16 Oct 2014

tax burnt the House down


16th October 1834 -Burning of the House of Lords and the commons"
by J.M.W Turner 

It will not have escaped most peoples notice that once again J.M.W Turner is headlining in London (Tate Gallery). The new film (Turner) is also slated for release at the end of the month (in the UK, later in the USA). The Burning started when it was decided to 'get rid of' the old tax system of 'Yardsticks' -these lengths of wood were used for measuring 'produce' for 'tax-purposes' in use from the 15th century up to the industrial revolution (c.1730). Under instruction the two workers enthusiastically burned the 'Yardsticks' and the ferocity of the 'burn' led to the fire that totally destroyed the Parliament buildings.

Turner was in love with Poussin and historical painting, however it is not that particular subject matter (of 17th century art) that we best love Turner for. It's the hazy pictures of steam and mist, the convulsing seas and above all those glowing sunsets. These are the images that capture us. Some seem to be the simplest of paintings, most created in a frenzy (so we are told), but each with an absolute understanding of colour, together with a masterly dexterity of what oil paint could be made to do with ones bare hands, literally. That's what pervades the mind and lodges in it like heroin. And it seems we are always in need of a regular Turner fix. For me a seminal work of J.M.W's was "the Burning of the house of Lords & commons" from 1834. 

Today it is 180 years since Turner created these paintings (one original can be viewed in The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the other at the The Cleveland Museum of Art in the USA). Even though I have admired Turner as a painter all my life, "nothing grows under tall trees" as Brancusi once said when invited to study under Rodin. So I decided to confront my life long addiction to J.M.W head on by setting myself a challenge. I first saw a 'Turner' when I was 9 years old at my local Art Museum (Manchester UK) and always wondered what it would be like, and indeed if I could, (by way of imitation) paint one of them.

I chose the 'Burning of the House of Lords' (version #2- see intro) from 1834, as my model. I had really wanted to come up with a version that best reflected my own sensibilities, rather than J.M.W's, however, first off I decided to make a 'faithful-ish' study at the full size of the original, (36.5 inches x 48.5 inches) to discover what I could glean from doing it.

J.M.W was once accused of using oil paint like water colour by his fellows at the Royal Academy, they seemed to think the application was not in the tradition of the great masters. I think they were wrong and obviously so did Turner. It is said by some, that he first applied *tempera thickly, as a sort of textural base .

*Tempera' is 'pigment' that can be mixed with pure distilled water (unpolluted rainwater does just as well apparently) - Over which 'a glaze of colour' is applied- (i.e. many thin oil washes). 

The tempera base when glazed created the luminosity of the image, one we are familiar with in most of Turner's work. J.M.W was 59 years old when he painted the 'Burning' so he would have had tuned and perfected his methods perfectly, just in time for that momentous event which he witnessed and sketched on the Thames along with several of his artistic peers, (including John Constable). 

I decided not to 'texturize' the study with tempera as I didn't believe my study would have gained anything from doing so, and besides it would have just slowed me down (it takes quite a while to dry and harden).
I began my challenge energetically applying oil paint thinned to excess with balsam turpentine, over and over. The good thing about using this system is its' drying time. I also employed the 'automatic-drawing' method, the one Turner must of been aware from his youthful association with John Robert Cozen's - John's father, Alexander, was a brilliant artist & theorist who crystalized an idea in a leaflet (around 1785) entitled - "a new method of assisting the invention of drawing original compositions in landscape".
Cozens- a landscape from an ink blot  (auto drawing) Tate Gallery
From around 1930 onwards, visual artists began using terms like 'subliminal' or 'subconscious separation' from 'consciousness', to describe Alexander Cozen's method. With this 'art-tool' and some academic horizontal thinking they created expressionist abstracts works of art that today we are all familiar with, (note: perhaps 'subliminal' sounds better than 'auto-drawing or auto-painting'?) Not unlike so many other painters of my generation, I am well versed in the *psionic method of art creation in painting.
*Psionic Projection Art Theory. Best explained as extending internal visual imagination and projecting those images onto a visible surface, like for example seeing shapes of people or animals in clouds.

Nonetheless, I did get much pleasure from using the method once again. I toyed with other ideas, like substituting the current day buildings of London from the 1800's references - And then I played around with the thought of 'dressing' the onlookers in 'cool' modern street clothing. I even thought about painting the crowds celebrating the fire and taking 'selfies' on smart phones, whilst I worked subliminally, or should I say on auto-paint.     

my study (full size) after J.M.W.Turner
In the end I think the study remained reasonably faithful to the several references I used, more colourful than Turners original no doubt. What I did discover was that (once again) J.M.W had awakened and added to my understanding of using the drama of transitional tones and how this can better utilized in contemporary painting. All in all the study took around three weeks before I finally downed tools, ready to start my own style of painting based on the 'Burning' experience I'd just had.

There have been a number of artists who have made 'homages' to this particular work and mine is no exception. I did want to bring something else to the table however, besides a strict 'reproduction' of the original composition and so elected to 'reflect' the fire in water, concentrating on one aspect from the original (the London bridge). I'm unsure that my 'addiction' to Turner has completed been vanquished from my psychi, but at least I now know J.M.W a little better than I did before starting this 'tongue in cheek' challenge. I gave my own painting the title "180 years after the Burning of the House of Lords" (homage to J.M.W.Turner). One day I might even try to 'challenge' myself again, I rather enjoyed it and learnt more than I'd bargained for.

Below, is my finished piece, its painted the size of Turners original.

"180 years later" (Homage to J.M.W) - 36.5 inches x 48 inches- oil on canvas
Written by Denis Taylor - resident artist at Studio 5. Sweden.
(Sweden: Gallery-Konstverk & Studio 5)
(USA- works available at: Saatchi-Art)