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The English Romanticist landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner held the position of Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy for some thirty years, from 1807 - 1837. During this time he managed to deliver only twelve full lecture courses.
Despite being primarily a landscape artist, Turner was in a position to lecture on perspective (principally an architectural specialisation) after having been apprentice to a master of the subject, the younger Thomas Malton, during the 1780s. Turner had also worked as a draughtsman to the architects Thomas Hardwick and James Wyatt, thus giving him a solid grounding in perspective theory and its practical application.
The title 'Professor of Perspective' was something Turner was particularly proud of, sometimes even adding ‘PP’ when signing works (1). In fact Turner took over three years to prepare his lectures, during which time he created over 170 diagrams which he used as visual aids during his presentations.
These drawings were large in size at approx. 60 x 90 cm (2ft x 3ft), and positioned by assistants on a stand upon his command.
Despite his radical brilliance as an artist, Turner's lectures were far from successful. Audience members complained of his mumbling disorganisation, the speed at which his images were presented, or even of his ambitious attempt to show his complete set of diagrams as a complex diagrammatic backdrop to his lecture.
Fellow Academicians mocked Turner for his vulgar pronunciation (he prounounced Mathematics as ‘mithematics’ ), his misuse of technical terms and an 'inane lecturing style' liable to stray wildly from the subject at hand (2,3).
However the diagrams Turner created to elucidate the complexities of perspective that he struggled to explain verbally, remain even today refined, lucid and strikingly contemporary in appearance.
They provide excellent examples of what the American Philosopher-Scientist Charles Sanders Peirce described as 'Moving Pictures of thought', in that one can literally see a given argument and experiment, model and confirm the ideas within ones own mind (4).
As one of the students in attendance at his lecture later reported, Turner's diagrams ‘were truly beautiful, speaking intelligibly to the eye if his language did not to the ear’. (5)
This Series of Diagrammatic drawings holds a fascinating position in art history, in that they were made by one of the preeminent Romantic Landscape painters of the period, and yet reveal a mastery of the objective and technical rules of optics and perspective.
However, Turner was an artist of his time, and, in the words of Brian Lukacher, the ‘mathematical rules of perspective, he believed, crumble before the higher metaphysics of the artistic mind fixed on the immeasurable’. In other words, the objective disciplines of science and mathematics were being put to good use in order to obtain the sublime.
The 'Romantic / Objective' nature of such diagrammatic images was the subject of my PhD thesis, chapters of which are available for download from the research page of this website.
1) Judy Egerton [and Clifford Ellis], ‘JMWT PP’: A Selection of Drawings Made by Turner to Illustrate his Royal Academy Lectures as Professor of Perspective, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1980, p.1.
2) Mr Turner's lectures at the Royal Academy, The New Monthly Magazine, 1 February 1816, p.60.
3) Annals of the Fine Arts, vol.4, London 1820, p.98.
4) CP 4.8-11
5) Richard Redgrave, A Century of British Painters, 1866, p.95.
For more information See:
Andrea Fredericksen, ‘Royal Academy Perspective Lectures: Sketchbook, Diagrams and Related Material c.1809–28’, June 2004, revised by David Blayney Brown, January 2012, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/royal-academy-perspective-lectures-sketchbook-diagrams-and-related-material-r1131857, accessed 18 March 2016.