Everybody knows from childhood memories and creepy movies that the most magical part of a grand house is not necessarily the formal salon or the living quarters; it is the attic with its ancient painted rocking horse and the bosomy dressmaker’s dummy casting a sinister shadow.
London’s newest grand art house is the recently opened Clore Gallery at the Tate, the fabled home of Britain’s native painting and modern art collections. The Clore, named for its donor Sir Charles Clore, who died in 1979, fulfills a long-deferred wish to have a home for a huge trove of art left to the nation by Joseph Mallord William Turner, arguably the greatest pictorial genius produced by the island nation. His formal, Claude-like landscapes endear him to classicists, his great rhetorical visions of storm and deluge unleashed the Romantic sensibility, and his late work is so close to pure Abstract Expressionism that he is held as anearly precursor of modern art. He is, in short, universally admired.
On his death in 1851 he willed to the British nation the bulk of his artistic estate, including about 300 paintings and as many sketchbooks containing more than 20,000 drawings and watercolors. He stipulated that works must be hung in their own galleries, but otherwise the conditions of the will were impenetrably convoluted. To make matters worse, Turner’s heirs contested the will, and the nation, embarrassed by riches, never quite figured out what to do with them. Parts of the collection have been on view at the Tate, the watercolors stored at the National Gallery, but aside from that, things just muddled along for about 135 years until the Clore Gallery opened.
Architecturally it is a modest affair by a flashy architect, James Stirling, just part of a master-plan expansion he has planned for the venerable museum. The Clore is attached to the old Neo-Classical Tate building and reaches out to a brick structure on the park-like grounds on the Thames embankment near the Pimlico tube station. Stirling blends with the rest by using stone and brick. He zings up the building with some trademark moves--giant window mullions the green of unripe apples and a triangular arch entrance. The ground floor is taken up with a handsome circular wooden information desk and a lounge-like reading room. Main galleries are on the second floor--or the first by European reckoning. On the way upstairs you notice a small staircase and a sign saying, “Reserve Galleries.” First things first.
The nine main rooms are proportioned like large domestic spaces and in them Stirling characteristically drops his mannerisms and minds his manners. They will not hold all the pictures, but there is a good selection, arranged thematically. The one labeled “High Art and the Sublime” reminds us of his extraordinarily powerful sensibility. “Storm, Hannibal Crossing the Alps” of 1812 is a looming vortex of destruction that has few artistic parallels outside Leonardo’s deluge drawings. “The Field of Waterloo” is as heroic as any Delacroix and does a better job of casting human events in an aura of cosmic fatality.
Such pictures, along with loans of classics like “The Fighting Temeraire” and “Rain, Steam and Speed” from the National Gallery, are sufficient reminders of Turner’s timeless ability to encapsulate the magnificence of nature--somehow ordered, even on a rampage. He lets us know that humankind and all its works are as ephemeral and vulnerable as ant hills, but perhaps the more courageous for all that.
He also stays remarkably contemporary. If he seemed relevant to the Abstract Expressionists, his visions of the apocalypse appear even more prescient in the gloaming of Neo-Expressionism, where contemporary artists like Robert Morris try--with scant success--to revive his vision. (In the main Tate galleries hang big paintings by Francis Danby and John Martin that look like galactic holocausts produced by contemporary special-effects movie men.)
Such impressions of the essence of Turner cannot be diluted, but the new range afforded by the Clore does allow us to see that, as great an observer as he was, Turner was essentially a visionary in love with pure light and atmosphere. When outside sights did not conform to his inner stirrings, he looks a little funny. When they did, as in the glorious light of Venice, he achieves a transcendent calm that Mark Rothko would rediscover a century later.
Turner was a prodigy. He showed watercolors at the Royal Academy at 15 and was admitted to membership at 24. Unlike his sober contemporary John Constable, he was celebrated and successful all his life. But to us his more academic pictures in the Claudian Italian antique mode look too professional. His passion seems to struggle to get out of them. When he undertakes a portrait like “A Lady in a Van Dyck Costume,” you can’t quite tell if he is being vaguely satirical or if a bit of William Blake’s mysticism were not alive in him somewhere. His paintings of grand domestic interiors at Petworth Castle are justly famous, but they look out of whack with their holy, effulgent light gobbling up luxury furniture and the trappings of privilege.
Maybe somebody learns something from a gallery labeled “Turner the Man,” but I doubt if it really comes from cases displaying his eyeglasses, snuffboxes and painting paraphernalia.
To find out more about Turner, you leave a perfectly satisfactory experience and venture--with the usual sense of penetrating forbidden precincts--into the attic.
Two reserve galleries are informally hung in old salon style. Most museums would ship arms to Iran to have any of the pictures here, but they are among Turner’s more offbeat works and tend to confirm suspicions about his character--both its mainstream and tributaries. He could be successfully calm and cozy, as in a little Dutch-style landscape. A big reclining nude has the poetic sensuality of a Redon and the same slightly otherworldly vision. A lavender landscape looks like a late Monet. What a good thing. It’s like visiting an artist’s studio and seeing student work and new work before it is edited for exhibitions. It’s like reading a diary.
Hello, what’s this. A door opens on a library-like room, so neat and serene that one is shy to enter.
“Hi. I’m a visitor from the States. Are people allowed in here?”
A slender youth with a ring in his ear looks up from the librarian’s desk.
“Oh, please. This is the study room. We encourage anybody who is really interested to come up here. You don’t have to be a critic or scholar, just interested. We have 20,000 watercolors and drawings. Would you like to see something?”
“Love to, but I don’t know what to pick. Could you just bring something out so I can get an idea?”
“Of course. If you wouldn’t mind just washing your hands over there at the sink. Just a formality to protect the work.”
You wash, sit and are presented with a fat folio of the world’s most glorious watercolors. An hour slips effortlessly by in a parade of limpid color that seems to have been applied by delicate raindrops painting Venetian canals, symphonic English sunsets and mountains floating in the mist.
“Thank you. That was one of life’s great experiences.”
“Thank you for taking the trouble. We are really grateful for your interest. I wish more people would come.”
It’s true. The best stuff is in the attic.