'Paths to Fame: Turner Watercolours from the Courtauld'
The Courtauld Gallery, London, 30 October 2008 to 25 January 2009
With just 30 works, the Courtauld collection of Turner watercolours is not a large holding. However, it is a superb one, and has been exceptionally so since one fine day in 2007 when a solicitor's letter arrived out of the blue announcing the bequest of nine drawings by a Ms Dorothy Scharf, who beforehand had been completely unknown to the gallery. This exhibition, seen previously at Dove Cottage, acts as a neat hook on which to display the collection and to hang a discussion of Turner's ambitions for his art, his mastery of watercolour and pushing out of its frontiers, his travels, his interactions with engravers, and much else besides. The show looks very good, appropriately mounted as it is in a top-floor room of Somerset House that was used as a Royal Academy exhibition space for the very first time in 1812, when Turner's Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps (Tate Britain) hung there in splendour. The wall colouring is a solid blue-grey that always brings out the intensity of Turner's hues, and certainly does so on this occasion. The wall captions are most helpful, and the catalogue very informative, with insightful essays by Andrew Wilton and Cecilia Powell, plus sectional introductions and catalogue entries by Joanna Selbourne.
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Understandably the works are hung in chronological order, beginning with a view of the Avon Gorge made indubitably in 1791 (and not the following year, as stated in the catalogue), and ending with a depiction of a beach occupied by a solitary, howling dog that might well have been made around 1841, as surmised. Between them are watercolours that demonstrate Turner's first methodical explorations of tonality; watercolour studies that reveal his growing mastery of the representation of architecture; pencil line drawings that provide proof of his certainty of hand, for there is never an erased mark in sight; a watercolour of Abingdon that manifests Turner's disdain for literal reality, for it includes a river lock where none existed; drawings that capture his initial responses to the high alps in French Savoy and Switzerland; watercolours that show his deep affinity with the Rhine between Cologne and Mainz, as well as down at Schaflhausen; sketches that mark his late return to the lakes and mountains of Switzerland; extraordinarily detailed drawings that he created with...