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Darkness terrible in its own nature; Turner's Sublime in the common heathlands of South East London c.1796-7

By Ian Waites


When Viscount Torrington in 1791 described an expanse of common waste land in Lincolnshire as a ‘staring, black moor … a wild, dreary prospect’, it is understandable that this type of landscape could genuinely provoke a sense of threat and danger. This paper will examine some contemporary visual equivalents to Torrington’s description, JMW Turner’s dark and dense watercolour sketches of the common heathlands of Blackheath and Lewisham. On the face of it, these sketches appear to be typical products of a traditional view of Turner and his work: as an artist of the Sublime, and of a Romantic temperament. This paper will argue that these sketches were actually the product of a more conventional personal and artistic development, and will analyse them in relation to contemporary accounts of common heath and waste, and the more prosaic context of late eighteenth century urban development on the fringes of London. \ud \ud The paper will therefore consider some parameters of Romanticism – that while these sketches certainly accord with Burke’s typology of the Sublime via the experience of ‘darkness’, ‘privation’ and so on, they only accidentally evoke a modish and somewhat vicarious Sublime ‘thrill’ that could conveniently and safely be found in a very local and quite domesticated setting

Topics: V214 English History, V350 History of Art
Year: 2006
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