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Turner & Philosophy - Was he an Intellectual?

Dr Selby Whittingham

16 October 2023

The late Dr John Gage, who wrote important studies on the subject of Turner and Colour, thought that Turner was an informal intellectual.  Ruskin in 1840 found Turner to be, contrary to what he was told, “highly intellectual, the powers of the mind not brought out with any delight in their manifestation, … but flashing out occasionally in a word or a look.”  Constable said he was uncouth, “but has a wonderful range of mind.”  What did that mind turn to apart from the subjects of perspective, of which he was the Royal Academy’s professor, or of science, about which James Hamilton has written?

Having studied philosophy at Oxford, I was intrigued by the books by Dr August Wiedmann on Romanticism and German philosophy with particular reference to Turner and Friedrich, and gave one to Victor Pasmore, an artist with an inquiring mind, to review.  I might instead have given it to Bryan Magee, had his book Confessions of a Philosopher appeared by then.  Magee achieved fame for his brilliant tv series on religions and then on philosophers present and past. He had imbibed philosophy at Oxford and might be considered an archetypal intellectual, but thought that art and academic study had no connection.  He had two great passions, philosophy and music, the latter being the greater. They came together in a particular interest in the philosophy of Schopenhauer and the music of Wagner, who said he was influenced by the former.  However knowledge of Schopenhauer, Magee maintained, is unnecessary for the appreciation of Wagner and the same point holds true more generally.

Philosophy for Magee was an answer to the problems which at times caused him acute mental distress.  Oxford Philosophy, of his time and mine, which was a nitpicking examination of the use of language, was not true philosophy dealing with the great issues as practised by Plato, Kant and Wittgenstein.   He became contemptuous of pretentious academics who were not original thinkers. “Those who can do, those who can’t teach”, as Bernard Shaw pithily remarked. 

When it comes to the arts, Magee thought the same applied.  And that is what I have come to believe.  Much worthy study of Turner, his influences and his works has been made, but I do not think that this has any impact on the gallery-going public, which has read little or any of it.  Art appreciation is a personal and subjective matter.  Kant had said “only one important thing about the arts that seemed to me,” said Magee, “genuinely helpful, that when we see an object as being beautiful this is characteristic not of the object but of the way we are apprehending it.”  Not only do people have different tastes, but their tastes differ over time and according to circumstances, as Magee illustrated with regard to his for Mahler.

What about the artists?  “Almost every great artist I read about – and I did a lot of reading about them – seemed to be openly contemptuous and dismissive of academics, not only in their relation to his own work but in their relation to art.”  “I do not regard art as an intellectual activity, and I do not believe conceptual thinking has much to do with what matters most about a work of art: in other words, I do not think it has anything to do with whether it is good art or bad art… Artists frequently espouse theories, aesthetic theories; but I do not believe that quality can derive from theory.  In fact I believe that the relationship between artists’ attachment to theory and their quality as artists is usually one of inverse proportion:  the more attached they are to theory the less good they are as artists,  I also believe that their theories are almost always rationalizations, and that their art, in so far as it is genuine art, is motivated artistically, not conceptually, and that their attempt to express what they are doing in terms of words and ideas  is superfluous, and often erroneous.”  Sickert said much the same with regard to the Impressionists, and that one should attend to their pictures and not to their patter.

Turner confessed that he had no regular practice regarding technique, refused to explain the meaning of his pictures and did not adhere to any one style, whether classicism or romanticism. He was certainly not an academic, being careless about facts. On the other hand his age was one of aesthetic theorists, not least in Britain, such as Burke (The Sublime), Revd. Archibald Allason (Associationism), Gilpin and others (The Picturesque). He attended a lecture by Sir Joshua Reynolds, though in the lather’s case theory and practice diverged. For Turner also art came first. Thomas Mozley in his Reminiscences of Oriel College and the Oxford Movement  (Turner frequently visited and painted Oxford) once ventilated the idea of  James Anthony Froude, an undergraduate at Oriel 1836-40, that the pointed arch was  the natural suggestion of a row of round arches in perspective to Sir Richard Westmacott and Turner, who with great contempt “dismissed such mechanical ideas from the realm of the picturesque.” 

