Laura Gascoigne

Through the eyes of a tourist

In the summer of 1811 the 37-year-old Turner packed his sketchbooks, paints and fishing rod and headed west for his first tour of Devon and Cornwall. The purpose of his trip — from Poole in Dorset around Land’s End and back along the Bristol Channel to Watchet in Somerset — was to gather material for a series of Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England to be published as engravings by the Cooke brothers. On the bone-rattling roads of the day the tour will have taken eight weeks, but Turner was an enthusiastic traveller, ‘capable of roughing it in any mode the occasion might demand’, according to one local travelling companion. With his visual memory, feeling for atmosphere and eye for detail, he had the natural instincts of a travel writer — and in fact he planned to accompany the published engravings with lines of his own poetry composed en route.

Turner’s travels were extremely productive. The sketches made on that first tour, and on two return trips to Devon in 1813 and 1814, formed the basis of 50 finished watercolours and eight oils produced in London — some as many as 25 years later, thanks to Turner’s uncanny topographical talent for resurrecting landscapes from skeletal jottings. But despite this aptitude, the Academy’s newly created Professor of Perspective sided with ‘Elevated Landscape’ against what he called ‘Map making’. As a disciple of Claude, he had an added reason for going west. With Europe closed to tourism by the Napoleonic wars, it was the closest he could get to the light of Italy, Claude’s magic recipe for transforming ‘maps’ into ‘elevated landscape’. He was delighted to discover that the Tamar valley ‘hardly appeared to belong to this island’, and soon demonstrated that with a touch of Italian styling to the treetops it could be convincingly repositioned somewhere south of Rome.

Tate St Ives’s spring show Light into Colour: Turner in the South West is the first Turner survey to focus on this period of his life, and the first exhibition in the West Country of an artist whose father was born in South Molton.

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