The Independent, Features, November 6, 2003
By Lynne Walker
Turner is at his most adventurous in The Late Seascapes - an exhibition of 42 oil paintings and watercolours assembled by the art galleries Massachusetts and Manchester - in which he makes the sea his own personal stage. Works drawn from the final decades of his career, from, the mid 1820s to his death in 1851, celebrate the dramatic grandeur of its mood, reflecting the infinite variety of colours and textures of waves and sky in sensational backdrops and extraordinary foregrounds.
On to them he projects history, such as Van Tromp's Shallop, and classical myth. With Dido and Aeneas royally portrayed in The Departure of the Fleet. He also uses the same drops as scene-setters for interpreting the many perils and pleasures associated with the sea - storms and wrecks, sunrises and fishing - and for exploring his preoccupation with light, misty hazes, puffing steam and machines.
For him, as an old man, the sea was apparently the elixir of eternal, vigorous youth. Fascinatingly, unfinished late works and preliminary underpaintings are hung her with completed works: Turner's style may have been rooted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but his eye and brush were surely time-travellers speeding ahead to Impressionism.
His experiences in the Kent and Sussex coast whetted his appetite, but it was his vivid sea voyages as an intrepid traveller, a modern-day Ulysses, which - as the exhibition curator James Hamilton suggests - inspired his casting. These canvases are peopled with stately ships, small boats tossing about, oddly shaped humans not drowning but waving, and infinite varieties of weather. And he wasn't afraid to use his brush to draw attention to controversial issues of his day, which still resonate. Now for the Painter, depicting the rescue of a stranded mother in foreign dress, suggests Turner's pride in Britain as a haven for outcasts.
In a section called The Deep, it is the brutal struggle between whales and whalers that surfaces in bloodied waters. One striking image, Whalers *( The Whale Ship) shows a huge floundering whale, spray slashing across the width of the canvas.
The longer you look at these seascapes, whether calm and reflective or brilliantly turbulent, the more you imagine is rippling beneath the surface. In Sea Monster and Vessels at Sunset, the fish have become terrifying monsters; in Dawn after the Wreck, the baying mutt on the beach was, according to Ruskin, the only survivor from a sailing disaster, though there's no evidence if a wreck. Around many of the central vortexes dominating the works, you can almost hear bobble-hatted fishermen roaring to each other.
The nearest we come to Turner's reputed experience of having himself tied to the mast of his ship in a snowstorm is the coach crash in which he found icy inspiration while making a dangerous winter crossing of the Alps, realise in Snowstorm, Mount Cenis, one in a series of chilly lake and mountain watercolours.
Easily the most stunning picture in the show is Rockets and Blue Lights to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water (1840). It has taken almost 150 years to get from Liverpool to Manchester, having failed to make its scheduled appearance in the latter city's 1857 Art Treasures of Great Britain exhibition. Its owner refused to allow it to be transported by rail, insisting that it go by road. Fate intervened, and the horse-drawn cart carrying it was struck by a train at a level crossing, causing the owner to take fright and have the picture returned to him immediately.
The canvas has been given a restorative makeover with 70 per cent of its previously poorly restored surface removed, and Turner's brushwork is revealed in all its glory. Seen here against marine-blue walls, the azure, turquoise and yellow tones of the seascapes sing out. Hamilton describes them as operatic, and indeed they are: from the rhythmic sweep of so many waves, to the poses of busy, chorus-like humans and the harmonic clashes of the elements.
In Dryden Goodwin's installation Dilate in the adjoining gallery, eight video screens form an octagon around the viewer. Whichever way you turn in this centre-stage position, surround-sound and jigsaw-like pictures flit past. Nature meets medieval images at urban junctions with beautifully shot, imaginatively edited glimpses of a vast range of material - Durham Cathedral's Rose Window; a P&O liner ploughing through the waves; an aeroplane gliding through the air; the artist's own long-lashed eye; a verdant forest; a dizzying highway - all captured by the artist on an eight camera rig. Dilate is a showcase for a technology of which Turner, with his interest in photography, optics and other scientific developments, would have thoroughly approved.