Text by Geoffrey Smith
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If it were possible to effect a pictorial manifestation of the sublime then surely this is the work which would come nearest to qualifying. If I were ever given the opportunity to choose one painting to accompany me to a desert island this would be it.
A product of his later years, Norham Castle epitomises Turner’s fascination with the representation of light and colour. Turner’s yellows seem to be spiked with some sort of supernatural energy providing a light source which appears to emanate from the canvas itself. How does he do it? When looking at some of his pictures, the illusion is so powerful that one often instinctively shields one’s eyes from the glare. Here the effect is more muted, perfectly conveying the more diffused light experienced when the sun is burning off the mist at the dawn of a fine summer day. Indeed, at this moment, the sun is engaged in dispersing the wreaths of mist from the castle, which is represented by a thin glaze of purplish blue. On the left side of the river a skein of mist clings to the surface of the water. In the shallows on the right a cow is drinking, its presence captured by a few dabs of paint but its form dissolved, like everything, by the light of the rising sun.
It was in 1797 that Turner first saw this view of the castle perched on a cliff above the river Tweed, during one of his tours, and it was a view to which he returned on many occasions producing drawings, watercolours and eventually this oil painting dating between 1845 and 1850. This picture was never exhibited at the Royal Academy — it would have been met with a bemused puzzlement and would have provoked a recurrence of the attacks to which some of his exhibited work had been subjected. It may have been a sketch, a precursor to a more ‘finished’ picture, or it may have been painted for Turner’s own personal satisfaction; there is no evidence either way but it is tempting to favour the latter.
Norham Castle represents the culmination of Turner’s life-journey from a topographical watercolourist to a visionary genius producing works of profound beauty, works which led the way to a new art, to a new way of representing the effects of light and of perceiving the world. As is well known, his paintings influenced the Impressionists but the radical nature of a work like Norham Castle surpasses, in terms of its approach to light and colour, anything produced for many decades after his death, perhaps until the twentieth century.
Photo © Tate – CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)
1847 George Caleb Bingham: Raftsmen Playing Cards, St Louis, City Art Museum
1848 Eugène Delacroix: The Entombment of Christ, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
1850 Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation), London, Tate Britain
1850 John Everett Millais: Christ in the House of His Parents, London, Tate Britain