The Fallacies of Hope', was painted in 1812. Ruskin knew more about Turner's life than he ever disclosed, and he may have known of some occurrence in the year 1825 to which he attributed what he called 'a grievous metamorphosis' in his hero's character. But to judge solely from his paintings, it was not till 1840, when he painted the Slave Ship, that death and destruction, blood red and thundery black, began to dominate his finest work. Thenceforward he looked for an apocalypse. His storms become more catastrophic, his sunrises more ethereal, and his ever increasing mastery of truth is used in the projection of his dreams.

'Dreams', 'visions' - these words were commonly applied to Turner's pictures in his own day, and in the vague, metaphorical sense of the nineteenth-century, they have lost their value for us. But with our new knowledge of dreams as the expression of deep intuitions and buried memories, we can look at Turner's work again and recognise that to an extent unique in art his pictures have the qualities of a dream. The crazy perspectives, the double focuses, the melting of one form into another and the general feeling of instability: these are kinds of imagery which most of us know only when we are asleep. Turner experienced them when he was awake. This dream-like condition reveals itself by the repeated appearance of certain motifs which are known to be part of the furniture of the unconscious. Such, for example, is the vortex or whirlpool, which became more and more the underlying rhythm of his designs, and of which there is a strong suggestion in the Snowstorm. One is sucked in to the chaos and confusion, one's eye staggers uncertainly along the path of darkness which leads to the Ariel's hull and then shoots up into the blinding whiteness of the rocket. It is a dream experience; and I suppose that the apparent truth and the beauty of colour of the Snowstorm would not have affected me so strongly without this added appeal to my unconscious mind.