Friday, 19 October 2012

'Dieppe from the East' by John Sell Cotman and JMW Turner

This post is about two paintings of Dieppe painted by JMW Turner and John Sell Cotman at more or less the same time - give or take a year!  It also covers the concept of staffage and how to access Turner's sketchbooks

You can see both paintings - hung next to one another in  Cotman in Normandy - the new exhibition of watercolour paintings, drawings and etchings by John Sell Cotman at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The Cotman painting was definitely produced in his studio and the Turner was either painted on a loose leaf of watercolour paper while in Dieppe or was worked up as a colour study from his sketchbook.  They neatly contrast the different approaches and styles of the two artists when faced with the identical view.  (See my Review: Cotman in Normandy - at Dulwich Picture Gallery on Making A Mark for the explanation of why all Cotman landscapes were done in his studio.)

Dieppe from the heights to the East of the port (1823) by John Sell Cotman
Graphite and watercolour with pen and ink and scratching out of the paper
Victoria and Albert Museum
Dieppe from the East (?) (1826-7) by JMW Turner
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Turner Bequest
Turner's 1826 French tour began at Dieppe towards the end of August. His first sketchbook (no.5) includes only a general view of the town of the kind he had already noted two years earlier. But it seems that he also made some sketches on loose sheets of paper. On these he again recorded the quaysides, which had formed the subject of his large oil painting of 1825 (Frick Collection, New York)
Interestingly the description of the work in the exhibition indicates that this watercolour was probably developed from the 1821 sketchbook and produced as part of an unrealised sceheme to represent both sides of the Channel.


Both paintings have people at exactly the same place - providing some perspective and scale to the works.  Such figures used to be referred to as staffage
The word can be used in two senses: as a general term for any figures in a work, even when they are, at least ostensibly, the main subject, and as a descriptive term for figures to whom no specific identity or story is attached, included merely for compositional or decorative reasons.
Here are what those people look like up close - first Cotman and then Turner

Close-up of figures in Dieppe from the East (?) (1826-7) by JMW Turner
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Turner Bequest
To me there's an element of painting by numbers about these Cotman figures.  While the actual forms and proportions are life-like, the paint is essentially an infill for the pen and ink lines.  On the latter it's inconceivable to me that all the details were painted using a brush rather than using a pencil or pen.  The brownish shade of the detailed marks make me wonder whether it's ink over graphite.

Contrast the precise figures by Cotman with the very loose suggestions of forms by Turner - who has never been particularly convincing at rendering figures in my opinion.

Close-up of figures in Dieppe from the East (?) (1826-7) by JMW Turner
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Turner Bequest
Viewing Turner's Sketchbook relating to Dieppe, Rouen and Paris (at Tate Britain) enables you to detect Turner's habit in relating to notating his sketches of scenes he encountered on his travels.  Very often he sketches using graphite or pen and ink along and no colour.

However access to this particular sketchbook is tortuous in the extreme.  See below for why.

How to find a Turner sketchbook online

To access this particular Turner sketchbook (or any of the other sketchbooks which have been digitised and are accessible online) follow these instruction:

  • Go to Tate Britain website and note that there is no special link to the Turner Bequest of 41, 857 items held by the Gallery and notated on the website!  (I think this is quite appalling - Turner is one of the UK's best know artists, Tate Britain houses the Turner Bequests and there used to be a way of accessing this from the home page - but no longer.  Now you have to know in advance that it exists and how to access it because the website offers no clues whatsoever)
  • Click on Art and Artists
  • Scroll down and find the Browse artworks link
  • Now click on Artist and you get to the alphabetical index.  
  • Find 'T' and scroll down and search for Turner
  • Note that the website then serves up all 41k of artworks without offering any obvious filter or further search categories!
  • Once you've got to Turner click the tab called "context" - at the same time as the website still references Turner (it tries to go back to the overall collection) and this identifies the different types of artwork - one type being "sketchbook"
  • click "sketchbooks" and it then lists all sketchbooks by decade.  If you;re very lucky you also find this text box on a page - which is how I found out how to find them!

    Turner's sketchbooks

    The Tate collection holds more than 300 sketchbooks by JMW Turner. These have all been digitised to enable you to experience the artworks in their original context. You can browse the sketchbooks by decade under the context menu.
  • click a decade and it then lists the individual sketchbooks for that decade by the places they cover eg Cherbourg, Coutances and Mont St Michel Sketchbook [Finberg CCL](124)
  • you can then view them as a list, a grid or a slideshow
  • However what you can't do is identify a URL for an individual sketchbook so it's impossible to reference it to other people without providing long and complicated instructions!! UNLESS you go to the slideshow and then use the URL for that eg
This is also a page for Turner but I've no idea how you get to it via 'search'.  Note that you can't access any differentiation of the different types of artwork via this page and there is no mention of the sketchbooks!


Bridget Hunter said...

What an interesting post Katherine. What a contrast between the paintings in style yet each depicting a sense of place.

Katherine Kean said...

I love learning a new term and I'd never heard of staffage.
I sometimes add tiny, distant figures to landscapes and the scale can make them tricky to paint convincingly.


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