JMW Turner Paints Hastings
Millions of people love Turner’s romantic and remarkably atmospheric paintings. He needed money to live, so who were his sponsors? What is his connection to Hastings? How did he develop such an affinity to raging seas, bulwarked by dangerous coasts?
By David Dennis
As he grew more confident and popular, money flowed, and he could relax and display his amazing talents to the full. Acknowledged as a child prodigy and admitted to the Royal Academy at 14, early in his career he came to the notice of the Sussex MP, Mad Jack Fuller of Rosehill (1757-1834), now buried in a pyramid at Brightling, East Sussex. Fuller, though sometimes a drunkard, was also a philanthropist, astute, innovative, kind and deserving of a better press. He backed Turner financially with many art commissions.
Turner, born in Covent Garden, London in 1775, worshipped reality and went to sea in storms. He sketched shipwrecks. He sailed up the east coast of England to Scotland and to Holland and Calais and was said to be ‘an excellent sailor’ by the journalist Cyrus Redding. In 1805, at the age of 30, he went to the River Medway to see HMS Victory anchored there after the Battle of Trafalgar and the tragedy of Lord Nelson’s death at the moment of triumph.
Fishermen at Sea 1796
A Coast Scene with Fishermen hauling a boat ashore 1803-4
Turner produced his Hastings Sketchbook from 1809 to 1814. He was in Hastings in 1810, conceiving ‘The Fish Market at Hastings’. In this he showed his skill at disguising clouds as mountains, to give background height and compositional balance. Looking at this picture you might think Hastings was in the Alps, with a towering wall of ‘rock’ opposite the beach at Rock-a-Nore.
The Fish Market at Hastings
On closer inspection you can see a shaft of sunlight passing through the ‘rock’. You realise that it is in fact a rolling bank of dark sea mist, caused by atmospheric cooling after rolling over Beachy Head and down across Pevensey Bay – as often seen today.
Turner used dogs for balance as they were likely to ‘wander’ into the right position if he ‘made them’. For example, almost tokenistic black dogs appear in the watercolour titled ‘Leeds’ of 1816, ‘Grouse Shooting on Beamsley Beacon’ in the same year and ‘New Moon’ painted in 1840.
Fishing and Gulls
In Turner’s paintings of Hastings, a wide range of fish are depicted but what is unrealistic, as Hastings modern citizens will attest – is the total lack of seagulls.
It is hard to find a Turner fishing scene where there are any birds, although they do occasionally appear in the storm and wreck paintings. A few gulls appear in ‘Fishermen at Sea’ 1796, ‘Pembroke Castle’ 1806 and ‘Fishing Boats and a Paddle Steamer’ 1825, and one gull as a space-filler in ‘Gosport’ 1829.
Fishing boats and rigging are painted accurately with attention to detail, especially regarding the sea state, with rolling and pitching evident. The wave shapes and colours and shadows and reflections on wet sand and sea edge are also well observed.
Dawn after the Wreck – 1841
Martello Towers near Bexhill, Sussex – 1808/11
When Turner came to Bexhill in 1811, he completed the etching image ‘Martello Towers near Bexhill, Sussex’, which was then engraved by William Say. He had sketched it before in 1808.
From 1810, beginning possibly with drawings or sketches named ‘Hastings Fish Market’ and ‘A Hastings Lugger’, Mad Jack Fuller had given him many commissions. In 1819, Fuller’s larger commissioned set of views of Sussex had finally gone to press, after completion in 1816.
After a gap of several years, during which his fame grew, Turner returned to Hastings, aged 49 years, in 1824 to paint the watercolour, ‘Hastings – Fish Market on the Sands – Early Morning’, also bought by Mad Jack Fuller. We can now see this in Hastings Art Gallery.
A misty cloud bank rolls over Beachy Head, with its size and colour-depth reduced compared to the 1810 painting. Hastings Castle is made to appear as though it set on some ethereal Mount Olympus, a glowing yellow-orange massif. Galley Hill and St Leonards buildings are prominent on the horizon. To the left, an anchor lies embedded in the sand. To the right are the tall black net huts and also, most significantly, the net hut made of half a lugger, stood on end, all still preserved today. The orange Cretaceous sandstone cliffs, with their dinosaur footprints and ancient crocodile bones, stand remarkably high behind the East Parade strand. Some fisherfolk are dressed as Greeks. It is thought that Turner was alluding to the Greek War of Independence. This craziness was immensely popular with the public. ‘Maybe it is not Fuller who is mad, but Turner’, said some. Admittedly nowadays the people of Hastings dress up for Jack-in-the-Green and Pirate Day, but they have not fallen among Greeks. Once again, there are no seagulls to peck at the fish scraps.
Hastings – Fish Market on the Sands – Early Morning –1824
He returned to the Hastings theme with ‘Shipwreck off Hastings’ in 1825 and ‘Line Fishing off Hastings’ in 1835. He plainly loved the town and his Hastings Sketchbook has hundreds of insightful drawings.
Turner had a deep personal and emotional relationship with Hastings and the sea and that gave him the intellectual strength to paint in a wild way, refusing staid custom and preferring instead the depiction of passionate momentary truth. I could not find a blue plaque in Hastings Fish Market stating that he painted and sketched there many times. In fact, Hastings has not acknowledged Turner, yet it has commemorated the Duke of Wellington, Lewis Carroll, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It was a major error to let Margate have the Turner Contemporary Gallery. Come on Hastings – where’s the love?
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