Petworth House exhibition explores Turner’s magnificent watercolours

The Bishop's Palace, Sailsbury (1795) by JMW Turner
The Bishop's Palace, Sailsbury (1795) by JMW Turner

A new exhibition at the National Trust’s Petworth House celebrates the age of British watercolour with works by JMW Turner and leading British artists of his generation (January 7-March 12).

Some of Britain’s greatest watercolours will come to Petworth for an exhibition that explores Turner’s leading role in shaping this uniquely British art form.

A First Rate Taking in Stores (1818) by by JMW Turner. Courtesy of The Higgins, Bedford

A First Rate Taking in Stores (1818) by by JMW Turner. Courtesy of The Higgins, Bedford

Andrew Loukes, exhibitions manager, said: “Some 36 of the exhibits in the show are on loan from the Cecil Higgins Collection, Bedford, which is one of the great collections of British watercolours.

“There are two additional works from London’s Martin Gregory Gallery, a leading dealer in British watercolours and a sponsor of the exhibition.

“There will be seven paintings by Turner himself, alongside stunning works by artists who inspired him including Edward Dayes and Thomas Hearne; his contemporaries John Constable, John Sell Cotman, Thomas Girtin and many others.

“These are seen in contrast with the grand oil paintings and sculpture from the same period within Petworth, home to Turner’s patron, George Wyndham, third Earl of Egremont.”

The Great Falls of the Reichenbach by JMW Turner, 1804

The Great Falls of the Reichenbach by JMW Turner, 1804

Andrew added: “Turner is the most celebrated figure associated with Petworth and also one of the most important artists in terms of British watercolour.

“We have a remarkable collection of oil paintings and sculpture, but very few watercolours, because the third Earl of Egremont didn’t collect them. So it’s fascinating to bring them together here and to tell the missing chapter in the story of both Turner and British art generally.”

Andrew continued: “A highlight of the exhibition is Turner’s, A First Rate Taking in Stores, 1818.

“This dramatic scene of a vast ship on the high seas is the only painting to have been documented by an observer while Turner was making it. He began by pouring wet paint onto the paper until it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrabbled at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos – but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship, with all its exquisite minutia came into being.

“Watercolour, in Turner’s time, was considered a very British medium and its promotion was a matter of patriotism, paralleling Petworth’s support of British art in other media. The Sun reported that an 1819 exhibition featuring watercolours by Turner and others was ‘the work of British Artists, and it therefore constitutes a delightful repast for Patriotism as well as Taste.’

“The age of watercolour was also a period of high romanticism in literature with Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and their contemporaries feasting on landscape and the sublime.

“The Reichenbach Falls is an unmissable painting and one of Turner’s largest watercolours. At over a metre tall it is a spectacular painting and a technical tour de force.

“Turner had by this point in his career broken free of traditional methods. Working on a large scale allowed him to depict the soaring perspectives he had seen on his tour of Switzerland in 1802. It was also the location that author Arthur Conan Doyle chose for Sherlock Holmes to stage his own death.

“Frances Towne’s The Colosseum from the Caelian Hills, is from the earlier end of the period –1799. On his European travels his delicate early style transformed into larger, more luminous works of an ancient civilization in ruins.

“In contrast, John Constable’s Coal Brigs on Brighton Beach (c1824) is a monochrome drawing, with watercolour bringing faint colour and life to the sky.

“The exhibition also showcases previously-unseen works from the private collection at Petworth. These include an album of hand-coloured etchings, tinted with watercolour, by the political satirist James Gillray.

“Alongside this will be displays in the house by two contemporary artists who have made a study of Turner. Charlie Cobb created the oil paintings seen in Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner and will show some of these and other examples of his work in the Old Library, the room once used by Turner and others as a studio which is not normally open to the public.”

Entry to Turner and the Age of British Watercolour is by pre-booked, timed tickets only.

Tickets from or 0844 249 1895.

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