Consulate |

Color Beginnings

by Christine Lai

edited by Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

London, 1857

20 October

I can see him, as if he were before me in the studio, a dark shape silhouetted against the light. About ten years ago, I accompanied Turner to Margate, which he frequented for the seascapes. On that beach, he used watercolor on damp, blue paper, mixing in the pigments while they were still wet, creating a kind of aquatic picture that shifted continually.

We had already begun to pack up the equipment, when he suddenly turned to the darkening sky, reopened the paint box and added a blackish-red shape on the waves.

“A buoy?” I asked.

“Is it?”

“Well, I’m asking you, Mr. Turner.”

“Make of it what you will,” he then let out a sound that resembled a grunt or growl, which I always took to be a signal for me to stop asking questions.

“In any case, it is a very fine picture.”

“Is it?” he grumbled. “Not my best. But I do not need anyone to like it.” He rolled up the picture while the colors were still wet and went off leaving the smell of pigments behind him.

The picture stayed with me for some time after that day in Margate, though I did not see it again until this morning, when I found it buried beneath the debris of Turner’s studio. But this watercolor was never as captivating as his pictures of blue. Turner’s blue is never one unbroken mass of color, but is composed of many layers of liquid hues that mingle and melt, expanding outward beyond the confines of the paper. I am deeply in love with The Blue Rigi, with its delicate washes of blue mist draped over the distant landscape. The blue was so lightly worked, the image seemed almost to disappear. Above the mountain, there was the morning star, which Turner created by scratching the surface of the paint to reveal the white paper underneath. At one point, I thought the colour of the Rigi was closer to a bluish grey. Or perhaps it resembled the blue of flames, for which I could never come up with an adequate name.

“Ruskin,” Turner once said to me. “Color is color.”

27 October

When Turner’s Bequest came to me a few months ago, and I opened up his studio, I felt as if I were unearthing the buried city of Pompeii. Everywhere were stacks of drawings, boxes, and piles of canvases. I came here full of fruitful thoughts about the catalogue and the gallery. But now, halfway through my task, this ruin of papers and canvases is still filled with menacing forces that eat away at me.

In a tower of tin boxes, I discovered some eighteen thousand pieces of paper. Some were already eroded by the damp and mildew, others brittle to the touch. Others were worm-eaten or mouse-eaten, most were covered in decades of dust and soot, crumpled beneath the weight of more neglected bundles. I do not understand why Turner insisted on hoarding his own works only for them to be met with such fate. I’m tempted to categorize much of this as “Bad” or “Rubbish.”

The canvases are not in better states. Turner left his windows open on a regular basis, and the grime of London is encrusted on the landscapes and seascapes. All but a few of his later pictures have gone to pieces. I’m supposed to clean these pictures as best as I can and send them off to the gallery, where they’re meant to remain unchanged for the sake of posterity. But for now, I just want to sit by the fire with this notebook.

Earlier today, I cleaned a few of Turner’s color beginnings. In one, there is a broad stroke of dark rose and muddled browns, swept across the page with a loaded brush. Above that, there are swathes of indigo that blend into the yellow, which has been smeared with soot. The more I look at this unfinished scene, the more the number of possible meanings arise. The band of brown could be the earth or a stretch of sand bordering the water; the yellow could be the sunlight reflected on the sea. I can conjure up so much from these color beginnings, so that it is impossible to say definitively what these pictures could have been, with their mixture of dust, soot and fading streaks of watercolor. I wonder if Turner always meant for them to become like this.

4 November

Yesterday, after cleaning Juliet and Her Nurse, I dug out the old review I wrote for the painting in 1836. “That sea whose motionless and silent transparency is beaming with phosphor light, that emanates out of its sapphire serenity like bright dreams breathed into the spirit of deep sleep…” I cannot bear to look at the passage now —though “pyramids of pale fire,” for the monuments of Venice, is acceptable.

It might be easy enough to express ideas in a decent sentence. But to write a passage that will illumine dark corners, to compose crystalline prose that will resonate throughout the ages—that is something else entirely. Turner has achieved this, in the form of paint or watercolor. And his sense of beauty is perfect.

Only the words of the Romantics are—sometimes—worthy of being placed alongside a Turner. This line from Shelley still best captures the Juliet picture: “The point of one white star is quivering still.”

16 November

A nightmare last night—locked in a sarcophagus, then the sarcophagus rolled downhill and I found myself on an express train, the most hateful kind, having lost the ability to speak and therefore unable to explain myself to others. Then I was suddenly transported to the Royal Academy, paint brush in hand, standing in front of a Turner, while the Academicians surrounded me, waiting for me to complete the painting on the wall. Sheer terror set in. I awoke in a cold sweat.

