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Turner, Art  and Music

by Dr Selby Whittingham

12th October 2023

Evidence for Turner’s interest in music:

This was assembled by Jack Lindsay and is summarised in the entry on Music in the Oxford Companion to J.M.W.Turner (2001) by Khatchick I Pilikian (1939-2019).  Two early connections were family ones.  His young cousin Thomas Price Turner, to whom he sent a few of his drawings when he thought of taking up painting, and who was a member of the choir of Exeter Cathedral, had his own band which toured Devon, and sang in the choir at the Handel anniversary festival at Westminster Abbey, Turner noting his presence in the programme.  Meanwhile the mother of Turner’s two daughters was married first to the musician John Danby.  To celebrate that I organised a concert (recorded) at the English Speaking Union. 

The influence of Music on Turner’s Painting:

There had long been an association between the two among theorists such as Roger de Piles.   This centred on colour and music and harmony in both arts. It was particularly prevalent at Venice and exhibited by the connection between the painterly style of Titian and co, very influential on Reynolds, Turner and English painting down to the 1840s, and the music performed there.  In 1795 Schiller wrote, “The plastic arts, at their most perfect, must become music and move us by the immediacy of their sensuous presence.”  There followed Novalis’ idea of synaesthesia, Wagner’s of Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total art form’, the dictum that “architecture is frozen music” which originated in Germany and was diffused to the rest of Europe by Mme de Staël, culminating in Walter Pater’s “all art aspires to the condition of music”. “Nowadays such ideas are unfashionable with art historians as with musicologists, but they are of great significance for an understanding of Romanticism”  (Hugh Honour, Romanticism, 1979, chap.3). 

I have suggested, in an article published in The Jackdaw, that Turner’s Palestrina -Composition painted in Rome in 1828 was in part a tribute to Palestrina the composer -   the title immediately suggesting that to people of that time and place in view of the 1826 Palestrina anniversary and the revival of his work by the son-in-law of Sarah Danby at the Bavarian Chapel off Golden Square, the only London Catholic chapel remaining today from that time and then noted for its music (as Dr Bennet Zon has described in the Catholic Ancestor).  The painting was intended to be a pair to the Claude at Petworth, the composition of which it follows, but totally disrupts the classical system of planes and logic by a Rubensian baroque style which was a foundation of Turner’s later work.  The painting was acquired for a large sum by Elhanan Bicknell and given by a later owner to the National Gallery, which stupidly shipped it off to the Tate.

Turner thus approached Pater’s idea of all art aspiring to the condition of music, his art increasingly removed from realism and leading successors to abstraction.  Following the Rubenistes, and abandoning the Poussinists, Turner transitioned from Classicism to Romanticism.

Francis Claudon (still today a professor at Paris-Est) edited the Encyclopedia of Romanticism (1980/1986), writing the section on music himself.    He has studied the connection of literature with the arts and particularly music in the period which includes Turner.  “Romanticism, while not abandoning it [classical metre], blurred and softened it with a more flowing line.”  Palestrina’s music flows.   Among Romantics who extolled Palestrina were Wackenroder (1773-98), Hoffmann (1776-1822) and Hugo (1802-85).

Most of Turner's sketches and finished paintings were of outdoor subjects, but one famous exception was his "Music Party at Perworth". (In fact  the American art critic Patrick Youngblood recently 

established the true location as Nash's

East Cowes Castle, Isle of Wight, so it should more properly be titled as "The Music Party".)  Nonetheless, Turner clearly saw this as an important subject as the finished oil painting has the dimensions height: 121 cm (47.6 in); width: 90.5 cm (35.6 in).  It is housed by Tate Britain, though it is unclear whether the painting is on show.

Turner did stay at Petworth in Sussex, the Home of the Earl of Egremont) on a number of occasions, and there is evidence that he enjoyed the music there too.


Turner painted his Music Party in 1835, and its treatment is so far advanced compared with another famous painting of a Music Party, even though it was painted 15 years later in 1850.  Menzel's "The Flute Concert" was set at Sanssouci, whichi was created by Frederick the Great, and there he is playing in the centre, with CPE Bach,  Quantz, Graun and other notable musicians gathered round.  The painting is now at the  Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.  Clearly Menzel aimed to portray the people clearly while capturing the sense of the candle lighting.  Does Turner capture the atmosphere better?

With which composers can one associate Turner?

