Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master

National Gallery of Australia until September 8

Reviewed by Dennis Long

Turner’s A Disaster at Sea captures the drama of a maritime tragedy.

On Sunday August 25, 1833, the Amphitrite sailed from Woolwich, England with 108 convict women, 12 children and a crew of 16 bound for NSW.

The ship passed Dover and reached Dungeness by Thursday when a gale blew up. Crossing the Channel, it made it to within a mile of Boulogne by 3pm on Friday when it grounded. The Amphitrite was in grave danger. Locals sent out a long boat but the captain spurned assistance. The convict women begged that the ship’s long boat be used to get them to safety but they were ignored.

Thousands watched from the shore. At 6pm, a French sailor named Pierre Henin stripped off and swam naked for up to an hour out to the ship and persuaded some of the crew to throw down ropes which Henin tried to swim back to the shore. The lines were pulled back on the captain’s order. Henin swam back again but was rejected. He swam back to shore.

At 10pm, waves swept those aboard into the sea and within minutes the ship was shattered. Only three survived.

A Disaster at Sea is British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner’s depiction of the women and children clinging to the remnants of the Amphitrite at the nightmarish climax of the tragedy. It is believed to have been painted in 1835. It was never finished but it is still one of the highlights of the Turner from the Tate exhibition, at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) until September 8. The exhibition consists of 40 oils as well as 70 works on paper and includes large watercolours and intimate sketches.

I approached this exhibition both keenly and with trepidation. I saw the previous Turner show in 1996. The paintings were astonishing with nearly every painting polished to perfection. Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight described some of Turner’s subject matter in that collection as “blazing sunsets at sea, mountainous thunderclouds, mysterious mists gathering over the canals of Venice” and “listing ships beneath moonlit waves”. The effect of collecting so many works of such intensity in one show was exhilarating, exhausting and, frankly, a bit much. I found myself hoping for a painting in which the dramatic shaft of light actually missed the perfect moment.

I needn’t have worried. This show is a delight. The diversity of the work on display is fantastic. Polished bucolic scenes compare with almost whimsical explorations of the play of light on architecture. Rainbows contrast with doom-laden mountain ranges. Nearly abstract representations sit alongside homages to Lorrain. And of course, there are marvellous images of Italy that opened up to English artists after Napoleon was dispatched to St Helena.

If you have ever cared about this giant of British art, you should see this show. Timed tickets are available and there is even a breakfast package to beat the crowds. There is a family activity room and separate audio tours for adults and children. If you haven’t been to the NGA recently, the new entrance and gallery are interesting.

In the gift shop, the fridge magnets look a bargain, but having a reminder of the Amphitrite tragedy in my kitchen does not appeal. I opt for the 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Venice, the Bridge of Sighs ($39.95), partly because I collect jigsaw puzzles of the work of the Impressionists, and Turner is certainly their precursor, but also because of a fond memory of my boyfriend and I in a gondola with a bottle of champagne under that bridge.

I am now in my beachside apartment in Thirroul, staring intently at Turner’s astonishing brushstrokes. But my mind wanders and I find myself mourning those who perished on the Amphitrite and am grateful for my own comfortable life, so far removed from detention and death at sea.

Dennis Long is an Acting Country Organiser.