Forget the new £20 note – it's Turner's War and Peace that dazzled me

A gallery-goer admiring JMW Turner's War (left) and Peace
A gallery-goer admiring JMW Turner's War (left) and Peace

As a new £20 note featuring JMW Turner goes into circulation today, Simon Heffer salutes two masterpieces by the artistic genius

War and Peace is a novel by Leo Tolstoy: but it is also a matching pair of paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner, first exhibited in 1842, hanging adjacently in Tate Britain. It must be 40 years since I first saw them, and Peace made the greater impact on me; perhaps because I heard music in my head when I saw it.

It expresses calm through a blueness in its palette. Its evocation of haze makes it almost mesmeric. Like so much of Turner, especially his seascapes, it overwhelms by his original interpretation of reality. Typically of the times, when a more literal approach to art was expected, and despite Turner’s reputation as an innovator, critics accused him of not having finished the paintings properly.

Each of the works has a subtitle, and a story. War’s subtitle is The Exile and the Rock Limpet. The exile is Napoleon, identifiable from his silhouette, standing on a rocky beach on St Helena. In this painting, Turner’s palette is predominantly red, to reflect the blood and fire of war.

A redcoat stands distantly behind the ex-emperor, a reminder of his humiliation and captivity; otherwise, he is a lonely and pathetic figure – though, as the Tate’s official commentary on the painting correctly says, Napoleon himself is neither demonised nor made heroic by his depiction. The pathetic aspect of that figure relies on Napoleon’s having been made to appear exceptionally ordinary.

It is salutary that this great man – his greatness recalled by the fact that he is still in uniform – has ended up on this little rocky island in the South Atlantic, far from scenes of his glory – a glory, like the wars that provided it, now confirmed as futile. The painting says to us that “it has all been for this”. Yet the artist’s choice of palette reminds the viewer of something else, confirmed in verses that Turner attached to the canvas.

War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet (1842)  Credit: Alamy

Napoleon is on the beach at sunset, exemplified by the red, which the verses call “a sea of blood”. The artist thus makes it a short distance from St Helena to the fields of Austerlitz and Waterloo. It reminds us too how profoundly Turner – born in 1775 – was affected by the great event of his lifetime, the revolutionary wars that followed the upheaval of 1789 and were not resolved until Waterloo some 26 years later.

Two of his most famous pictures, painted around those wars – The Fighting Temeraire and The Battle of Trafalgar – emphasise the influence that the Napoleonic Wars had on him. It was the return of the ex-emperor’s ashes from St Helena in 1840 that provoked him, in his mid-60s, to revisit this subject of his youth, and to ask, implicitly, what it had all been for.

The subtitle of Peace is Burial at Sea; the burial in question was that of Turner’s friend and fellow artist, David Wilkie, less well-known today but at the time Principal Painter in Ordinary to Queen Victoria, as he had been to her uncle, King William IV. In 1841, Wilkie had been visiting Constantinople, Jerusalem and Alexandria, but on his voyage home was taken ill at Malta. He died when his ship reached Gibraltar, and he was buried at sea off the Rock. The blues, whites, blacks and browns of Turner’s painting create an extraordinary vision of a seascape; it is alleviated by the slightest flare of red in the centre, the torchlight illuminating the body as it is lowered into the sea.

Turner’s critics – with whom he learned to live – attacked him for falsely colouring the sails of the ship black (and, indeed, their blackness is heightened by their being the only part of the painting that is sharply defined). It is done, obviously, to accentuate the idea of mourning; but it is clear from the rest of the painting that the burial is taking place at dusk (hence the radiance of the torchlight) and the sails are seen in silhouette.

As so often with those who tried to undermine Turner’s genius, they chose not to think about what they saw, and not to appreciate the accuracy with which he selected his colours. The funereal nature of the painting is emphasised by the blackness of the reflection of the ships (there are two in the picture) in the pale water: but, above all, as the name of the work suggests, the predominant feeling is one of stillness, calm and dignity, with none of the turbulent emotions contained in War.

Turner’s achievement is to take a moment of sadness and loss and convey an impression of it as something of extreme beauty: he creates a sense of euphemism for death. Above all, in death, and at sunset, he conveys a feeling of light: the eternal truth that life goes on.