Turner's Dutch Boats need not stay anchored in Britain to wield their power
Selfishly, I am delighted that JMW Turner’s The Bridgewater Sea Piece – also known, drably, as Dutch Boats……
‘Forces of nature’ … JMW Turner’s Dutch Boats in a Gale,1801.
Selfishly, I am delighted that JMW Turner’s The Bridgewater Sea Piece – also known, drably, as Dutch Boats in a Gale is to stay at the National Gallery, in London. I was looking at it there just the other day: the roaring sea seems to lash against the very surface of this astonishingly mobile painting and seep out into the gallery itself. You should wear a lifejacket to look at it.
When Turner was an up-and-coming artist, collectors loved the “sea pieces” of 17th-century Dutch marine painters such as Willem van de Velde. Turner painted this ambitious reinvention of a “Dutch” style sea painting in 1801 to prove that he was a more powerful artist than the old masters beloved by collectors. Mission accomplished. Dutch Boats in a Gale shakes and shudders with the forces of nature in a way that makes Dutch marine paintings look like corks bobbing on a millpond.
This masterpiece has stormed and raged on its wall at the National Gallery since 1998, but it does not belong to the UK – it was on long-term loan from a private collector named Harry Hyams. Hyams, who died in December, stipulated in his will that the painting must stay there, still on loan, mind – it’s not a gift – thus saving it from being sold abroad.
Our artistic heritage needs to be shared, not hoarded
As I said, I could not be more pleased. But for the sake of Turner and for British art, I wish it were being sold abroad. It is absurd to make a patriotic fuss about this picture staying in the UK. If we really care about Turner’s global reputation, we should want paintings like this to hang in museums around the world.
There are not enough great British paintings in museums such as the Louvre or the Prado. The British contribution to art since the 18th century sometimes seems like a national secret. We need more – not less – British art to be sold abroad. The Hermitage in St Petersburg is one place you can find superb historical British art because Catherine the Great collected it. American museums also have some choice examples of British painting.
Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840, by JMW Turner.
My most powerful experience ever of seeing a painting by Turner, as it happens, came not in Britain but in Boston. The city’s Museum of Fine Arts owns Turner’s greatest work of all, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying). Coming across this bloody, blazing vision of human cruelty – the sea is horrifically full of drowning, chained up slaves – was one of the most startling experiences I’ve ever had in an art gallery.
Did it occur to me to complain that Turner’s eerily luminous sea scene has been “lost” to Britain? Of course not. It works well in Boston, where it silently rebukes the conscience of the US. Americans need this painting about slavery. And it teaches a lesson about the value of great art. The most universal painters speak not just to one land, but to all of the world.
Turner is a great artist because he has something to say to everyone. He is the best painter of the sea and the sun, and one of the finest poetic users of colour. Matisse admired him; Rothko revered him. Yet he is also one of the most visionary painters of myth and history, and his intense tellings of dark and moving stories belong in the imagination of anyone, regardless of where they live.
Britain’s artistic heritage needs to be shared, not hoarded. The UK owns a multitude of Turners. He left a truckload of his oil paintings, watercolours and drawings to the nation. It would not be any loss at all if the Bridgewater Sea Piece were to be sold elsewhere for an astronomical price. In fact, it would be a gain, spreading the very British genius of Turner across the planet whose natural forces and human tragedies he painted so well.