Saturday, March 10, 2012

London - Crossing the Rubicon

Map of London, back in the day - 1806

First of, I would encourage anyone to visit this site to get a real Tate gallery experience - this is a FABULOUS online portal showing a 3D rendition of his works at the gallery - actually hung on walls - and seeing it just barely makes up for not being able to see it live.

This has become of interest to me, especially as I sense the scale on which Turner and I are working is so vastly different that it takes an effort for me to come to terms with the difference of process and outcome this creates. Possibly more on this later.

Secondly, a lovely correspondent has alerted me as to a Van Gogh exhibit in New York describing his later years - and how at one point Van Gogh himself completed 40 paintings in 40 days. If anyone has information about this, please let me know.

Today wanted to discuss this is painting:

London from Greenwich Park exhibited 1809

Oil on canvas
support: 902 x 1200 mm

Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856


Where burthen’d Thames reflect the crowded sail
Commercial care and busy toil prevail
Whoese murky veil, aspiring to the skies
Obscures thy beauty, and thy form denies
Save where thy spires pierce the doubtful air
As gleams of hope amidst a world of care

(Words by Turner - from the display caption February 2010)

I call this painting my own crossing of the Rubicon - because after completing it, I feel I can do anything!! I chose one of the bigger panels, thinking the panoramic view from Greenwich Park, which exists today, after a fashion (more below) deserved a bigger display. The main problems I discovered with this were that

a) I just don't LIKE working big, for some reason - the absolute largest piece I have habitually created does not pass 3 squared feet, and when left to my own devices everything I create is around 1 ft squared. The smaller, the better I feel about a piece. So, right off, the size of the canvas stalled me out a bit.

b) there was a lot of detail!!
I once had an art instructor say "the only limit in how small you can work comes in whether you can see what you are doing or not" and tools exist which can help. Almost every square inch in this painting, for instance, had something to it that demanded use of the magnifying glass, an uncomfortable posture, and lots of patience. The magnifying glass is a pretty amazing tool. A lightbulb attached to it allows a person to get amazing close ups - I've worked with before, in this project and others, but in much smaller pieces! The size of the piece makes a difference, since a person reaches a certain saturation point from working close like this. If I am working on a piece that I know I can basically finish in one sitting, I will feel less of that restless itchiness that comes from deep focus and diminished mobility.

So, at first, dawdled with it, nothing much happening. It bears mentioning at this point that I have had a challenging past few days, where a weird & unexpected infection had me in its thrall for a few days. Not that the project has suffered - I am as of now caught up: with 15 paintings finished and 2 half-finished.
I might have let the sick state get the better of me absolutely but, I think of Frida Kahlo who was able to produce endlessly even after having been skewered by a traffic pole - so I carried on. But since I am neither of a heroic or speedy disposition, the condition has taken its toll - it took me like 5 hours to just get these blocked color areas shown at right - after endless procrastinations, consultations, and attending to other tasks. I finally left the painting there overnight to stew, to see if fresh eyes helped at all.

The next day proved more productive - I ended up spending anywhere from 6 to 8 hours on the thing. The sky was a rushed job, but in the end, DONE!

This project made me curious about London, in particular, this specific view of it. How much of it remains now? How have things changed between now and then?

I have been casually looking at the world of Regency England - the time where Turner was productive. Some of the things experienced were the Napoleonic Wars and the consequences of the American colonies' independence. It was a world of stage coaches, pleasure gardens, and duels of honor - a world captured excellently in Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and the work of Jane Austen. The era was particularly propitious to great literature - the British Romantic Period was in full swing, giving us Blake, Shelly and many more in addition to the above. Given to strong differences between socioeconomic classes, some of the issues experienced then resonate to this day - the seemingly chronic wars, the social ossification, the difference in income and lifestyles of the 'haves' and 'have nots'. In any event, Turner himself had some baggage to overcome in terms of his 'station in life', due to having been born in less stately circumstances than he might have wished - it might become relevant to speak more to this later. In any event, he painted London from the view of Greenwich Park, an ages-old park belonging to the Greenwich World Heritage Site. The meridian line which tyrannizes our watches cuts smack through the middle of this as well.

For a current view of the vantage point from where Turner sketched his work, one can see this video (click on pic)

One may notice many of the things in Turner's painting remain (including the Queen’s House and Greenwich Hospital which eventually became the Old Naval College), and the upwards curve of the river. One can even distinguish St Paul's Cathedral at the horizon level - something not easily seen in the modern-day view, so overtaken with skyscrapers as it is. Interestingly as well, the herd of red and fallow deer seen in the painting are still known to graze in the 183 acres this oldest of British Royal parks contains.

An interesting aside: these picturesque buildings so prominent in Turner's painting later on came to house a nuclear reactor:

"the Royal Naval College buildings were – as the chief British naval training centre between 1869 and 1998, including a fully functioning nuclear reactor between 1962 and 1996 – an institution that guaranteed the survival of the British empire. No Royal Naval College, then no Britain as we know it; rather a country that would pay a a closer resemblance to France and Spain than it does now." Seven Wonders of the World...

What a bizarre confluence of events could have led to a fully functional nuclear reactor practically in the middle of Londontown is more than I can imagine at present,and probably more than Turner could ever have conceived of - but there it is. I have spoken to Jimbo about it since then and come to find out it is fairly unremarkable to have working nuclear reactors in the middle of a large city - that in fact the first one was at a University of Chicago basement somewhere. Ah well, wonders never cease...

Would love nothing more than to spend more time inquiring into literature, culture, and society of early 19th century England but I need to make sure I complete another one before nightfall so as not to fall behind. Have a great week all! Will be in touch again soon.


  1. Great post! This project is more than just a painting project; it is also a didactic experience that includes a glimpse into history, literature, and other human expressions in the arts & sciences. Very interesting. Thank you!

    1. si po :D every day you try to learn a little bit :D thanks for being cool & stopping by with a note!


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