Light of inspiration

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Next month Yorkshire's Harewood House hosts an exhibition on the tour of the North made by the artist Turner in 1797. John Leonard follows his journey.

A thousand miles by stage-coach. Broken roads of mud, dust and stone. Nights spent in inns pungent with the scents of horses; all part of a long journey made by a young artist from the heart of 18th-century London into the wilds of the north country and the raw landscapes of the "picturesque".

It took J M W Turner, then aged 22, about eight weeks to complete his tour in 1797, a summer journey made to collect visual notes of the antiquities, towns and countryside, ready to be worked up into paintings completed in his studio later.

Thanks to the detective work of Leeds University's David Hill, whose new book Turner in the North coincides with the exhibition of the same name at Harewood House, we can follow the artist across the land. To shadow Turner is to see the ruins and towns as he saw them and to share the novelty of his first responses to the wilder elements of northern hills and lakes.

What brought the artist north in 1797 was the invitation of Edward Lascelles, wealthy arts patron and resident of Harewood House.

Travel was expensive and Turner, the son of a Covent Garden hairdresser, was aware of the precious opportunity the commission gave him - the visit became a springboard for a lengthy sketching tour of the popular antiquities of the North and the Borders and his first chance to see the "landscape sublime" of the English Lake District.

Visiting Harewood today, it is easy to follow Turner's footsteps over the Capablity Brown parkland with David Hill as guide.

"Edward Lascelles was almost the epitome of the Regency beau, in his spending and his lifestyle," says Hill. "But he did have an eye for genius and liked to cultivate it. He supported young artists, typically in their twenties, like Turner, Girtin and Varley. The work they did here came at the critical stage of their own development and was usually the most important commission they had yet received in their fledgling careers."

From the various sketches Turner made, Lascelles quickly ordered six finished pictures, which came to the house in late 1797 and 1798. Now they form an important element to the Turner in the North show, which arrives here after first showing at the Tate in London.

Curator of the Terrace Gallery is Diane, Viscountess Lascelles, wife of the current Viscount - better known in her own right as the artist Diane Howse. In the basement, away from the public areas, her studio is in one of the rooms which Turner and the other visiting artists under Lascelles patronage were likely to have used.

"The excitement for me is to be in a place where we know he stayed, the subject of all sorts of fantasies about which rooms he slept in, where he worked and what went on socially while he was here," she says. "He was very young and it must have been extraordinary for him to land at a place like Harewood at the end of a long coach journey, to arrive here, to meet the people the house attracted and to be pitched into the flamboyant social scene of Edward Lascelles at the end of the 18th century."

In contrast to the visual splendour of Harewood, nearby Kirkstall Abbey is a smoke-grimed ruin hidden in the northern suburbs of Leeds. Urban development has enclosed the site and a busy road now separates the Abbey's remains from the museum. For Turner, Kirkstall was an important antiquity and it was here he really began his tour in earnest, producing his first serious work in the North, having made relatively few sketches on the journey from London, and leaving the work at Harewood until later, on his return.

The surprise about Kirkstall Abbey today is its size. Obscured during the suburban approaches, the height of the surviving structure comes as a shock, a sharp reminder of scale of the destruction of Britain's monastic buildings during the Dissolution.

From Leeds I drove direct to Durham, mindful that Turner moved more slowly and fully explored ancient towns like Ripon and Richmond and the tranquillity of Fountain's Abbey.

Of the urban locations in my journey 200 years after Turner, Durham, now a world heritage site, seems the least troubled by modern development. Fortunately, Henry VIII also failed to wreck the skyline of the city because shrewd politics by the local Prince Bishops saved the great Norman Cathedral. This tiny city sits high on a semi-island site, protected by the river.

The classic views of Durham are from the river, looking up to the face of the Cathedral, with one of the bridges of the foreground. This was the style of Turner's several compositions here, plus the beautiful and intricate drawings he made of the Cathedral's interiors.

Next, the artist followed the coastal route toward the Border, still concentrating on the magnificent antiquities such as Bamburgh Castle and the ruins on Holy Island (accessed by tidal causeway).

Berwick was a brief stop for Turner, where he made only two sketches before moving on to the ruins of Norham Castle, on the English bank of the Tweed.

Here came the inspiration for the first of three great images to emerge from his 1797 tour (the other two came later, in the Lake District). He saw Norham at dawn and experienced new sensations of atmosphere and light, from which he was to draw inspiration throughout his life. He returned to the subject nearly 50 years later in 1845 in his oil painting, "Norham Castle at Sunrise".

Today, Norham is a pockmarked ruin, pink in low sunlight; its grassy site now managed by English Heritage. For Turner it was a turning point and marked the start of a period when he began to pay greater attention to the effects of air, vapour and light. Later he was to claim that once his first scenes of Norham "took", he was never short of work again.

Across the Tweed into Scotland he began a south-westerly curve towards the Lake Distict, driven by two imperatives - the sketching and visiting of the great abbeys of Dryburgh, Kelso, Jedburgh and Melrose and now his heightened interest in the weather effects over the wide northern landscapes.

After Jedburgh, he travelled direct to Keswick, with pages kept back in his sketchbooks ready for the dramatic elevations and water scenes of the Lake District that he had seen only through the work of other artists. With his sensibilities primed by the journey through the Borders, Turner reacted to the worsening weather in the Lake District with enthusiasm, eventually producing the second great painting from the trip: "Buttermere Lake, with Part of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower".

In the Lake District, Turner's subjects were the mountains, the water and the air - Form Dissolving as David Hill describes it. Now the busy A591 overlays the old coach road from Keswick south through the central pass of the region, to Ambleside and Kendal to the south, but even from the modern road the magnificence of the scenery is spectacular. Turner, of course, walked much of the surrounding landscape, still the best option today.

A diversion west to Coniston leads to the location of the third and final great painting from the 1797: "Morning among the Coniston Fells", a scene easily identified by taking the short walk signposted Coppermines Valley from the centre of the village. Turner's composition, the sharp edged bowl of a valley beneath the bulk of the peak known as Wetherlam, is seen from a point on the banks of Church Beck, requiring only the added ingredient of early morning light to still see its full effect today.

Turner continued as far west as Furness Abbey, before making the coach crossing of the sands of Morcambe Bay to Lancaster, York and Harewood. Today the choice is to rejoin the M6 for the fast routes north or south, or take the A65 over the Pennines back to Yorkshire.

After staying briefly with Lascelles at Harewood to prepare for his pictures of the house, Turner continued to travel and work through a catalogue of locations, making a diversion through Lincolnshire, thus completing a lengthy figure of eight by the time of his return to London.

After two months on the road the young artist finally stepped down from the coach, shouldering his two leather sketch books and carrying in his mind new visions of the northern landscape - pictures which we can share thanks to this major presentation of his 1797 tour and works.

Turner in the North, at Harewood House, Harewood, Leeds from March 15 until June 8. Tel: 0113 288 6331. Special rates and activities for schools * Kirkstall Abbey and Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall, Leeds. Tel: 0113 2755821. Entry free. Nearby Abbey House Museum admits school parties by arrangement at 50p per pupil * Durham city and cathedral. Educational activities and learning resources available. Contact the Chapter Office, The Close, Durham DH1 3EH. Tel: 0191 386 4266 * Many antiquities featured in the Turner exhibition are managed by English Heritage, 0171 973 3000; or Historic Scotland, 0131 668 8600 * Turner - Painting the Nation by Julius Bryant, Pounds 6.95 is published by English Heritage * Turner in the North, 1797 by David Hill, Yale University Press

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