Exhibition review: Turner in Brighton at The Royal Pavillion in Brighton

By Jessica King Published: 01 November 2013

Exhibition review: Turner in Brighton, The Royal Pavilion, Brighton, November 2 2013 – March 2 2014

A photo of a glove tending to three 19th century paintings of maritime scenes
Two hand coloured engravings: George Cooke, after JMW Turner, Brighthelmston, Sussex (1825). From Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England, engravings with later hand colouring (top two engravings); Bottom – Unknown, Brighton chain pier (circa 1830). Wood engraving on paper© Jim Holden / Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
This intimate exhibition celebrates JMW Turner and his depictions of Brighton’s famous landmarks through a collection of watercolour works inspired by his visit in 1824.

Turner’s first visit to the seaside town was most likely in 1796, when Brighton was still a small fishing village.

Subsequent black and white sketches – his signature method - observe the humble trading, while his watercolour works capture the heroic nature of fishermen; their small, simplistic boats contrasted by the theatrical sea.

John Constable claimed that Brighton provided nothing for artists other than the sea and the sky, suggesting that the landscape was barren and uninspiring. Turner, however, embraced these elements that remain constant in Brighton’s ever-changing culture, deploying a typically dream-like and ethereal manner.

At the heart of the exhibition lies the Brighthelmston Sussex for the Southern Coast, painted in 1824.

The tiny watercolour piece, measuring just 155 x 233 mm, depicts the chain pier in the foreground with a fishing bought caught in ferocious waves, a row of buildings in the background and a rainbow arc, its subtle variation of colours reflecting Turner’s interest in contemporary optics and theories about refraction.

The crisp linear style of the pier is heavily contrasted with a broader, much more expressive treatment used for the undulating water, where a variety of techniques are applied to reclaim the white of the paper. Accurate delineation and fictive portrayal are combined to create this central feature.

In direct juxtaposition, next to this sits a grand, ornate chimney place above which proudly hangs The Chain Pier (711 x 1365 mm), framed decadently. The chain pier juts out from the side of the painting, standing black and definite against the soft, golden tones of the sea and sky.

The chain pier was the first of Brighton’s three piers built in 1823, a time in which the former modest town and fishing community saw a rise in population and status.

The prestige of the resort was ultimately secured by largely scandalous visits from George VI and fashionable invalids seeking the benefits of sea bathing.

Although brief, Turner’s nautical retreat seemed to impact upon him as later watercolour works and sketches are exhibited, inspired by visits to harbours in Belgium, Germany and northern France where representations of the sea, boats and fishermen are further ventured into.

The exhibition successfully allows Turner’s travels to highlight Brighton’s historical evolution, presenting the city’s most iconic attractions, interpreted in Turner’s distinctive style.

  • Open 10am-5.15pm (closes 2.30pm December 24, closed December 25-26). Admission £5.25-£10.50 (family ticket £16.40-£26.90). Follow Brighton Museums on Twitter @BrightonMuseums‎.

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More pictures:

A photo of a pair of gloved hands holding an ancient sketch of boats on a seashore
John Constable, Brighton Beach, Early Morning after Wet Night (circa 1824). Ink and wash on paper© Jim Holden / Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
A photo of a pair of gloved curatorial hands holding a book showing an ancient palace
John Baxter, A Stranger's Guide to Brighton (1824)© Jim Holden / Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
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