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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 of 'Professor of Perspective' was something Turner was particularly proud of, sometimes even adding ‘PP’ when signing works (1). Turner spent over three years preparing his lectures, and during this time created over 170 diagrams to be used as visual aids during his presentations.
These drawings were large in size at approx. 60 x 90 cm (2ft x 3ft), and were positioned by assistants on a stand at his command.
Despite his radical brilliance as an artist, Turner's lectures were far from successful. Audience members complained of his mumbling disorganisation, the rapid rate 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 'inane lecturing style', his misuse of technical terms, vulgar pronunciation (he pronounced Mathematics as ‘mithematics’ ), and his liable to stray wildly from the subject he was supposed to be talking about (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.
Turner, however, 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’.
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.