However when I read Wiedmann, I was struck by how Romantic theories of the Germans tallied with Turner’s late practice.  His chapters are headed the “Holistic”, “Expressive”, “Hierophantic” and “Organic” theories of art.  He ends with particular pictures by Turner amongst others which he suggests exhibit these ideas. Of course Turner did not read the often unreadable works of those philosophers.  But he read the intellectual journals of the day, attended lectures and the salons of intellectuals.  And some of these had imbibed the German ideas – Wordsworth, Henry Crabb Robinson (he met Schelling in Paris in 1814), Coleridge, Carlyle.  Almost certainly Turner came into contact with them or their writings.  Coleridge’s nephew, Revd Edward Coleridge, was an enthusiastic collector of Turner’s watercolours and in the next generation Lord Coleridge was knowledgeable about him (the present peer had touched proofs by Turner).

Some have seen Turner as a Germanic painter, being un-English. In the opinion of others.  If he exhibits a Germanic spirit, his style was not. If one views his late seapiece in the Neue Pinakothek at Munich one is struck by how little it resembled that of his German contemporaries.  It developed out of the painterly school of Titian which was the dominating influence on British painting from the late Reynolds in the 1780s to the early 1840s when German influence became apparent.  In between Turner developed a personal style which combined German transcendentalism.  As such his paintings look equally out of place among his British contemporaries.  Their closest parallel was partly found in France – with the French Impressionists and Fauves in style and with the Symbolists in subject matter.   Turner’s mind was like Shakespeare’s a sponge which absorbed ideas from all sorts of sources with the result that he cannot be pigeonholed in any school or category.

The majority of Turner’s Turners have ended up at Tate Britain simply through the indifference of the National Gallery and governments. Turner never expressed the wish to be judged by comparison with his contemporaries or the British School, and the claim that his actions implied such a wish is false.  He wanted to meet the challenge of his European predecessors.  Likewise Goethe acknowledged obligations only to Shakespeare, Spinoza and Linnaeus as Wordsworth did only to Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton, according to Crabb Robinson, who knew both.  (Wordsworth saw a physical resemblance in himself to Milton, of whom a print hung in Dove Cottage when I visited it in 1956, the only other visitor present being Wordsworth’s gt-gt-gt grandson, who had a resemblance to both poets).    

“You do not need to read Schelling,” wrote Magee, “to understand Coleridge, even though Coleridge appropriated … large chunks of Schelling.  [This, however, was once denied by Coleridge, who said he preferred Kant]. The Schelling that Coleridge used is the Schelling that Coleridge needed for his own purposes, and these purposes are realized in his work.”  Wiedmann pointed out, moreover, that, “as Schelling’s apotheosis of artist and art makes abundantly clear,” the philosophy did not always precede the art but vice versa.

Enthusiasm for an artist naturally leads to a wish to know more about him and what inspired him.  Eric Shanes showed, as Ruskin had in his later discussions, that there was more to Turner than his powers of evoking nature or creating marvellous colour combinations and that the subjects of many of his finished works were significant for Turner (if only rarely for his contemporaries) and repay study. Lady Eastlake remarked that he knew about the histories of the castles which he painted. Ruskin sought the evidence of mind in works of art and thought he found it in Turner’s unlike those of most of his contemporaries.  Certainly Turner was thoughtful about his art – and also about its destination.   So the intellectual context in which he lived must be of interest to any enthusiastic student of his work.

But, as Magee pointed out, if Schopenhauer influenced Wagner, do we need to know that fact to appreciate Wagner in the first place?  To the question of how to attract someone to the work of an artist the answer is not more information about him, but lies in the context and presentation of the work.  In  music the conductor made a difference for Magee and probably also the circumstances of the performance and Magee’s own disposition at the time.  People in Turner’s age understood this and regarded the question of the site of the National Gallery, its architecture and the feelings these aroused of vital importance.  Today instead it is all about labels and explanation, when these are superfluous or even a barrier if the viewer’s enthusiasm has not been captured in the first place by sight of the works.  In Turner’s case the merit of those works was particularly bound up in his wizardry in the use of paint to conjure up effects that other artists could not manage.  The curator’s principal task should be in the preservation and intelligible arrangement of the works in his care.

Magee, whose perceptions I think are largely correct, was however influenced by his hostility to the Oxford of his time, where dons showed no interest in the arts and their intellectual horizon (entertainingly described by Ved Mehta) was limited.  But others support his view that one initially falls in love with an artist is by direct experience of his work, not with matters such as influence.

Sir David Piper, in his introduction to Enjoying Paintings (1964), wrote that he once went into the chapel at Padua, “rather cross, knowing what I was going to see and already bored by it, and a few moments later my soul was levitating with Giotto in corporeal majesty.  Later I told someone that I had discovered Giotto, and he looked at me with a tolerant sneer; but he was wrong, because I had discovered Giotto.”  As it took Magee some time to appreciate Mahler, so it had with Piper to appreciate certain painters. “For years I had looked at Poussins with desire and admiration … but only, in 1960, at the Louvre Poussin exhibition, did Poussin click for me.  Other painters have taken me by surprise, crept up on me without my being aware of it; both Turner and Corot did that …”

Jean Gimpel, whose grandfather had paid for the first Turner wing at the Tate and who had known many artists, thought that most were unintellectual. He had a bias against the glorification of the artist since the Middle Ages and against Romanticism and shared the view that some artists seek compensation for their inadequacies in art. This followed a sudden deconversion when he was 30 after he had been a French freedom fighter and saw the art world in a different light.  However Turner was more the bourgeois type he admired than were the    art for art’s sake brigade represented by the French decadents and Whistler, whom Ruskin denounced on similar grounds.  They might be deemed pseudo-intellectuals or at any rate trivial ones.  Baudelaire complained that “the bizarre Belgian megalomaniac” Anton Wiertz (whose museum at Brussels can be visited) “wanted to save the world”. If Gimpel was alive today he would have plenty of examples of decadent art. Already in 1992 Howard Jacobson, commenting on Gimpel’s book, wrote, “Only let the Turner Prize be televised for two more years and the notion that there is anything serious in art, or creditable in art criticism, will have vanished …”   


Selby Whittingham, 16  October 2023.


  • Antoine Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy, The Destruction of Works of Art and the Use to which they are applied, translated by Henry Thomson R.A. (1821).

  • Ved Mehta, Fly and Fly-Bottle: Encounters with British Intellectuals (1963).

  • David Piper, ed., Enjoying Paintings (1964)

  • The Diary of Henry Crabb Robinson , abridged by Derek Hudson (1967).

  • Jean Gimpel, Against Art and Artists (1968 / 1991).

  • William Vaughan, Romantic Art (1978) – (WV a researcher on “The German Manner in English Art 1815-65”j)

  • Hugh Honour, Romanticism (1979) with Books for Further Reading.

  • August Wiedmann, Romantic Art Theories (1986);  Romantic Roots in Modern Art (1979).

  • Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher (1997).


Further reading

  • As I mention Froude, John Coleman, Froude Today (2005) was given to me by its author, a champion of the unfashionable historian, appointed Regius Professor at Oxford by Lord Salisbury.  It cites Sir Malcolm Rifkind, my then MP, on a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict!

  • Sam Smiles, J.M.W.Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist (2007).  I wrote a review pointing out its errors and inadequacies.  It covers Turner’s afterlife c.1900-67, which I covered in a more specific way in The Fallacy of Mediocrity.  William Vaughan had also devoted an article to the subject, not cited.  The burden of the book is that Turner’s subjects and context were ignored in the period covered (ie Gowing was wrong and Gage right), a familiar point.

  • Lawrence Gowing: Selected Writings on Art (2015), edited by my cousin Sarah Whitfield.  Gowing was the only intellectual keeper which the Tate has had apart from D.S.McColl, who scorned Turner’s late works and used Jesuitical arguments in favour of selling off part of the bequest.  Though the pages on Turner occupy about a tenth of the book, they omit what he wrote in the 1970s which give a more rounded idea of his assessment of Turner than the one his critics like to cite. His successor at the Tate, Martin Butlin, commented at the end of one of his lectures on Turner that he had heard it twice, but still could not understand it, a remark typical of that facetious individual.



Further “Schelling set out from the indubitable fact that aesthetic production exhibits the co-presence of conscious and unconscious drives.”  “Each glorious painting,” wrote Schelling, “owes its origin [to an act] that removes the invisible wall separating the ideal from the real world.”

There is no sign that on the present Supreme Director of Tate has Turner crept up.  When she was in charge of the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester her re-ordering of it involved skying Turner watercolours out of easy sight, resulting in a rare condemnation by Turner Society News. In Tate’s hands no appreciation is evident of Turner or his bequest, to which other priorities have precedence.  Curators presume, without evidence in favour of their claim, that they know better than Turner how his bequest should be governed.  Only a few people are as candid as Piper or Magee in admitting that they do not admire all art which is generally held to be admirable.   I was once buttonholed by the latter in the street  (the reverse of what usually happened when he was a tv star), and, when I said I was interested in art, he countered that he was interested in music and that was that.  However even those who do not like Turner’s works generally admit that he was a remarkable phenomenon with the corollary that his bequest is important.  Sadly the curators do not have the modesty to admit that the bequest would be better placed in the hands of those who really do admire and respect him and under due legal constraints which the authorities are so keen to remove in order to give liberty to the whimsical ideas that may be current.

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