Light moves us all, and many great artists have been applauded for their skill in transferring its grandeur onto a canvas, but it is the late JMW Turner who is considered to be the true master of light. Turner’s success as an artist was fast and furious when he arrived on the scene in London in the late 18th century. As a Romantic and Expressionist artist, his affection for and craft in capturing light and evoking almost sonorous emotions evolved magnificently over time, and, seemingly ironically, the famed works would also be encapsulated in colourless metal engravings.
Born in London in 1775, Turner showed signs of his great skill rather early on. In 1789 he joined the Royal Academy of Arts and began exhibiting his works when he was 15. In his early years, Turner worked on architecture, but he moved on to produce his iconic oil, and more often, watercolour landscapes. Being influenced by Dutch marine scenes, he was also infatuated by the sea and created numerous great ocean works, many with a viscerally ominous atmosphere radiating off the canvas. He would subsequently be credited for setting the groundwork for modernist abstraction and Impressionism with much of his work being closely studied by masters of these movements. Humans often made appearances in Turner’s paintings and were usually portrayed in a joyous light to exemplify the artist’s affection for people and humanity, but their presence was always diminutive against a large backdrop of nature. Nature was “pure” and a tangible element of God for Turner, so his works placed people as but a small speck vulnerable amongst the beauty, grace and pre-eminence of nature.
Ahead of his time, Turner faced plenty of criticism for his later, more abstract works. Focused primarily on light rather than form, detractors viewed his sweeping brushstrokes as wanton and undisciplined. Supporters, on the other hand, praised Turner for his ability to create ethereal masterpieces that captured the magnificence of nature and embodied his belief and last words of “The sun is God.”
Although primarily renowned for his watercolour landscapes, Turner worked extensively with engravings. As part of the intaglio printing technique of the 1500’s, the post-Gutenberg printing mechanism was the height of technology at the time and quite popular, allowing for multiple prints of an artist’s works to be recreated for promotion, being painted by hand afterwards.
Quick to realize the potential that the ability to send out multiple copies of his works could have for his reputation and career, Turner promptly got involved with the technique. While engraving originally was an art form in and of itself (Albrecht Dürer was a famous engraver), over time it was more often used as a way to copy works of art. The idea piqued Turner’s interest both as a skill to learn himself as well as a useful tool for the dissemination of his works.
The artist began working for engravers in 1794, creating original designs as well as copies of unfinished works of deceased artist John Robert Cozens'. It is said that his time working on Cozens' pieces as well as study of landscapist Richard Wilson helped develop Turner's imaginative and freestyle later works.
Turner both created his own engravings as well as worked with professional engravers to recreate his works to capture style. How fascinating it is that an artist famed for his evocative depictions of landscapes through light and colour would have so much involvement in an art completely devoid of such elements. In fact, Turner’s creation of 71 plates of engravings between 1807 and 1819 known as the Liber Studiorum holds quite a lot of fame in its own right, despite the fact that it was supposed to consist of 100 plates depicting the breadth of his work in landscapes.
Strange as it is to see the great landscapist and colourist’s works in copper and cold, hard steel, the plates allow an alternative view and understanding of the artist’s skills and perceptions of the world. While Turner did many of his own works, the majority were done by professional engravers with Turner highly involved in the process. These pieces, then, allow more focus on the various brush techniques used from large sweeps in the clouds to the fine details of buttresses. As British nationalism was reaching a fever pitch , Turner undertook a commission to work with Sir Walter Scott to produce images of “historical and picturesque interest” for Scott’s ‘Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland’. The collaboration of these two masters of their genres was historic and “… saw Scotland’s greatest romantic writer working together with England’s greatest romantic artist.”
The images were engraved and used to highlight the grandeur of the nation and the land. Turner continued to work with Scott creating watercolours for the latter’s works, but his affection for literature found its way into engravings as well. As an avid reader, many of his works also centred around poetry, and throughout the 1830’s Turner produced small vignettes for the poet Thomas Campbell to be engraved for the publication of his works.
Key engravers of the time, Edward Goodall, William Miller, and Robert Wallis, became extraordinarily adept at mimicking Turner’s style and would go on to engrave many of Turners personal works.
Engravings became a great way to promote not only Turner’s own work, but to also enhance national pride by mass producing the works of other great artists and poets and to highlight the beauty and unique elements of British cities and landscapes. As an art of their time as well as a “through-the-looking-glass” depiction of Turner’s works, the engravings are well worth viewing. While the majority of the engravings primarily reside within the UK, the Appleton publishing house in New York printed 120 engravings in The Turner Gallery in 1880. These unique pieces have made their way to the United States and will be on display at the Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan from April 2nd to June 12th.
 Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. 1992. London: Yale University Press, 1992, 173