Issue 208
May/June 2019

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May 23, 2019

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Nick Jones on a 'treat' of an exhibition: Turner – Northern Exposure, on through the summer in Berwick-upon-Tweed

JMW Turner: Norham Castle on the River Tweed

IT'S VERY EARLY one summer's morning, and I'm sitting in a boat in the middle of the Tweed at Norham, rod, line and ghillie on hand, waiting for a salmon or two to take the bait.

A wonderful thing, Sublime Imagination! This place certainly feeds it. It must have been just about here that Joseph Mallord William Turner chose his viewpoint for at least one of several paintings of Norham Castle produced throughout his life, after his first, career-changing visit here in 1797.

Hung at the Royal Academy in 1798, it proved a step change to fame – his lucky charm. He returned to Norham again and again. Each time he bowed low, doffed his cap, and gave thanks to the Castle and Providence for his good fortune.

That first painting owes much to Claude Lorrain - the sleepy river leading the eye through a pastoral scene of bucolic rustics, and bosky woods, such that the castle itself, swathed in morning mist, is easily overlooked. As is the political, social and scientific turmoil engulfing Europe then, as now.

No doubt Turner's head was full of thoughts about Edmund Burke's writings on the sublime, and which historical subjects were mostly likely to appeal to his patrons, the great and the good landed gentry, and to how he could swing his career away from being an architectural draughtsman towards being an artist.

Turner's instincts were right, for not only did Norham ensure his subsequent success, it also inspired more versions. All take liberties with the subject, the castle dominant, imposing, accentuating its strategic importance, overlooking the Tweed at a key crossing on the Anglo-Scottish Border, above the tidal reaches.

William the Conqueror appointed the Prince Bishops of Durham to control these parts of north Northumberland, known as Norhamshire and Islandshire, and Bishop Flambard built the castle in 1121. Besieged by the Scots nine times, and captured four times, it witnessed blood, fire and destruction.

It's tempting to compare those times with ours, and to think that Turner deliberately came north for peace and harmony. That would be a mistake. For he, drawn to edgy historical sites, recognised that, despite the passage of time, they were much more than mere picturesque reminders of past conflict.

He and his contemporary William Wordsworth, Romantics both, were deeply politicised activists. They reacted against rational Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes, who sought to distance humanity from nature, the mystical, the emotional and, of course, the sublime! So no surprise that the last "Norham Castle, Sunrise" painted in 1845, towards the end of his life, is elemental, a mystic vision of light, air, earth and water.

Listen....."And I have felt a sense sublime, of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean and living air, and the blue sky.."

That was Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey, but how closely Turner echoes those feelings here at Norham! And how prescient for our own times. Turner may appear a Romantic idealist, but he knew, as we are re-discovering, that Apollo, the Sun God, burning white-hot, not only gives light, warmth, joy and life, but can also melt, wither and destroy.

Wonderfully, there's a rare chance to see "Turner – Northern Exposure" for yourself this summer at the Granary Gallery in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

So many thanks to James Lowther and Berwick Visual Arts for arranging this treat of an exhibition. It includes thirteen stunning paintings and two sketchbooks on loan from the Tate.

Also two works from the V & A collection: "Holy Island, Northumberland", and "Warkworth Castle". Plus a great view of "Dunstanburgh Castle", on loan from Manchester Art Gallery.

Many thanks also to the Garfield Weston Foundation's Loan Programme and the Arts Fund, the national fundraising charity for the arts. Both play a leading role in enabling smaller galleries and museums to exhibit some of our great national treasures.

But that's not all...far from it. Norham, just a few miles inland and upstream, justly proud of its Turner connection, is organising "Norham; Turner's View", embracing an exhibition of contemporary takes on Turner's work by professional artists living and working in the area; a new Turner Heritage Trail; an exhibition of children's work in the style of Turner; and a series of other events including watercolour painting workshops; a picnic; and screenings of films about Turner.

Meanwhile, Berwick Educational Association is arranging a programme of lectures, workshops and guided tours of the exhibition at the Granary Gallery.

If you can't make it to Berwick, then you can catch up with the exhibition later this year in Carlisle, and next spring in Harrogate.


Turner – Northern Exposure is at the Granary Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed, May 25 - October 13. Open Tues - Sun 11am – 4pm. Admission free.

Then at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, from October 19 until January 5; and at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, from January 18 until April 18, 2020.

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