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What a 19th-Century Watercolour of The English Landscape Can Tell Us About The Legacy of Slavery Today
And why I can't look at a J.M.W. Turner painting the same way again
This watercolour sketch from 1799 depicts a bucolic scene in the English countryside. It’s typical of the Romantic era of painting in its rugged depiction of an idealised landscape.
But this painting isn’t just a pretty little picture. Even though there are no people in it, it’s layered with human lives and politics. It’s an example of how the legacy of slavery reaches into many different aspects of our contemporary life and culture.
A few weeks ago I went to the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery in Margate, which is a little seaside town on the south coast of England. At the time I visited there was an exhibition of work by an emerging British Ghanaian artist Larry Achiampong, whose art explores ideas about journeying and migration.
In a side room next to the main exhibition Achiampong had curated a selection of artworks by the early 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner. Many of you will know Turner if you’re British because he is often referred to as the nation’s favourite artist. This small show fundamentally shifted how I think about his art.
Achiampong described in the blurb on the wall how important Turner was to him as a young man when he was first studying art. He quickly understood Turner’s fascination with capturing the effects of light in his art, and he felt his real sense of connection to the natural world. These are important aspects of Achiampong’s work today.
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But his relationship with Turner hasn’t all been good.
For this exhibition Achiampong brought together a collection of paintings and drawings by Turner, including this little watercolour. And the perspective Achiampong provided changed my way of thinking about them.
He made me look at Turner’s work with fresh eyes.
I learnt from Achiampong a bit about Turner’s relationship to slavery and the slave trade. I’ve always thought Turner was on the right side of the abolitionist argument because of his 1840 painting Slave Ship. But now I’m not so sure.
One of Turner’s patrons was an extremely wealthy Englishman called William Beckford. He was a novelist, politician, and a huge patron of the arts. And his wealth had been built on profits from slavery and the slave trade. He owned several sugar plantations in Jamaica and about 3,000 slaves. It was Beckford who commissioned Turner to produce a number of paintings of his English family estate at Fonthill.
The landscapes that Turner painted of Beckford’s estate and the abbey that he built there are romantic visions of the English countryside in the early 19th century.
But now I can’t help but look at them with the understanding that it was land owned on the back of slavery. That Turner was paid to produce these heavenly visions of England’s green and pleasant land with profits from slave-owners.
But there’s more. It was through connections with Beckford that Turner made his own slave related investment. Shortly before the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807 Turner himself had bought a £100 share in a slave-owning company which ran the Dry Sugar Work estate in Jamaica. So Turner’s slate on this subject definitely wasn’t clean. Turner himself invested in slavery, and he benefitted financially from it as a painter too.
Now, don't get me wrong. I can still look at Turner’s work and appreciate it and think about the pioneering aspects of his career. Many roads in modern and contemporary art lead back to Turner for me. But it’s another example of how the legacy of slavery reaches into the 21st century.
The artworks on the walls of our national museums are objects that we don’t usually question in this way. We often think of Turner’s work in terms of excellence of skill and beauty and originality.
But we need more of the kind of curating that Larry Achiampong did here to show how these old artworks are actually relevant to us now. Because knowledge of history enables us to be more critical in our thinking about our world. And in this case, the things that we look at.
Achiampong’s exhibition acknowledged the huge influence that Turner has had on his own work, but it also demonstrated the complexities of our relationship to the past by looking more closely at the life an artist who was complicit in slavery and who is today revered as one of Britain’s greatest talents.
A Very Short Introduction to Turner’s Slave Ship (1840)
In this short video (3 mins) I talk about the story behind the slave ship in Turner’s famous 1840 painting:
More on Larry Achiampong
The British Ghanaian artist Larry Achiampong inspired me to think about this topic this week with his brilliant exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate. If you’re interested to learn more about Achiampong’s art, he explains the ideas behind his work in this short video: