Chris Packham launches summer exhibition at Turner’s House, Twickenham

Image: Chris Packham looking at Turner’s Sunset; photograph Lucinda MacPherson

A World of Care – Turner and the Environment, 4 July – 27 October

Chris Packam was at Turner’s House in Twickenham on Thursday (4 July) to launch this summer’s exhibition of his paintings (Turner’s, not Chris Packham’s), titled ‘A World of Care – Turner and the Environment’.

Each year the little museum displays a different selection of the great artist’s lesser known works selected to illustrate a particular theme, in the setting of what was his country retreat. This summer’s theme is the environment and the impact of human beings on it, hence the appearance of Chris Packham CBE, environmentalist, campaigner and TV presenter.

“I was very pleased to be allowed in this morning without them searching my bag to see if I had a can of soup” joked Chris. He is a supporter of Just Stop Oil, he went on, but he would never throw anything over a painting personally as he loved them too much.

“I have always had a keen interest in art, although I studied science…  Art galleries have always been a source of respite and solace.

Image: Chris Packham inspecting The Deluge; photograph Lucinda MacPherson

“Beautiful evidence”

“My job is to bring the information being produced by climate scientists to public attention. It’s terrifying” said Chris.

The paintings on display in the exhibition capture the beginnings of industrialisation.

“In this week when in Switzerland and Italy torrents of water have torn away homes and destroyed villages, [looking at] the paintings is like looking at an early form of data – beautiful evidence.”

W.M. Turner is best known for the way he captured smoke, in paintings such as The Fighting Temeraire, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, and Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway.

Image: Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London 1841; Tate Gallery

“Turner was interested in the painterly effect of smoke and pollution but he was definitely also documenting the effects”

Was he just interested in the way smoke looked and trying to capture that as a visual effect, or was he also deliberately documenting its effects on the environment? I asked curator Tom Ardill.

“Turner was interested in the painterly effect of smoke and pollution but he was definitely also documenting the effects. There’s a painting he made of London from Greenwich in 1809 and he wrote a poem to go with it in which he referenced the ‘murky veil’ over London.

“Byron wrote about it and Benjamin Robert Haydon, an artist who was a contemporary of Turner’s, also wrote about it, although in his case he was proud of the smoke, seeing it as a sign of productivity and wealth.

“Turner sees it differently. He talks about ‘a world of care’, which is what gave us the name for the exhibition.”

Image: Shields, on the River Tyne, engraved by C.Turner 1823; Tate Gallery

It would be stretching it too far to claim Turner was making a statement about the environment, said Tom:

“We’re not trying to say Turner was an eco-warrior, it’s not a concept he would have been aware of, but he was a great observer of the natural world and the human world and of humans’ effect on the environment.”

There are 13 pictures on show – 11 by Turner and two later works, one a photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews of the Mer de Glace in the Swiss Alps, showing just how much the glacier had receded since Turner painted it 200 years ago, the other a watercolour of an alpine scene by John Ruskin.

Image: The Deluge, engraved by J.P. Quilley 1828; Tate Gallery

Tom has chosen the paintings to illustrate eight themes including pollution, industrialisation, flooding and deforestation.

The Deluge is an apocalyptic painting of Noah’s flood, “wiping out humanity for its sins and its arrogance.”

A watercolour of Crowhurst in Sussex shows the scene of destruction where a few spindly trees are all that remain after trees had been cut down to feed the iron industry.

“There is also a flood in the picture. Crowhurst still floods because of the deforestation of the area. Whether he realised deforestation leads to flooding we don’t know.”

The lead image of the exhibition is of a sunset, “which is a reminder that time is running out for us to stop global warming. Scientific studies have shown the particles in the air from pollution have altered our perception of sunsets.”

A World of Care: Turner and the Environment opened on Saturday 6 July and runs until Sunday 27 October. Turner’s House is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10am to 4pm. For more information go to their website.

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