JWM Turner

Virtue and the sea


To the Towner at Eastbourne, and John Virtue’s incredible paintings. For the last five years, Virtue has been examining the sea, in all its moods and gestures, from the vantage point of his home in Blakeney. Not the relatively gentle English Channel that frames our currentjourney along the coast, but the North Sea, an altogether more wild and intenseplace. I too have been getting to know that coastline over the last ten years,from my perch near Aldeburgh, and what Virtue has captured for me (more so thanHambling, who has also made the North Sea her subject) is its grey strangeinhuman turbulence. His paintings remind me of the John Montague poem I consider most accurate at capturing its emotional scope:

North Sea

From the cold depths
towards the shelf of Europe
the waves press, hotel fronts
streaked with rain, bleached
blue bathing huts, enduring like
rocks, on wind ravelled sand.

& the dome of the casino
glistening: a tethered balloon.

Perfect setting for
the almost forgotten monster
of unhappiness to clank ashore
(an old horror movie come true)
to where rain spits on
your hotel window
& claim you.


(image by Corey Arnold, from his series The North Sea)

That’s what Virtue does, with his monochromatic palette, he creates something immediately known from our beachgazing, but also completely abstract, a dash of grey, a splotch of white, and we are lost somewhere else, somewhere inside, with the monster of unhappiness clanking down. The paintings are huge, and so you can get lost, as you might get lost at sea, or lost in your thoughts. They are daydreams you can walk inside; you can see the arc of water, the gesture of a man waving his hand over the canvas. For works which are so physical, so full of movement and drama, they are also oddly still, as if what Virtue has really found is the core of the sea, a whirlpool that sweeps us into silence. 


Like a poem, the paintings are built overtime, one gesture, then another, then another. The paintings start as sketches, small watercolour notes to the artist, that Virtue makes while he’s walking, the same walk over Blakeney Point, in all seasons and weathers. In that, he is like Turner, observing the changes over a single location. But whereas Turner was, even in his most abstract moments, trying to portray what weather really looks like, Virtue is already memorialising it, committing it to black and white. It’s really the memory of the sea he’s painting, the thing he’s carried home in his head, then placed on canvas, not just the sea, but the way it’s made him feel.


Rain, steam and speed

For those of you who have been following Invective since the beginning, you may be surprised by my choice of image today. Yes, I’ve given you Peter Lanyon and Prunella Clough, who, although they are very different painters, both represent a particularly British way of looking at landscape – which is at once modern and complex, and driven by internal as well as external forces. Both of them wanted to celebrate the landscapes they loved: for Lanyon, the West Penwith coast; for Clough, the brown field sights of South London and Essex. But neither one of them could have painted the way they did without Turner. Not to say that Turner was a direct influence, but it was Turner whose ground-breaking style (if that’s not too much of a pun when talking about landscape painting) gave them permission. Rain, Steam and Speed is one of Turner’s most extraordinary images, and for me it represents the moment when the industrial meets the pastoral (like in Hardy’s novels, or Wordworth’s poems). Andrew Graham-Dixon says of this picture: 

The train was not just a contraption which moved Turner from place to place more quickly than ever before. It moved him emotionally. It made him see the world as never before. He put this into the very style of his picture, conjuring up effects of blur and rush to celebrate a new speeded up vision. Turner had looked the future full in the face. He had found it beautiful. He had found it exhilarating.

I have stood in front of this painting many times and felt moved, not just by the sensation of speed Turner is able to evoke, but moved emotionally. It’s an odd feeling to be moved by a painting, and it is difficult to say why. Something about a particular arrangement of shape and colour and line. The same way a poem affects you when you don’t always understand its meaning, but the language and imagery strike something subconscious.

The poem that follows (which was published in my last collection, Fetch) is directly inspired by not only Turner’s painting, but the experience of standing in front of it in the National Gallery and being moved, and then watching other people standing in front of it perhaps experiencing the same transformation. I’m a fan of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs observing crowds of people in galleries, and I wanted to capture something of that collective experience of looking at art in a public place (while undergoing some private emotion).

I’m off to Tate Britain in a little while, and although I am not going for the Turners, I feel I will have to call in on them while I’m there, just to say hello.


Portrait of a Couple Looking at a Turner Landscape


They stand, not quite touching,

before a world after storm.


There are drops of moisture in her hair,

in his scarf

                 the colour of a gentler sea, his eyes,


while trains depart every minute, steaming

into the future, where the hills


unroll themselves,

vast plains of emerald and gold


            (she undressed for him, slowly,

             her skin like cloud under dark layers)


after rooms of Rubens and Fragonard, flesh dead

against old brocade

                                (their flesh alive in the white sheets).




There are trains departing.

                                        When they part

it will be night, outside a theatre, near the station,


        and the sky will be blown with stars,

too dim to see in the glare of neon.


They will stand on concrete and asphalt,

                                    the innocent shining sands


lost. The world tilts to meet her face,

he holds her face close


           and something closes in on them,

the weight of silence in the street,


the winter horizon, bright, huge,

the moment before

                                 the sky opens and it pours.