Mendelssohn immediately comes to mind – both composer and painter having visited Fingal’s Cave, and Turner’s painting so expressive of the music and the aforementioned tendencies.  Mendelssohn drew and painted and was friends with the Callcotts, Turner’s followers.

Edward Lockspeiser in his Music and Painting … Turner to Schoenberg (1973) makes the comparison with Wagner and Debussy (La Mer).

Among Turner’s contemporaries was their forerunner Carl Maria von Weber.  He was educated in drawing and painting as well as music.  “Weber personifies the complete artist of whom the Romantic era dreamed.” He said “he was seeking certain combinations of timbre that should correspond to the colour effects used by painters to convey the light transitions between dawn, morning, afternoon and evening.”  Just as Turner was a virtuoso in the handling of paint, Weber was in orchestration. He died before his 40th birthday in London.  The impression this made was shown by his burial entry.  (I was going through the Catholic registers in my study of John Danby).  Amid all the obscure Irish his stands out in huge bold Gothic letters.  The good ladies transcribing the entries, who had never heard of him, were astonished. 

Turner’s young friend the Revd William Towler Kingsley (1815-1916) thought that the most comparable composition with late Turner was Beethoven’s 9th symphony.  As he was deaf, he was perhaps not a good judge.  Probably he meant that they were alike in the scale of their innovation.  Both moved from a Classical style to a Romantic one.  William Thompson, who improbably claimed he was descended from Turner and succeeded me as Secretary of the Old Turner Society, had previously been Secretary of the Junior Beethoven Society, which broke up amid dissension.  He said he could see no similarity between Beethoven and Turner. 

Some critics and artists do not see any connection between music and art.  Likewise Andrew Wilton cannot see the connection, obvious to others, between Turner and Shelley, the subject of the first event of The Independent Turner Society, a lecture at the Courtauld Institute of Art by Sir Drummond Bone. Like the Danby concert that was not entirely successful, as Bone regarded the usual parallels as too obvious for his very academic lecture (first published in The Ruskin Newsletter edited by Olive Forbes-Madden). 


Some artists loved both arts, and one can surely see the influence of music on the late landscapes of Gainsborough, which also are “compositions” rather than depictions of a particular scene.  Gainsborough was buried beside the grandfather of Turner’s lifelong friend Revd Henry Scott Trimmer. He wrote about how one part of a tune led to another – the idea of flow, connection, the Whole found in late Turner (also philosophically in the books by Dr August Wiedmann, one of which Victor Pasmore reviewed for us).  Another painter who influenced Turner, mainly for his treatment of colour, was Watteau, who was a lover of music.  An exhibition was held at Bozar, Brussels, in 2013 by William Christie (Les Arts Florissants) on that aspect of his art with performances of the music of his time and of a concert held at the mansion of Watteau’s patron, Pierre Crozat.

Watteau - The Scale of Love - National Gallery

But many have seen the most revealing parallel with a later musician, Mozart, as others have in Turner’s case when comparing him with Debussy.

Turner and Contemporary Composers

A number of people today have composed works which are inspired by Turner or as a tribute to him.  Among them is Tim Whitehead, who, with the help of Tate, produced a CD “Colour Beginnings”, pieces he composed extempore in front of Turner’s colour beginning watercolours for tenor & soprano saxophones, piano, drums, bass guitar and double bass.  Tim gave out copies of the CD when he attended one of our celebrations of Turner’s birthday.  Another who attended such an event was a brother of K I Pilikian, Hovhannes (1940-2018).

Finally a musician Ivan Moseley planned a book on this subject. “… my interest was what we can discover about the music Turner is actually likely to have heard, rather than fanciful associations between graphic and sonic art”  (Ivan Moseley, “Music in Mr. Turner”, Turner Society News, 123, Spring 2015, p,9.

Here is a link to the full article


Addendum by Selby:

I was looking again at Turner's notes on Goethe's Theory of Colour

(ed. John Gage in Turner Studies,

IV, 2 Winter 1984).  I find Turner's notes often baffling, but I give these two -


Goethe 889:  "If the word tone, or rather tune, is to be still borrowed in future

from music, and applied to colouring, it might be used in a better sense than


Turner:  "very likely because even Music hath bounds which can only be transgressed 

by talent."


Goethe 890:  "For it would not be unreasonable to compare a painting of powerful

effect, with a piece of music in a sharp key;  a painting of soft effect with a piece

of music in a flat key, while other equivalents might be found for the modifications

of these two leading modes."

Turner:  "too general to make much of"

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