J.M.W. Turner’s love affair with Durham


We could all learn a lot from Romanticism, and no this is not about buying flowers or candle-lit dinners. I first fell in love with this art movement when I saw the Turner Collection at the Tate Britain Art Gallery in London a few years ago.

‘The Romantics’ were European painters in the 1800s who adored our landscape and dedicated their lives to studying it. They valued the authentic experience of the artist, emphasising the importance of subjective emotion within aesthetics. The zeitgeist of the romantic era was about capturing the character of nature as the environment doesn’t just surround us, it is a subject in and of itself. Notably, the movement as a whole was a rejection of order and reason within the Enlightenment period, turning away from the norm of painting the elites of society.

You might not know it, but we’ve all seen Turner throughout our lives, on the back of a twenty pound note. This is because to this day Turner remains a beloved English artist and was an elected associate and academician of the Royal Academy. He produced some of the most seminal English landscapes of the nineteenth century in his studio in London, working from sketches he did whilst travelling Europe. Donned ‘the painter of light’ he drew inspiration from Rembrandt’s Chiaroscuro and Claude Lorraine’s Italianate landscapes.

All artists have their muses. Some of the most notable are Picasso and his inspiration from Marie-Therese Walter, or Dali who was influenced by Gala Diakonova. Many of these muses turned into lovers, yet for J.M.W. Turner the natural realm was his object of affection.

His vistas and oil paintings span whole walls and have an incomparable grandeur without being abstracted from reality. Both the viewer and the human details in the painting are dwarfed by ethereal depictions of light, reminding us of our impermanence in contrast to the perseverance of the natural world around us.

The philosophy of Turner’s work is evocative of the scientist James Lovelock and his Gaia hypothesis: The world can be considered a whole as its biological systems behave as a complex single entity, hence it should be treated with a certain respect. Both recognise the intrinsic value of the world around us in two very different practices. Turner’s celebration of nature’s tempestuous yet ultimately graceful magnificence celebrates the same self-perpetuating, sacred Earth system that Lovelock quantifies through chemistry.

To me turner’s bequest is a love letter adoring nature, prompting us to rekindle an affection for what surrounds us. Besides from his paintings I fear Turner was recluse to love, he did father two daughters, but never married either of the significant romantic interests in his life. So perhaps he understood love in the sense that he was dedicated to his art, but had a slightly skewed personal perspective.

However, what most attracts me to Turner, is that he had his own love affair with Durham and the northeast. His topographical studies of the view of Durham Cathedral from Predends Bridge were painted over 200 years ago, and the meandering river has hardly changed. The watercolour he completed in 1835 titled ‘Durham’, captures the serene light that shines down on the wear and illuminates the Cathedral’s magnificent structure. With views stretching to Framwellgate Bridge, the only change is that Riverview café isn’t nestled into the foliage beneath the castle.

His artworks of Durham are painted with the same authority that he commanded in Venice and Rome

With an eye for capturing natural beauty, his artworks of Durham are painted with the same authority that he commanded over natural subjects in Venice, Rome, and London. In doing so he grants an aesthetic status which is often unrecognised to the northeast. He completed tours all around Europe but was still drawn back to Durham time and time again. So if you get the chance, take a trip to The National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh which displays this watercolour of Durham.

Romanticism teaches us to appreciate our individual subjective experience whilst looking to nature and finding solace. Most poignantly, there’s an existentialist freedom found in the realisation that Turner walked the same river path as we do, just past Prebends Bridge – much like the medieval monks did and just as future students will do too.

So this valentines, instead of candle-lit dinners and flowers (or maybe additionally to) try to be a different kind of romantic. Strive to see Durham through Turner’s eyes, take a walk around the wear by yourself or with a special someone.

Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner ‘Durham’ (Creative Commons NonCommercial license)

One thought on “J.M.W. Turner’s love affair with Durham

  • My name is Thomas Smith I am j.m.w.turners great great great grandson.ibam just now learning about that side of my family, I would love to know how how would go bout coming to view the collection of his.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.