Turner, Joseph Mallord William RA (1775-1851)
Amongst the holdings of nineteenth century art at the Falmouth Art gallery is a collection of prints by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Through small in number they are high in quality and interest, each one representing a location drawn on his West Country tours of 1811-14. Turner's achievement and renown as a painter amongst his fellow artists mainly came from submissions to the annual Royal Academy exhibition. Yet he was more familiar to the public of his day through the almost nine hundred prints of his designs, The majority of which consists of bookplates illustration to travel guides, magazines, annuals, almanacs of collections of poetry. Falmouth's collection comprises twenty-six line engravings and one etching on copper plus one mezzotint on steel. Existing in various proof stages, apart from the Devonian subject, they are all of sits in Cornwall.
As an indefatigable traveller Turner readily accepted commissions to make topographical watercolours for publication. Issued as part works at regular intervals to subscribers and collectors they provided the artist with additional income throughout their career. Even interested in scientific, agricultural and industrial developments these projects provide the artist with an opportunity of recording the changing face of the country throughout the Napoleonic period and beyond.
Turner's entire approach to his printed work was exceptional. From early days as a teenager employed adding coloured washes to architectural and landscape prints by notable artists of the time, his knowledge of engraving and printing methods has become profound. Recognising painting and printmaking as separate means of visual expression his understood the various skills and techniques required to interpret his paintings. Intending his engravings to be independent works of art in their own right, Turner insisted on being involved throughout the reproduction process. At times requiring up to five 'touched proofs' before becoming satisfied all the effects he wished to convey has been realised. Inconsequence a somewhat turbulent relationship with his engravers arose. Tough often exasperated by the artist's requirements his professionalism and practical printmaking expertise was universally acknowledged. Through rigorous training he eventually fostered a 'school' of about eighty engravers conversant with his modus operandi, instructions and corrections. These took the form of annotations, comments, touchings, revisions, diagrams in either pencil and, or chalk on the proofs themselves, in letters ore delivered verbally.
Turner possessed an extremely acute sense of the balance of light and shade in his work, being able to diagnose tonal faults and prescribe the remedy even on proofs lying upside down some distance away. In turn he also learnt from his engravers more effective ways of drawing and painting to facilitate their translation into black and white. As Ruskin noted "Tuner paints in colour but thinks in light and shade".
However, from the 1820's onward the artist's style grew more expressive with fewer concessions to his engraver's needs. This broader less linear approach with its absence of fine detail proved even more demanding. However by now the most proficient of them were occasionally entrusted with actually drawing in features- small boats, animals, even figures-not appearing in the original. Only through Turner's meticulous supervision and overseeing eye were they able to hone their unique skills accordingly. This unprecedented collaboration gave rise to a body of work which forms the apogee of line engraving art in this country.