Leaving the exhibition of Turner watercolours at the Royal Academy's Sackler Galleries, I looked down Piccadilly towards the Ritz and Green Park and tried to see the view as Turner might have done. The day was a little misty (he would have liked that) and the sun a brightness hidden in cloud. I could make a guess at how he would have handled the distant trees in the park and the disappearing traffic. To make a Turner of the world, it became clear, you must take the long view, concentrate on the middle and far distance, and only register near objects in the low-resolution periphery of the retina. Look at the world in that way and it becomes clear why it doesn't matter that Turner, who could capture the fine detail of a distant hillside and the translucence of vaporous air with such refinement, peopled his pictures with funny, clumsy little figures. Indeed you begin to wonder whether, if they were less odd, the eye might linger too long on them, not look past them to the blue hills and the ravelling clouds. Eric Shanes's essay in the catalogue which he edited (Thames and Hudson, £35) suggests that the contrast between dumpy people and noble nature was intentional. 'Staffage' is the word for human and animal extras, I find, and David Teniers the Younger, whose work Turner admired, is offered as the source of their plain looks. Whatever his narrative intention, foreground accents - not just people, but boats, buoys, goats, ducks - are important parts of the visual machinery. They provide a first stopping place for the eye and give the bottom note in the register of aerial perspective which runs from bright clothes and dark rocks and trees to diaphanous veils of pale cloud. The scale and order of recession in the landscapes depends on them. They are little dramas on the human scale which lead us on to bigger things.
LRB 4 January 2001 | PDF Download