This morning, still shaken from the dream, I found Turner’s Snow Storm under a pile of canvases. It was one of his grandest before his hand lost its cunning. The painting was not well received, I remember, and the want of appreciation touched him sorely. After he had first read the papers, he came to my father’s house at Denmark Hill and, sitting by the fire, muttered endlessly to himself. “Soapsuds and whitewash,” he repeated, “Soapsuds and whitewash! What did they expect of a marine painting? What do they, with their little canes, little wine glasses, in their little rooms, know of the sea?” The phrase “soapsuds and whitewash” became a sort of mantra for him that he would utter each time a painting was exhibited at the RA, as if by chanting it he could repel the attacks of the critics. He never repeated any of my phrases in the same way.

7 December

At the Royal Academy yesterday, I overheard once again the rumour that Turner was an unpleasant man. I cannot count the instances of confronting his attackers, those who label him ill-tempered, uncharitable, boorish. I have given fifteen years to knowing the man, and I should like to say this to Turner’s critics: no, you do not know him.

But over the course of those fifteen years, was I enough of a friend to truly know him? What kind of friend was I? I was not one who had lent money without requesting repayment; I was not one who never uttered a word of unkindness to a fellow artist; I was not one who had purposely dulled the brilliant colors of my own painting in order so it would not outshine that of a friend’s hanging nearby. Turner was such a friend.

I was, instead, the one who called his Angel Standing in the Sun, an “indicator of mental disease.” I was the one who said, of his Rain, Steam and Speed, that it was painted only to show what could be done with an ugly subject. Two days ago, I discovered the painting. The smoke of the train in the picture has been made darker by the soot collected from the real London outside. Looking at the painting again, with its layer of dust and its details barely visible in the winter light, perhaps I feel a little differently than I did when I first saw it exhibited. I am sometimes in awe of the trains, these metallic creatures that breathe and bellow, and I am amazed at the men—what manner of men they must be—who built such leviathan machines, putting together the finest parts of the earth, forged in the fires, to be placed in precise positions within this infinitely complex construction of steel rods, valves and cylinders. How could the flesh of a living being ever compare to this? Yet it was the Turner’s hand that painted the truth of things.

He and I once had an unpleasant disagreement over Rain, Steam and Speed. I said to him one day, something like, “There is no truth in railroads and steamboats.” To which Turner replied, “The painter’s job is to capture the instant, and that includes the instant when the world changes.” I insisted that the changes brought by machines were not conducive to the general good. Turner said it’s too early to tell.

I went on, along these lines: “No, I cannot see a future in which the development of machines can do anything constructive for the world. If we are to do anything great, it must come from the land and sea and air, not out of machines.”

“Ruskin,” Turner said, while still standing in front of the easel, sponging, rubbing, stippling. “You mustn’t insist on drawing such a clear line between nature and artifice.”

I was sitting on a stool in his studio and wanted to get up to leave. “I know that is what you aim for in your work. But no, I do not agree with you.”

“Well, then, perhaps you lack imagination,” Turner said this as he worked on the picture, and he did not even turn around to look at me.

29 December

Woke up to flurry outside the windows. The cold pierces the skin. When I passed by the Slaver-ship painting downstairs in the morning, I had a sudden urge to carry one of Turner’s works with me. So I put in my pocket a small watercolor, held inside a leather frame: a view of mountains and a lake, at Lucerne perhaps. The last time I felt such an urge was when I first heard the news of Turner’s death. I was in Venice at the time. There was one part of the city that greatly resembled what Turner painted, so I went there. The purple walls in the cemetery of Murano, enclosing the grey and black tombs, and the deep green trees—everything in those colors, in the sunshine, spoke to me of Turner. And yet I knew clearly at that moment, he would never again be their interlocutor.

Perhaps it had been a joke, Turner’s leaving me nineteen guineas in his will, for a mourning ring. Is such mourning possible? These walls do not mourn, though they were once covered with Turner’s pictures, and now have gaps of brilliantly colored wallpaper where the frames once were. The room does not mourn, though it once smelled of turpentine and paint. The skies do not mourn, though they once found their most faithful interpreter in Turner.

Tomorrow is the 30th. My diary entry for 30 December 1851—six years ago now—reads: “Turner buried.”

31 December

Brilliant sunshine today, on the last day of the year. I came here to the studio knowing that I have done most of what I set out to do. But on the way here, I encountered some acquaintances who, once again, reminded me of things which I have no pleasure in recalling.

Strangers like to imagine that some cataclysmic event pulled us apart. But the death of friendship, like many other forms of death, creeps up gradually, in the same manner as the fading of paper in sunlight, so that the change in hues is barely perceptible from one day to the next.

The final phase of the decline of our friendship occurred the evening after we had supper at Griffith’s, and I walked Turner back to the studio. He said he’d be damned if I didn’t come in for some sherry. So I did. He gestured towards the sofa in a way that suggested he had something to say. There was a single tallow candle in the room, and the smell of varnish permeated the air. Turner’s portly figure was silhouetted against the window and the lights outside.

“Ruskin,” he said, “I thank you for your book. That first one,” he pointed towards the wall as if the book were shelved there.

Modern Painters?” My tone was perhaps overly eager, for it was the first time Turner had mentioned the book.

