Art in Focus – Beech Trees at Norbury Park by JMW Turner (1775-1851)

This beautifully observed watercolour is typical of the artist’s early work

Beech Trees at Norbury Park, JMW Turner (1797) ©National Gallery of Ireland.

Beech Trees at Norbury Park, JMW Turner (1797) ©National Gallery of Ireland.

 

 What is it?

A pencil and watercolour study of beech trees.

How was it done?

Turner was invited to Norbury Park in Surrey by its owner, the sculptor William Lock (sometimes spelled Locke; the family liked the idea that they might be connected to the philosopher John Locke). Lock was a wealthy amateur artist and socialite who had acquired a substantial art collection in Rome. He commissioned the young Turner to make a drawing of the fern house at Norbury. Turner did so, and the work was exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition the following year. In the meantime, while at Norbury he made several studies of the impressive trees on the estate, including this beautifully observed watercolour. There is a similar view in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Where can I see it?

It is a stipulation of the Vaughan Bequest, which brought 31 watercolours and drawings by Turner to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1901, that, because of their sensitivity to natural light, the works only be exhibited in the wan light of January. Despite developments in lighting technology, that stipulation is still respected and the annual display has become a popular fixture. Usually, the exhibition is given a particular twist or focus and this year, Turner: The Visionary (The Print Gallery, National Gallery of Ireland, Clare Street/Merrion Square West, January 1st-31st, nationalgallery.ie), curated by Adrian LeHarivel and Niamh MacNally, incorporates works by more than 20 artists influenced by Turner, including Basil Blackshaw, William Leech, Evie Hone, Paul Cézanne, John Singer Sargent and Kyffin Williams.

 

Is it a typical work by the artist?

It is typical. With good reason, the popular view of Turner tends to focus on his later work, especially those magnificent paintings, often related to the sea, when the tangible world seems to dissolve in atmospheric expanses of light, air and water. But Turner served a long apprenticeship and rose through the artistic ranks.  His father was a Covent Garden barber. The young Turner showed great artistic aptitude from an early age and became a student at the Royal Academy Schools in his mid-teens. From then on, extraordinary industry became the norm for him. His phenomenal ability as a topographical landscape artist brought financial success, acclaim and upward social mobility, though he remained a temperamental outsider among the upper classes.

An inveterate traveller, his work was his central obsession, probably to the detriment of his personal life. He was close to Sarah Danby for several years and he is usually assumed to be the father of the two daughters she had during this time. Her husband’s niece, Hannah, was Turner’s housekeeper for 40 years. Mike Leigh controversially visualised a brutal sexual encounter between them in his film Mr Turner. Though Turner remained intensely close to his father, who effectively worked for him until his death in 1829, his mother died in an asylum. The painter’s artistic achievements and legacy are immense.

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