Ann Gagné, ‘Turner Returns to the Art Gallery of Ontario’

Ann Gagné is a College Instructor at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. Her current research explores how touch and ethics relate to education as well as the spatial framing of learning in the nineteenth century which is an extension of themes found in her doctoral dissertation. She is very active on Twitter @AnnGagne and also writes a blog that relates to teaching and pedagogical strategies at

Toronto’s love affair with J.M.W Turner began in 2004 when the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) hosted the Turner Whistler Monet exhibit that the arts community is still talking about more than a decade later (an exhibit that opened at the Tate Britain in 2005). Part of this exhibit was an exploration of Turner’s prints called “Turner’s Printed Legacy” which looked at the prints from his 1807-1809 Liber Studiorum study. Toronto is again host to Turner but this time the exhibit “Painting Set Free,” focuses on Turner’s late works which is of importance to Victorian and nineteenth century scholars and enthusiasts. The main focus is on the last fifteen years of Turner’s work and starting with some of Turner’s artistic influences like Claude Lorrain, the exhibit goes on to explore Turner’s oil techniques as well as his watercolours. Ruskin’s description of Turner from Praeterita greets patrons at the start: “I found in him a somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English-minded gentleman: good-natured evidently, bad-tempered evidently, hating humbug of all sorts, shrewd, perhaps a little selfish, highly intellectual” and all of these facets of Turner seem to be represented in this exhibit.

The interest in this particular show has been building since it was announced a few months ago. The presentation of various Turner pieces is combined with clips from Mike Leigh’s 2014 film Mr.Turner– a film which, though important in that it brought Turner to a larger audience, is still problematic in my opinion due to the depiction of Ruskin- however, that is a topic for another post. The nine prints from Liber Studiorum presented seemed to garner much interest in the very busy Tuesday afternoon gallery. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to see “River Wye” and to see in detail the architectural definition present in Turner’s print as well as the choices he made in positioning the characters in the foreground.

Turner’s 1840’s watercolours were accompanied by two reproductions of Turner’s 1845 sketchbook Ideas of Folkestone. Though a nice addition to the exhibit in general, this sketchbook was not sufficiently presented in context with the other pieces. Further explanation of the importance of the sketchbook and the images it contains would have helped patrons understand the complexity of Turner’s work and methodology. In the watercolour pieces selected for this exhibit we see the apparent structure (pencil strokes outlining forms, buildings, and nature) behind Turner’s art-providing an opportunity to understand his eccentric method of production.

Turner’s oil work was seemingly contextualized better than the watercolours on display. “The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa” is a piece that is reminiscent of his earlier bright watercolour work, with attention to architectural detail and a keen eye to social and economic context. The comparison of “Peace-Burial at Sea” with “War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet” was particularly well done and the framing of these pieces helped in that comparison.

As a Ruskin scholar with an interest in Turner’s work, I was very pleased to hear that this exhibit was coming to the AGO however I must admit that part of me was slightly disappointed at the scope of the pieces present. The staging of the exhibit allowed for very distinct interpretations of moods and themes in Turner’s work but the structure of the exhibit brought attention to museum culture much more than the works themselves- questioning how observers navigate a gallery space instead of focusing on the pieces. The emphasis on Turner’s whaling pictures in one room was part of a grander nautical theme, with a moving image of a rolling tide projected against a white wall. This is a space for contemplation in the exhibit, with empty books encouraging visitors to write their impressions or share a story where they tried something new in their lives. A comment left by a visitor on an open page spoke of reverence in Turner and the ability to reaffirm existence.

Missing “Rain, Steam and Speed- The Great Western Railway” (1844), which is too fragile to make the trip overseas, the focal point of the exhibit becomes “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” (1842) with its mythology firmly entrenched due to the Leigh’s film and the video clips of the scene with Timothy Spall tied to the mast of ship playing in the same space.

Figure 1: J.M.W. Turner “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth.” Image from Wikimedia, 12 November 2015
Figure 1: J.M.W. Turner “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth.” Image from Wikimedia, 12 November 2015

Turner’s representation of waves in “Waves Braking on a Lee Short at Margate (Study for ‘Rockets and Blue Lights’)” seems to echo what he achieves in “Snow Storm” but it is not all water and waves in this exhibit. His “Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus” from 1839 and “Regulus” from 1828 which was later reworked in 1837, demonstrates the same attention to architectural detail that we can appreciate in some of his watercolours.

A Canadian connection is also given in this exhibit. A clip of Stephen Andrews speaking of how Turner inspired his use of light and colour is juxtaposed with Andrews’ own work “After Before” and “After After” to demonstrate this connection. This was a nice way of contextualizing Turner and highlighting a contemporary Toronto artist who recently had his own exhibit at the AGO.

Another piece in the exhibit that drew much attention from the crowds was “The Angel Standing in the Sun” from 1846 which is one of Turner’s last works. This piece had me, and many others in the room, focusing on Turner’s representations of faces and bodies. The positioning and movement of the figures in the piece in connection to the light and shade is as thought provoking as his “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge- Moses Writing the Book of Genesis” which is hung nearby.

J.M.W. Turner “The Angel Standing in the Sun.” Image from Wikimedia, 12 November 2015.
J.M.W. Turner “The Angel Standing in the Sun.” Image from Wikimedia, 12 November 2015.

“He puts things into my head, and points out meanings in them I never intended” Ruskin said of Turner. And though there were times where I was left wanting more in this exhibit, more work, more context, more connection, I found myself sharing Ruskin’s sentiment- that Turner definitely has a way of putting things in one’s head and opening one’s eyes to different possibilities.

Related Posts:

You Say You Want a Revolution: “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde”, Tate Britain

Related JVC Articles:

Barringer, Tim. “Victorian Culture and the Museum: Before and After the White Cube.” Journal of Victorian Culture 11.1 (2006): 133-145. Print.
Garratt, Peter. “Ruskin’s Modern Painters and the Visual Language of Reality.” Journal of Victorian Culture 14.1 (2010): 53-71. Print.
Gauld, Nicola. “The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies & Watercolours Pre-Raphaelite Drawing.” Journal of Victorian Culture 17.1 (2012): 113-116. Print.

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