JMW Turner’s iconic Yorkshire paintings taken out of private storage to go on display in Harrogate

Curators Karen Southworth (left) and  May Catt sorting out some paintings by JMW Turner  for the new exhibition  Northern Exposure  at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.
Curators Karen Southworth (left) and May Catt sorting out some paintings by JMW Turner for the new exhibition Northern Exposure at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.
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Turner’s Northern paintings and his influence on modern artists is celebrated in two new exhibitions. Victoria Benn heads to Harrogate. 
Pictures by Gary Longbottom, Gerard Binks, Tate, Stephen Pomfret.

Joseph Mallord William Turner left London in 1797 as “an architectural draughtsman” and returned “a poet of the landscape sublime”, according to Professor David Hill, Turner expert, author and co-curator of the exhibition at the Mercer Art Gallery, in Harrogate.

Bolton Abbey from the south by JMW Turner c 1799  in the exhibition Northern Exposure at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.

Bolton Abbey from the south by JMW Turner c 1799 in the exhibition Northern Exposure at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.

Impressive words which highlight not only the noble ambitions of Turner, who was 22 when he left London, but also pay homage to his incredible talent and the far-reaching artistic legacy inspired by Yorkshire and the North.

“Turner’s aim on his first trip north in 1797 was quite simple – to sketch its abbeys, castles, churches and minsters,” explains Professor Hill. “But as he travelled the North he became exposed to its idiosyncratic weather, light and landscape, from the rain sweeping over the moors to the sunlight bursting through the clouds and the mists in the valleys.

“These were brand new phenomena for him and opened up the possibilities of serious landscape painting.”

Turner: Northern Exposure, which recently opened at the Mercer Gallery, is the final stop of a year-long touring exhibition aimed at retracing that inaugural eight-week trip via the artist’s paintings and sketchbooks – a journey which first took him through Yorkshire then onwards to County Durham, Northumberland, Cumbria and the Lake District.

Turner exhibition at the Mercer Gallery, Harrogate.' 'Picture Gerard Binks

Turner exhibition at the Mercer Gallery, Harrogate.' 'Picture Gerard Binks

In reflecting this journey, some of Turner’s most iconic paintings of the county – including Scarborough (1811), St Agatha’s Abbey, Easby (c1820), Richmond, Yorkshire (c1826-8), Bolton Abbey from the South (c1799) and The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night (c1799) have been brought out of private storage at the Tate for display at the Mercer.

“Almost any one of these paintings is worth the trip itself,” says Professor Hill.

Paying homage to and running simultaneously with Turner: Northern Exposure is Force of Nature, a contemporary exhibition featuring some the region’s most acclaimed landscape artists. Indeed, exemplifying the inspirational legacy rendered by Turner and that tour is the work of Debbie Loane, co-owner and artist in residence at the Lund Studios and Gallery, in Easingwold.

“Interestingly, Professor Hill taught me Art History for my degree course at Bretton Hall College, part of the University of Leeds, which used to have its campus at what is now the Yorkshire Sculpture Park,” says Loane.

The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night by JMW Turner  in the exhibition Northern Exposure at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.

The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night by JMW Turner in the exhibition Northern Exposure at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.

“I remember at the time he was writing his first book, Turner in the North, and he kept us entertained with his stories of how he’d retraced Turner’s steps around Yorkshire, visiting the likes of Bolton Abbey and Kirkstall Abbey to try and find the original viewpoints for the paintings.

“Professor Hill really opened my eyes to what kind of a person Turner was and to the reality of how he worked and how he employed artistic licence to tweak perspective and make a better composition.

“Turner’s 1811 painting, Scarborough, is a great example of this as anyone who is familiar with the topography around the castle will see that Turner created a real sense of drama by adding in an extra hundred foot or so of height, so that his version of Scarborough Castle rides out on this huge mountainous outcrop.

“Turner was unsurpassable at this, knowing when to stop being faithful to what was there in order to create a really good painting. He was also the master at using colour to create illusions of space, depth and light.”

Turner exhibition at the Mercer Gallery, Harrogate.' Pictured is one of his sketch books. 'Picture Gerard Binks

Turner exhibition at the Mercer Gallery, Harrogate.' Pictured is one of his sketch books. 'Picture Gerard Binks

Consistently drawn to the wilder expanses of the Yorkshire landscape for her own artwork, Loane also feels a great fascination for exploring Turner’s views for herself and so has created her own version of Turner’s Dunstanburgh Castle (c.1828) which features in the Northern Exposure exhibition.

“Turner only ever made one trip to Dunstanburgh Castle – which was on the 1797 tour, and yet over the course of the next 20 or so years he made many pictures of it, so his original sketches and recordings of it had to be accurate to feed the exceptional artworks he created as a result,” says Loane.

“The only way to reach Turner’s view of Dunstanburgh Castle is to park in the village of Craster and walk a mile or so along the grass track which takes you out towards the headland – the same track Turner would have presumably walked on.

“I’ve created a group of 12 studies, from the walk, on panels which illustrate my progression along the shore. Some are more abstract than others, capturing the weather or the texture of the sea, and then there is the largest piece focusing on the unmistakable landmark that is the castle.”

Award-winning Yorkshire painter and printmaker Emerson Mayes also credits Turner as a key influence and the inspiration behind a series of new artworks he has created for Force of Nature which are based on some of the landscapes Turner studied on his trips north, including Studley Royal, Fountains Abbey, Harewood House and Bolton Abbey.

“Only by seeing his work ‘in the flesh’ can you really appreciate the magnitude of what he has achieved,” he says. “His bravery with paint allowed so many to follow in his path from the impressionists through to the abstract expressionists. I’m not sure there is a contemporary landscape painter, in fact any painter, working today that hasn’t in some way been influenced by Turner and his work.”

Turner: Northern Exposure and Force of Nature runs until April 19. www.harrogate.gov.uk/Turner