Long before Margate was dubbed Dalston-sur-Mere in sly tribute to the young generation of London creatives moving down to the seaside town, this corner of Kent was a hub for radical artists. Van Gogh lived and worked as a teacher in nearby Ramsgate, while Margate belongs, of course, to Turner. The artist immortalised the town in his dramatic seascapes and said that the skies over the area were “the loveliest in all of Europe.” The local art gallery, Turner Contemporary, is celebrating its fifth birthday this autumn with an exhibition looking specifically at Turner’s radical use of colour, selecting many works that demonstrate his chromatic boldness in painting the town.
I am a resident of Margate myself, living on the cliff just behind the dramatic Turner Contemporary building, itself situated on the spot where Turner regularly stayed when in the town. I can certainly testify to the beauty of the sea and skies here. By day clouds and sun create a constantly changing environment that makes light feel solid and the cliffs fluid. But at sunset the sun sinking into the sea beyond the harbour never fails to astonish, with banks of cloud lit in burning orange or almost neon pink colouring everything in the town. Time and again, the old cliche springs to my lips: “If you painted it you wouldn’t believe it,” and indeed the colours themselves are so strong and vivid that they often look unnatural, as if photoshopped.
Turner’s extraordinary paintings of this same view prove however that to capture the reality a bold attitude to colour is essential. This show includes both oil and watercolour paintings that often use colour in a way that is startling and counterintuitive. The exhibition features over 100 works, beginning with earlier, more traditional paintings, but as it moves through his career his passion for colour is drawn out. The earlier paintings were made using organic and mineral pigments, but over the course of his career he also embraced technical developments in paint – industrial paints including cobalt blue appear in his works by 1810, chrome yellow by 1815, and emerald green in the 1830s.
Turner was a keen student of colour theory. His copy of Goethe’s Theories of Colours – a book concerned with human perceptions of colour as much as strict colour science – shows his own notes, and the above illustration was created by Turner for a lecture to students on the use of colour to create depth in painting. One of his most radical departures was to use red tones for the sky, as demonstrated in rarely-seen watercolours shown as part of the exhibition, painted during tours of the Mediterranean from 1819 onwards. Many of the works on show paved the way for a much more fluid and impressionistic use of colour, threads of which can be found running right into the paintings we would think of today as Modernist.
The show ends with late-period oil paintings, reviewed at the time by The Spectator as “freaks of chromomania” but today considered some of his greatest masterpieces. All powerfully demonstrate the centrality of colour technique and philosophy to his work. As the artist himself observed, “he that impresses the observation or stimulates the associate idea of a colour individually is the great artist.”
JMW Turner: Adventures In Colour is at Turner Contemporary, Margate from 8 October 2016 to 8 January 2017.