“Hmmm, yes,” he replied, with a clearing of the throat. “There has been much talk, Ruskin, of your writing. You’ve something of a voice, they say.”

“Thank you, Mr. Turner. I only meant to point out what I see as the truth expressed in your paintings. It might not be readily apparent to the unschooled eye, or to those who do not possess the love of nature.”

“Hmmm,” he mumbled as he began pacing in the room. “You know I do not like all that religious nonsense. Art is art, what more would you have?”

I laughed and sat up straight on the edge of the sofa. “Well, you know we disagree on such points. Perhaps it is best to leave it at that.”

I hoped he would join me on the sofa, but instead, he began to pace even more erratically. “I mean to speak to you about the piece you showed me.” At which point, he produced from his desk drawer the manuscript of an essay I had drafted about his latest work.

“Oh, I had forgotten about that,” I said.

“Yes, yes. Well, perhaps we should forget it all together? I do not think you should publish this.”

I finished the sherry in one gulp. “I see. What might be the problem? I thought it a fair assessment of the painting, a companion even.”

Turner stopped in the middle of the room, flipped to a page, and began reading, in too loud a voice, a passage that I have never been able to re-read since.

“I do not like it,” he concluded.

“Is that not an accurate description of the work? I felt I had conveyed the truth of your picture, just as you had conveyed the truth of nature.”

“Hmmm. It is not that.” He sat down in an armchair and drank his sherry. “It is your language, Ruskin. Your use of language. It is inadequate.”

At that word, my rage, hitherto contained, rose to the surface. It was not the first time he used the word. “Inadequate? Modern Painters seemed adequate enough to help the public understand your work a little better.”

“That is just the thing, I do not think they’ve understood anything. The language misleads, and that is not what I want. You’re giving a definite meaning to the picture when there is none.”

“You are mistaken. It does not mislead. It illuminates.”

Turner nodded. “That is true some of the time. But this passage here,” he pointed again to the page, “I simply do not know what you mean.”

“I mean to defend you,” I said, a little too loudly.

Turner paused. “But I have never asked you to defend me.”

“I made your name.” As soon as I said those words, I regretted them.

Turner frowned with confusion at first, then a little sadness. “And I made yours.”

I grabbed the sheets of paper, and went on my way. We did not see each other for a long while after that evening; I never published the essay.

Some time after, I do not recall how long, I stopped by his studio concerning an RA matter and found he was not in. The housekeeper let me in and asked me to wait, for Turner was to return shortly. Left in the studio on my own—the same that I am now in—I wandered around, and stumbled upon what I, or anyone else, was never meant to see. There, partially tucked under a stack of drawings were pictures I noticed for the heaviness of their charcoal outlines. I pulled them out and held in my hands depictions of contorted bodies and lovers entangled in the pleasures of the night, with unspeakable things drawn with precision and detail, enlarged and rendered grotesque in parts. The scenes were handled with such care and truthfulness, like anything else by Turner, so that moans of pleasure seemed to emanate from the papers. My hands trembled and I nearly dropped the drawings. Everything in my learning and teachings pushed back against those images of carnality. These drawings resurfaced recently during my excavation of Turner’s studio; I’ve covered them with brown paper and buried them in the file labelled “Drawings of Plants.” But at that time, upon first seeing them, I took those pictures to be irrefutable proof that Turner had suffered moral collapse, though I had spent years defending him against accusations of such failures of the mind. It took strength to slip those papers back as they had been, before I quietly went out the door. I never mentioned the incident to Turner or to anyone else. I never saw Turner again.

Perhaps that was how it happened. Perhaps that was how our friendship ended. Griffith, in the year after Turner’s death, told me that Turner had cared for me. At the time I did not believe him. But last year, while sorting through my old notebooks, I came across a note from Turner, dated November 1848, which I had evidently forgotten:

“My dear Ruskin,

Do let us be happy.

Yours most truly and sincerely,

J M W Turner.”

When his Bequest first came to me, the memory of those carnal pictures and of that final evening’s disagreement had faded. Instead, my initial thoughts were of the way Turner’s hands moved over the aquatic pictures that were his watercolors. Before the paper dried, he had time to change indigo to violet, time to add a disorderly flourish to indicate a ship, time to work a pattern to suggest the rolling breakers of an agitated sea.

I wish I could return to the seaside with Turner, to the boundless sky, with the clouds melting into radiant pools of color and light. I wish I could take some of these pictures with me, to the sea, and allow them to continue changing, in their inexhaustible way, moving towards another half-revealed state of beauty.

In the fading light of the day I can barely see the movement of my pen over the page. Turner used his canvases to board up broken windows or plug up holes in the walls, but I still feel the draft. Underneath the filthy skylight, the blackened corners of the remaining paintings look even darker, as if they belonged to the evening sky outside. The swimming motes in the air settle gently on the last few boxes of paintings. I will wipe away the soot from these once brilliant seascapes and I will write my final entries for the Inventory.