A Turner Mystery Solved – Kelly Grovier

J M W Turner (1775–1851) War, the Exile and the Rock Limpet

It is among the most intriguing mysteries surrounding the art and imagination of Joseph Mallord William Turner: the secret he insisted was waiting to be discovered in one of his greatest paintings. It all started in 1842 when the legendary critic John Ruskin paid a visit to Turner as he was busy putting the finishing touches on his smouldering study War – The Exile and The Rock Limpet. Throbbing with volcanic reds and sulphuric yellows that anticipate the apocalyptic sky in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Turner’s painting imagines the lonely last years that the defeated Napoleon Bonaparte spent on the Atlantic island of Saint Helena following his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But there is more than meets the eye – a teasing hidden layer that Turner insisted is there, yet one that has remained undiscovered for nearly two centuries. ‘He tried hard one day for a quarter of an hour’, Ruskin would later recall of the curious encounter, ‘to make me guess what he was doing in the picture of Napoleon before it had been exhibited, giving me hint after hint in a rough way; but I could not guess, and he would not tell me.’

Ruskin, whose aesthetic perspicacity is admired to this day, must have found the taunting more than a little irksome. What wasn’t he seeing in Turner’s broody, bloodshot canvas? But great art requires that we rotate our perception. In this case, literally. If you spin Turner’s painting counterclockwise 90 degrees onto its left side, a large and haunting face can be found dominating the right half of the shifted work.

A Turner Mystery Solved, Kelly Grovier
J M W Turner, War – The Exile and The Rock Limpet

The mysterious portrait bears a striking resemblance to well-known likenesses of Napoleon as a young man, such as Antoine-Jean Gros’s dashing portrayal, Bonaparte at the Pont d’Arcole, painted in 1796, when Napoleon was 27 years old. This disguised depiction of the youthful French leader in Turner’s work contrasts markedly with the much smaller, dejected figure of a banished Napoleon that the artist inserted at the centre of his canvas when the work is viewed right-side up. The painting, in other words, is a time-elapsed double portrait of Napoleon that captures the French leader in both his heyday and his demise.
What is the meaning of this strange second self? To many liberal-minded contemporaries of Turner, the young Napoleon embodied the promise of a new dawn of reform – a hope some felt was dashed when he crowned himself Emperor in 1804. If you look closer at the large and previously unknown face of the younger Napoleon in the rotated work, it appears to be smoking a pipe comprised surreally of his defeated future self. Here, Turner may be alluding to caricatures of Napoleon that punningly portrayed him ‘fuming’ in exile. (See Here)

Adding to the well-wrought wit is a puff of smoke that hangs in the air which, on close inspection, takes the shape of an elephant – an allusion perhaps to the frequent equation of Napoleon with the legendary Carthaginian general, Hannibal, who crossed the Alps on the back of African war elephants in 218 BC (a subject Turner tackled in 1812). The result is a complex painting that is stranger and more pioneering than art historians have ever suspected.
This hidden face may be key to unlocking further layers in Turner, whose works contain ‘an intricate code’, as I once described it, ‘woven into each narrative’. For years I have been contemplating ‘the extent to which such details’, as I wrote in a review of the major exhibition, Late Turner,(see Here) that Tate Britain staged to wide acclaim in 2014, have been ‘stitched almost subliminally into the resplendent fabric of the artist’s works’. ‘Turner’s art requires’, I suggested at the time, ‘agility in the viewer, as the focus must zoom and retract from his paintings’ surfaces’ in order fully to appreciate what he is doing. Consider, for instance the painting that hangs immediately to the right of War – The Exile and The Rock Limpet on Tate Britain’s walls, its companion painting Peace – Burial at Sea (first exhibited 1842).

A Turner Mystery Solved,Kelly Grovier
J M W Turner Peace – Burial at Sea

Draw a large ‘X’, corner to corner, across the sombre canvas and the most unlikely of cultural references is caught in the crosshairs. There, shimmering in the column of light that beckons between the two ships at the centre of the painting (a tribute to Turner’s friend, Sir David Wilkie, who died on his way back from the Holy Land in June 1841, aged 55) is an irrefutable profile of the slapstick puppet Mr Punch, a staple street-show presence in Covent Garden (where Turner was born on 23 April 1775) since the 17th century. Punch’s shocking cameo was likely prompted by the launch in July 1841, just weeks after Wilkie’s death, of the hugely popular satirical publication that adopted the marionette as its masthead’s mascot: Punch magazine. Once you have acclimatised your eyes to the mist, clouds, and sea that surround the ships, a wider patchwork of comic characters pulling faces suddenly becomes discernible – its cartoonishness echoing the witty drawings that had begun to fill Punch’s pages, giving birth to the genre (and, indeed, the term itself) of modern-day ‘cartoons’.
Why wouldn’t Turner tell Ruskin, or anyone else for that matter, what he was up to in his work? Who can say for sure? Is it possible he was merely having fun, stitching into his paintings whimsical watermarks that only he knew were there? Perhaps. It seems more likely the artist was anxious that divulging his concealed portrait would open it up to allegations of gimmickry that could diminish its status from high art to perishable political commentary. Widely lauded in his youth, Turner was increasingly targeted by critics who believed he had lost his touch and that his paintings had become confused. To send critics on an egg hunt to find shapes hiding in his canvases could have resulted in further threat to his legacy – his lifework reduced to a laughing stock.
Had Ruskin twigged and turned his attention to other canvases for faces and figures, who knows what he might have found? The artist’s contemporary, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, said in his unfinished essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’, that the greatest works of imagination are forever evolving before our very eyes. ‘Veil after veil may be undrawn, and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed.’ In Turner, nothing is what it is; it’s always something else. What follows is a handful of Turner’s works in which I have spotted in the ceaselessly shifting consciousness of the canvas veils still waiting to be undrawn.

1. Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

Turner Mystery Solved
J M W turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

Until now, the most famous horse ever to rear its head on the walls of the National Gallery in London is surely George Stubbs’s powerful portrait of an Arabian stallion, Whistlejacket, 1762. Over 80 years after Stubbs’s timeless tribute to unharnessed energy, Turner will turn his own hand to something of the same subject. Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway suspends in luminous mist the oncoming thrust of a steam engine across the Maidenhead viaduct. Admirers of the painting have long marvelled at the tension between the broad expressionistic strokes Turner uses to conjure the earth and sky surrounding the train and his more delicate insertion of teensy details, such as a hare dashing out in front of the engine along the track. What has not been appreciated is the receding row of chestnut horses, subliminally sculpted from the arches of the viaduct in the centre foreground of the canvas – oversized yet overlooked. Turner’s tribute to the increasingly-outmoded horse, without whose muscle railroads could not have been built, adds a deeper level of poignancy to his meditation on modern industrial change.

2. The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846)

Turner Mystery Solved
J M W Turner, The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846)

Turner’s late masterpiece, The Angel Standing in the Sun, is a blinding blur of Old Testament trauma and tragedy. In a vortex of visionary light, a sword-wielding Archangel Michael
surveys a selection of holy horrors: the lifeless body of Abel, slain by his brother Cain, and the decapitated corpse of Holofernes. The indistinctness and apparent disunity of Turner’s description of these intense scenes divided critics, with one claiming that the artist ‘seems to have taken leave of form altogether’. But form can take different forms. Uniting the action that unfolds across the canvas is a soft and secret self-portrait (complete with signature top hat and high collar) that, once spotted, dominates the middle ground of the canvas. Tune your eyes to the faint frequency of that veiled visage – a miracle of delicate draughtsmanship – and you’ll begin to detect more and more faces in the fabric, including a sidelong portrait of a woman wearing a hat on the left side of the canvas. There is unmistakable intimacy in her concealment, whoever she is.

3. Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, exhibited 1843

Turner Mystery Solved
J M W Turner. the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, exhibited 1843

At first glance, his painting Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis is a vibrant affirmation of life, celebrating, as it does, God’s covenant with man following the Flood. But the almost-invisible veil of an all-enveloping skull that almost swallows the entire canvas transforms the seemingly triumphant vision into something more spiritually cerebral: a mega memento mori.

4. Neapolitan Fisher-girls Surprised Bathing by Moonlight, c. 1840

Turner Mystery Solved
J M W Turner, Neapolitan Fisher-girls Surprised Bathing by Moonlight, c. 1840

In Turner’s evaporative vision Neapolitan Fisher-girls Surprised Bathing by Moonlight, c. 1840, it may not be that a burst of moonlight is the real cause of the bathers’ sudden startlement. Look close, and the fisher girls appear to be looking neither at the moon nor the volcano erupting in the distance but to the large ungainly tree that looms over them. Turner has ingeniously pruned the tree’s leaning limbs and bulbous boughs into the shape of an enormous winged figure overlooking the scene, as if wittily reversing the roles of the myth of Diana and Actaeon. In Titian’s depiction of that myth, a bathing goddess is spied upon by a mortal, whereas in Turner’s painting here, it may be Diana (goddess of the half-moon) who is caught secretly spying upon the mortals.

5. A Storm (Shipwreck), 1823

Turner Mystery Solved
J M W Turner, A Storm (Shipwreck), 1823

Though it is difficult to take our eyes off the perilous predicament of ships and sailors in his turbulent watercolour A Storm (Shipwreck), 1823, if we shift our gaze to the chaotic clouds above, we can see who exactly is responsible for all the commotion. There, in Turner’s scruffy sky, a Zeus-like god appears to be conducting the terror. It is hard not to see the insertion of a pagan god cutting shapes in the disco of the sky as playful – a suspicion amplified by the hint of a top hat, blurring the portrayal into quasi-self-portraiture.

6. Fishermen at Sea, 1796

Turner Mystery Solved
J M W Turner, Fishermen at Sea, 1796

In this, the first oil painting that Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy (when he was only 21 years old), the silent sublimity of the moonlit sky is infused with an aura of omniscient consciousness by the subliminal suggestion of an otherworldly countenance overseeing the swelling waters. From the very start, Turner has made us feel ‘a presence that disturbs’ as his contemporary William Wordsworth wrote, ‘something far more deeply interfused / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns / And the round ocean and the living air / And the blue sky and in the mind of man.’


Kelly Grovier is an American poet, historian, and art critic. Author of ten books, he has written on art and literature for BBC Culture, The RA Magazine, The Sunday Times, and the Times Literary Supplement. He is co-founder of the scholarly journal European Romantic Review. Read More

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Lead image: courtesy wiki commons