Two large paintings by Turner have gone on show in London for the first time in over a century, and also for the first time ever, are side by side in the same room.
The pair of paintings, of the harbours at Dieppe and Cologne left Britain in 1914, when they were acquired by the American industrialist Henry Clay Frick, and where they have remained in the Frick Collection since.
As the Frick is closed for refurbishment, it was an opportunity for the two paintings to go on tour and will be in London for a few months. Not only is this the first time they’ve been in London since they were sold, but it’s also the first time ever that they have been shown together, as the Frick has never done that, and doesn’t expect to when they return to New York.
The two large paintings are based on a huge cache of drawings that Turner brought back to London after travelling around Europe when travel was finally permitted following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
However, when they first went on display, they shocked people.
One of the reasons why these two paintings were so shocking is that Turner is thought to have used his considerable experience as a watercolourist to paint in oils, as a watercolour would have done. That is, a watercolour painting is often started with lighter colours and built up with progressive layers of darker paint, while oil was usually done the other way round.
Here, Turner reversed how oils were painted, working as a watercolour painter, but with oils.
That, along with his use of the then newly invented chrome yellow pigment created a pair of paintings that shocked polite society in 1825/26 with their bright colours contrasting with the more muted tones that were popular at the time. As if someone opened a window in the Royal Academy and let the sunshine in.
“Mr. Turner has made very free use of the chrome yellow – will it stand the test of time?” – Morning Post, London 9th May 1826
The two paintings show the busy harbours of Dieppe and Cologne – the gateways of two major tours of Europe – and are a deliberate contrast between the more modern appearance of classically rebuilt Dieppe and the medieval appearance of Cologne. They also contrast in that one is painted to show the rising sun of the morning, and the other of the setting sun at the end of the day.
There’s a lot of detail, from the abandoned fishing equipment to the half-sawn timbers and the ferry boats with the names of the towns they plied. But stand back from the detail and bask in the sunlight that streams from Turner’s paintings.
These two paintings haven’t been in London for over a century, and it’s unlikely they will return for another century, so this is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see them. This exhibition also presents the unique opportunity to view the pair under the same roof as the Claude paintings which may have inspired them, which are on show in Room 36 at the National Gallery.
There’s also a book written for the exhibition that delves into the details of the paintings.