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Review & Comment: Books: ‘Turner’s Secret Sketches’ by Ian Warrell

Published 6 June 2012

Did Ruskin burn Turner’s clandestine drawings? Simon Wilson acclaims a revelatory new book on the works that seared the great critic’s soul.

  • From the Summer 2012 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    John Ruskin was one of the leading intellectual, artistic, political and moral gurus of the Victorian age. Today he is known to us chiefly as the supporter and defender of arguably the greatest painter this nation has ever produced, JMW Turner. Relentless critical attacks on Turner drove Ruskin to write his extraordinary defence of the artist he worshipped, the massive six-volume Modern Painters, which appeared from 1843 onwards. Among other things, Turner exemplified for Ruskin his idea that great art was rooted in absolute moral integrity. A victim of the profoundly repressive sexual morality that gripped Victorian Britain, Ruskin was not merely shocked, but deeply traumatised, it now seems, when after Turner’s death he discovered sketchbooks full of erotic drawings. His infamous reaction was to have them burnt.

  • JMW Turner, Nude Girl and a Companion on a Bed

    JMW Turner, Nude Girl and a Companion on a Bed, 1802.

    from JMW Turner’s ‘Swiss Figures’ sketchbook. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.

  • The evidence for this comes from Ruskin himself, in a letter to the man who supposedly carried out the actual destruction, Ralph Wornum, the then Keeper of the National Gallery, which had charge of the vast quantity of material known as the Turner Bequest: “I am satisfied that you had no other course than to burn them, for the sake of Turner’s reputation (they having been assuredly drawn under a certain condition of insanity) and I hereby declare that the parcel of them was undone by me, and all the obscene drawings it contained burnt in my presence in the month of December, 1858.”

    An open and shut case, then. Well no, in fact about 150 drawings and watercolours by Turner exist that can be classified as erotica, executed over four decades, from 1802 to 1845 (when he was 70). What was it then that Ruskin arranged to be burnt? Images even more offensive to him than those surviving, perhaps? Ruskin’s acquaintance, the writer Frank Harris, reports him describing the works in question as “of the most shameful sort – the pudenda of women – utterly inexcusable”. So that was it? Nope, a group of drawings answering this description also survives.

    In spite of this, Ruskin’s account of the burning has gone entirely unchallenged until now. It is the subject of a fascinating new book, by the Turner scholar Ian Warrell. Turner’s Secret Sketches, besides being meticulously researched, reads like a best-selling whodunnit. Was there a bonfire of the Turners or not, he asks? With forensic skill he then assesses the evidence, setting it in the context of the changing sexual mores of the period and of poor Ruskin’s personal agonies on this front. So scrupulous is Warrell that he can hardly bring himself to a definite verdict, leaving it to the jury of the reader. To this juror, Ruskin’s letter to the hapless Wornum seems partly wishful thinking, partly a coded instruction to him in the hope that he might carry out the deed, and partly cover for him if he did, Ruskin effectively taking ultimate responsibility. It seems clear, however, that no Turners were burnt.

    Turner’s Secret Sketches includes 65 reproductions, accompanied by commentaries. Some of the sketches, such as the two naked figures on a bed from Turner’s first European tour in 1802 are quite elaborately worked. As in many of these things the figures are shadowy, and Warrell dutifully reports that some commentators have seen them as male and female and some as both female. The two fashionable cartwheel hats and a pile of women’s clothes, among other details, suggest the latter and that Turner was here indulging a common male fantasy. The best of them also, incidentally, give the lie to the widely held notion that Turner could not draw figures, a misconception recently repeated in carping reviews by critics Adrian Searle and Brian Sewell, of the National Gallery’s Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude exhibition. When Turner’s interest was truly engaged by the human body, he clearly could meet the challenge. The National Gallery show, curated by Ian Warrell, is wonderful by the way, a visual feast of top-notch paintings, beautifully hung and lit, pure pleasure.

    Today we value the revelation of Turner’s erotica as giving us the full picture of the man. Things were very different then and it is ironic that Turner himself might have been delighted had Ruskin actually carried out the bonfire, the idea of which so shocks us now. This seems clear from his will, which specified only “finished paintings” to be left to the National Gallery. The will, however, was legally overturned by his family, which included his two illegitimate children, to whom he had left nothing of his large fortune. In Turner’s lifetime Ruskin wilfully blinded himself to the artist’s meanness, sensuality, and seeming misogyny, having fallen into that cardinal critical error of equating the man with the work. As Warrell makes clear, the revelation of the erotica then forced him radically to revise his view of the man, which in turn tainted his view of the work. It was a trauma that haunted him for the rest of his life.

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