Nature Overtaking Civilization in Two Works by J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W. Turner, “Dolbadern Castle” (1800)

In “Dolbadern Castle” (1800), Turner presents a scenic view of jagged hills. The clouds in the scene hang low and the light coming through them casts an eerie glow on the edges and sides of the cliffs. A stream runs down through the cliffs, beginning at the upper middle portion of the canvas and ending in a thicker stream near the bottom. The stream is used to guide the viewer’s eye through the piece and to highlight the eponymous castle that is almost hidden from view in the darkness of the hills.

The top and bottom halves of the composition are contrasted. While the top is light in color, the bottom is extremely dark. There is also a difference in the types of shapes used;  the shapes at the top are rounded and almost friendly. This is most evident in the clouds, but these rounded shapes are also present in the castle, and even the hills seem smoother and less threatening. The top of the painting represents civilization because of the presence of a man-made structure (the castle). The presence of people in the lower half would normally indicate the opposite of wilderness; however, the people are immersed in their surroundings and are using the natural resources around them instead of attempting to change them.

J.M.W. Turner, “Tintern Abbey” (c. 1795)

Turner’s “Tintern Abbey” (c. 1795) has a similar subject in the fusion of nature and civilization. At first glance the abbey seems simply crumbling and broken, but it is covered in overgrown vines and leaves. The nearly monochromatic use of color creates a cohesive look throughout the piece. By rendering the building and the nature that is covering it in similar tones, Turner unifies the two contrasting objects. This is also true of the overturned wheelbarrow in the foreground of the painting, the contents of which are spilled over the ground. Though the wheelbarrow has been used since the destruction of the abbey, and is thus still mostly intact, this small piece of civilization has been left alone. This imagery adds to the overall theme of abandonment of the piece; man-made items that are no longer seen as useful have been left to fend for themselves and be reclaimed by nature. The structure of the building acts as a frame which helps draw the viewer’s eye towards the center of the painting to focus on the small figures in the back and the delicate details of the face of the decrepit abbey.

While the people in “Dolbadern Castle” seemed as though they were a part of nature as opposed to a force against it, these people appear to be only visitors to the abbey because of the way they are dressed. The way they are interacting with their surroundings also gives a clue to their function in this space. Another hint is that nothing in the space looks as though it could be habitable to anyone; there is seemingly no shelter and no resources to take advantage of. The figure on the far right appears to be holding a shovel or other tool and pointing to a wall while the others observe him. The group of figures on the left seem to be dressed more formally while the lone figure on the right appears more casual. Perhaps he is working to repair the space around the abbey to make it more accessible to more visitors.

Turner uses a similar soft light to set the tone as he did in “Dolbadern Castle” (at least in the top half of the composition and the low hanging clouds). Both pieces highlight the strength of nature. Though the light colors used in “Tintern Abbey” create a much less threatening atmosphere than the dark, jagged cliffs of “Dolbadern Castle,” nature is, in some ways, equally intimidating. The abbey was built by destroying some of nature and then building on top of it, so the idea that nature can almost take revenge on mankind by overtaking man-made structures is slightly frightening.

A quick look at Turner’s life helps explain some of his interest in nature. He lived in London, but briefly went to live with his uncle in the small town of Brentford, located on the banks of the River Thames. This new landscape seems to have been influential on the then ten-year-old Turner, because it was around this time that he began experimenting with his art.

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