With Sahara Desert-induced air pollution in the news, a smoggy painting by J.M.W Turner feels more prescient than ever.
Turner was an artist attracted to the turbulent. His imagination turned to shipwrecks and disasters like the Great Fire that did for the Palace of Westminster in 1834, an event which he rushed to witness first-hand and later became the basis of nine watercolour sketches. He was also drawn to natural catastrophes and phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain and fog.
The landscape of industrialisation is, by now, a familiar yet still stirring scene. This painting, called Dudley, Worcestershire (currently on display as part of a Turner exhibition at the Lady Lever Art Gallery), depicts a town in the throes of industrial change, set against a traditional pastoral backdrop. A ruined castle and church shimmer on a green hill above the dark and sooty furnaces below.
John Ruskin wrote that he found it a clear expression “of what England was to become”
Turner visited and sketched Dudley in 1830, just as concerns about the social oppression and the living standards of factory workers were becoming topical issues. For the writer and painter John Ruskin, who owned the work at one stage, Dudley represented Turner’s hatred of industrialisation. Ruskin wrote that he found it a clear expression “of what England was to become,” with its “ruined castle on the hill and the church spire scarcely discernible in the smog among the moon-lighted clouds.”
But perhaps Ruskin’s interpretation is distorted by his own feelings of repulsion towards industrialisation: Turner, a controversial figure in his day, omits any suggestion of the social and economic problems associated with industrialisation. Instead, he hints at the great power and energy beneath the surface of industry. This is emphasized by the figures working away in the later night setting, warmed by firelight. Turner recognised that industrial growth was important to Britain’s economic success and strove to invigorate landscape painting with a new sense of relevance and vitality.
The images created by Turner continue to resonate. At the opening ceremony of London’s Olympic Games, Danny Boyle’s production echoed the sentiments of the artist: romantic, pleasant pastures that bedded the stadium floor were ripped open by dark, satanic mills, yet the performance was full of celebration, energy and possibility. It would seem that we are as fascinated as ever by the industrial period. The troubled beauty of Turner’s painting is matched by our own concerns around this period of change, and the questions it raises continue to evolve in the modern day.