Turner in Cornwall – Follow in the artist’s footsteps

The artistic community in Cornwall is thriving. Drawn to the county by the dramatic coastal scenery, the strong creative atmosphere and the famous clarity of the light, there are more artists here than in any other area of the country outside of London. And that pull has been felt for more than 200 years.

Here I discover the man who is said to have started it all, and show you where you can go to stand where this extraordinary artist stood.

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Tamar Bridges at Saltash

In the summer of 1811, long before either of the Tamar bridges at Saltash was built, a young JMW Turner crossed the river by rowing-boat. As he jumped ashore he had his sketch book and pencils tucked away safely in his backpack. From here he was to spend the next few weeks walking through Cornwall, drawing what he saw.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851): Saltash, Cornwall, engraver: Smith, W.R., printer: McQueen, Line engraving, 23 x 30 cms. Falmouth Art Gallery Collection. FAMAG:2006.10.2

This walking tour of Cornwall went from Whitsand Bay to Wadebridge, Fowey to Falmouth, Launceston to Lands End. Turner worked his way around the coast, visiting the county’s important towns and most isolated villages, sketching anything of interest along the way. The work he produced of Cornwall in those few days was to influence his paintings for decades to come, and arguably started the craze which has seen Cornwall become the artist’s paradise that it is today.

The drawings that Turner made more than 200 years ago have always intrigued me and I was interested to see how much of the Cornwall that he drew is still here for us to enjoy today. Can we still walk in his footsteps and stand where he stood, sketchbook in hand?

The Life of Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born on 23 April 1775 in Covent Garden, London, the son of William, a barber and wig-maker, and his wife Mary. His father was a native of Devon and, although he spent most of his early career in London, Turner is believed to have maintained a connection to the south west through him.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851): East and West Looe, Cornwall, publisher: Murray, John, engraver: Cooke, W.B, dated July 1st 1818, engraving, 39.6 x 43.5 cms. Falmouth Art Gallery Collection. FAMAG: 2006.10.12

It was his father who also encouraged him to paint and would display his son’s early pictures on the walls of his barbers shop, even selling them to his customers.
Turner grew up without many of the social graces common to the professional artists of the time and was considered an eccentric by many.

In 1811 Turner was commissioned to produce a series of watercolours for a fledgling tourist guidebook called Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England and it was this that led him to Cornwall.

An Illustrated Guide

Before the arrival of the railways travel in rural England was slow and pretty painful, making any kind of journey solely for pleasure was not a concept that anyone then would have understood. However fears of a war in France meant that the wealthy were looking for adventure closer to home, the staycation was in fashion! As the network of tracks grew, so did the population’s curiosity about their home country’s landscapes and the attractions to be found beyond the cities. William Bernard Cooke, the publisher of Picturesque Views, intended to take advantage of that market with his new illustrated guidebook.

Finding Turner in Cornwall Today

Turner was to provide around 40 images for the book over 3 months and many of those images, though often exaggerated, stylised views, are instantly recognisable.

Turner’s travels in Cornwall were mostly on foot. He travelled light, carrying just what he thought necessary – his sketch books, paint box, some books, a few clothes and his fishing rod. At this time he was still a young man, just 36, blonde and fit. He spent most of his days climbing hills and walking along the county’s many beaches in search of the best views of the castles or stretches of coast he wished to paint. The artist later recalled his impressions of the Cornish coast saying:

“I have never seen so many natural beauties in such a limited spot as I have seen here”.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851): Pendennis Castle with entrance of Falmouth Harbour, Cornwall, engraver: Cooke, George, publisher: Murray, John, dated 1817, Line engraving, 21. 5 x 28.5 cms. Falmouth Art Gallery Collection. FAMAG:1000.82
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Pendennis and Falmouth Bay today

The trip would allow him further practice “en plein” air but perhaps more importantly it also provided him with a wide range of subject material to paint. Not just his customary images of quintessential the English countryside but real everyday life. From the “modern” industries of quarrying, mining and fishing to dramatic scenes in Plymouths docks where the Navy was preparing for war against Napoleon.

Turner made over 20,000 works on paper over his career and during his 1811 tour he filled six sketchbooks with drawings. His pictures were mostly in pencil, sometimes with watercolour added. These books provide us not just with his art work but also with valuable evidence of the route that he took through Cornwall. Turner, a precise and conscientious man, kept a record of every banknote in his possession and detailed where he spent them inside the back covers of his sketchbooks.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851): Lands End, Cornwall, publisher: Murray, John, printer: Cox and Barnett, engraver: Cooke, George, dated March 1st 1814, Line engraving, 23.5 x 36 cms. Falmouth Art Gallery Collection. FAMAG: 2006.10.9
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Lands End today

His route through Cornwall is recorded as Saltash, Looe, Fowey, Lostwithiel and Restormel Castle, St Mawes, Falmouth, Penzance, Mounts Bay, Lands End, St Ives, Redruth, Bodmin, Wadebridge, Padstow, Tintagel, Boscastle and Bude.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851): St Michael’s Mount, inscribed St. Michael’s Mount, 204, 3295, Volume 3 in pencil, Line engraving, 23.5 x 42.5 cms. Falmouth Art Gallery Collection. FAMAG: 2006.10.10
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St Michael’s Mount today

Of course he would have passed through many other smaller places, for example one sketchbook contains a view of Mount’s Bay from Castle an Dinas and another St Petroc’s Church in the tiny hamlet of Trevalga. Looking at his small animated pencil drawings online it is still possible to recognise some of the locations today and in some cases it is possible actually stand where the artist stood and I hope the images that I have included will inspire you to do just that.

The Cornish Legacy

Turner’s time in the South West continued to inspire his paintings for many years to come. In 1834 Turner produced a dramatic oil painting of St Michael’s Mount. The mount, exaggerated in height in his memory, dominates the scene bathed in an ethereal golden light, below huddled amongst their boats fishermen work on the sands. The painting, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy that same year, was described by the critics of the time as “visionary” and “one of the most conspicuous” in the exhibition.

Some art historians now believe that his time in Cornwall prompted Turner’s later experiments with light and colour for which he became renowned. In a letter from 1852 the art critic John Ruskin said Turner’s painting of Saltash was “what the mind sees when it looks for poetry in humble actual life”.
It seems that more than 20 years after his tour of Cornwall the countryside and its people were still providing one of the greatest artists of the 19th century with continued inspiration.

Turner’s sketchbooks are now held by the Tate in London and I must thank Falmouth Art Gallery for allowing me to reproduce some of the etchings in their collection. Check their online catalogue for lots more inspirational Turner images. . .

7 thoughts on “Turner in Cornwall – Follow in the artist’s footsteps

  1. JMW Turner is one of my favourite artists and having been to Cornwall on one of my yearly visits to the UK many years ago brings back fond memories of my travel there as well as to the Tate galleries where most of his work is exhibited. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post on an excellent artist and the beautiful countryside well worth visiting always.

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