23 Feb


In that still-innocent era where hope was more than a catchy slogan deployed by technocrats to get the world’s top job, painters were still important. There were no movies or magazines, the word ‘bombardment’ was still a strictly military term probably beyond the vocabularies of all but those concerned with artillery. The poets were products of possibly the highest ever standards of literacy education, however, they’d collectively decided to go down the road that lead to disentanglement, fragmentation. The path that makes ruins of old buildings. The path that makes of the world a rubble that inspires.

This was the last era of that rare creature the aristocratic artist: Shelley, Byron, such names are associated as much with the establishments of Eton as with relentless social defiance. This was the Romantic Era. To appreciate exactly how radical these people were is not easy for a denizen of the early 21st century. Compared to a slow day on the gossip blogs, Byron’s then scandalous Don Juan seems a bit toffee-nosed and precious.

The shortlist for that era’s greatest artist are dominated by French and English names. Considering that it was the French who moved art in the direction of modernism most aficionados of art history are likely to name Delacroix or some such their favourite painter. However the prize, I’d say, should go to Caspar David Freidrich, followed closely by JMW Turner. It was Turner who not only painted the prime Romantic subject – landscape – best (apart from Friedrich) but, alone, jumped to the end-point of the avant-garde by technicality.

The Western style of art is dependent upon geometry. One draws a grid, assumes a starting point, fixes a vanishing point and makes the grid three dimensional. One arranges the objects within, measuring each and calculating their proportions according to the principles of perspective. This method serves to render most objects, from trees to the human body, with accuracy. However it does have limitations.

For example: clouds.

A cloud is gaseous water, airborne moisture. And like other gases its tendency is to spread and to travel in the directions whatever active force about determines it should. In the atmosphere of planets this force is usually some kind of wind – air forcing water any which way it can. So clouds are always moving and in their movement they are always ‘non-linear’ the physical term for chaotic. You can’t measure them, not really. Once you take measurement of a cloud it has changed its shape and proportions. By the time you’ve noted its ‘numbers’ they are out of date. So for the composer of pictures its impossible to rely to any extent on geometry, your observation will be of the movement.


The Romantics are largely characterized by their supposed rejection of Enlightenment values. This is a gross over-simplification. First their are no cohesive Enlightenment values. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith are both representative philosophers of the period, both advocate political arrangements on the basis of Enlightenment values. Their disagreements have never been resolved and persist to this day in ritual conflicts we know as elections in the Western world. The Marquis de Sade was an Enlightenment philosopher whose lengthy excursions in pornographic scenarios that evoke the brutality of human sexuality are largely a retort to Roussaeu’s rather rose-coloured view of the species. Enlightenment values do not redily compose a coherent ethical codebook. But it is generally agreed that the Enlightenment had something to do with capital ‘R’ Reason: mathematics, science and measurement in general – things you can count. The Romantics saw the coming Utilitarianism, the world in which facts, and nothing but, mattered, and revolted.

Their revolt was not wholesale. They didn’t reject metre in poetry, they didn’t discard the classical traditions of painting or sculpture. What they did was assert the emotional core of the human mind. And so you get Friedrich’s intense sunsets and spooky, ghoul-like trees. You get Wordsworth’s tribute to fields of daffodils and Shelley’s reminders that nothing endures, not even the mighty. Blake’s fires of Orc. There’s a lot of medieval imagery in the Romantic era. How many gothic ruins did Friedrich paint? You get storms and sunsets. And you get clouds.

Clouds are strange things. In them we have seen the faces of God and the eye of the Dreaming. They have many moods and it is impossible to get a definite visual fix on them. Even photography’s freeze-frame is, finally, a lie. Despite our technological civilization, our years of physics classes, it’s still not uncommon to see people gazing up at them when the weather’s pleasant. They are after all, in the city, the only view of nature we have.

As Turner got older, he got bolder. He’d always had money so he could do what he wanted. In his youth he’d conveyed the awesome power of the elements with depictions of shipwrecks and stormy waters, long suffering rocks. Shipwrecks were a favourite among Romantics. But when Turner reached his sixth decade or so the hazy mist began to swamp the objects almost entirely. The most famous of these images is “Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway ” in which a fuzzy bolt of a steam train bisects an ardent yellow haze of clouds and dust and smoke. By the time he did this one he’d been painting clouds by themselves for quite a while. Clouds? By themselves? I’ve seen a couple in the flesh. Small they are; gilt edged depictions of nothing but a slice of the sky. Rolling clouds on a blue background.

Mark Rothko who is, alongside Jackson Pollock, the most infamous of American abstractionists once cracked that he’d taught Turner a lot. This was shortly before he committed suicide in the early 1970s. But Turner had died in the 1850s about a hundred years before Rothko had started to make a major name for himself with his layers of hazy colour. Rothko’s work is usually unappreciated (I’ve heard many cracks in front of his small canvas at the NGV). But the proper way to view a Rothko is in a dark room with a light illuminating it. It’s in this situation that you get that sense of a light shining thru the layers of colours arranged into rough windows within windows. Still if you’re in the NGV and can imagine this for yourself looking at the Rothko and if you then go back and look at Turner’s clouds a few rooms away, well… you can see what Rothko meant.


The sky itself is a many layered thing and its variations on blue from the pale skies of Britain to the vivid eye-burning canopies over Arizona, Australia and the Sahara are the result of neighbourhood starlight boring down thru many kilometres of gas mixture. Against this, at a rather low level, whorl the clouds; white and grey and sometimes black. Pink and red as the Earth turns away from the Sun for the night. Orange, yellow, peach. Sometimes moving fast across the firmament, sometimes lingering and almost still. Sometimes wild and twisted into a violent vortex such as the one that raged thru my country a little while back. Layers of gas, and puffs and streaks and seeming explosions of heavy gas hanging inside. That is what the sky is and within the planetary sphere it is infinite. It cannot be measured and, despite the meteorologists, something about it seems forever beyond comprehension.



One Response to “TURNER’S CLOUDS”

  1. Amo March 2, 2011 at 11:21 pm #

    Dear Mr. Stewart
    could you get in touch with me I have a question regarding clouds. Thank you

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