Published: February 26, 2002
Benjamin Brecknell Turner:
NEW YORK CITY
“Benjamin Brecknell Turner: ” presents an impressive series of large-format scenes depicting quintessentially English subjects: ruined castles and abbeys; thatched barns, crumbling cottages and half-timbered houses; woodland paths and ancient oaks. Turner’s picturesque and poetic images reveal a rough-hewn beauty in rustic subjects and express a moral value found in tradition, nature and rural life and labor.
The exhibition, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, is on view in the Howard Gilman Gallery. Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello commented, “These exquisite photographs, created in the midst of the Industrial Revolution by a man who found an antidote to the ills of his time in a pastoral tradition, have retained the power to work their magic on the modern soul. Like so many great works of art, they transport us to another world, delight the eye and soothe the spirit.”
Nearly all of the works included in “Benjamin Brecknell Turner: ” are drawn from one magnificent album, Photographic Views from Nature, assembled by the artist in 1854 or 1855 and passed down in his family until it was acquired by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 1982.
Turner, who was born in London in 1815 and entered the family candle and saddle soap business at the age of 16, first took up photography in 1849, when the medium was barely a decade old. Like many early practitioners, he was a “gentleman amateur” for whom photography was a passion, not a profession, so he made only a few prints of each image. Photographic Views from Nature constitutes the richest group of Turner’s rare surviving prints.
The album opens with two views of the Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton’s vast iron and glass pavilion built for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851 – the first world’s fair. “Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, 1852, Transept” shows the building after its six million visitors had left and its thousands of exhibits had been removed – an empty, enormous modern greenhouse built around an ancient elm. Two lacy networks – tree branches and iron trusses – form a visual metaphor for nature and industry, tradition and modernity, all issues central to the artist’s work.
Most of Turner’s photographs eschew the modern, urban world in favor of country scenes and historic subjects. The artist described his approach to picture-making by way of a Washington Irving text he chose to accompany his photograph in The Photographic Album for the Year 1855: “England does not abound in grand and sublime prospects, but rather in little home-scenes of rural repose and sheltered quiet. Every antique farmhouse and moss grown cottage is a picture.”
Many of Turner’s best photographs, such as “Foldyard, Bredicot Court” (1852-54) and “Hedgerow Trees, Clerkenleap” (1852-54), were made quite close to home, at his picturesquely rundown farm near the village of Bredicot and in other nearby Worcestershire towns.
Other photographs in the album represent historic architecture – Hawkhurst Church mirrored in a pond, a windmill at Kempsey, Ludlow Castle and a gateway at Peterborough Cathedral and others. Among the most striking are a series of dramatic photographs made in 1852-54 at Whitby Abbey, a Thirteenth Century Benedictine cloister in Yorkshire, the gaunt remains of which sit atop a cliff high above the town.
Turner depicted the abbey in a progression beginning from a distant point to the very heart of the ruined structure, evoking all the connotations such sites inspired in the Romantic era – the echo of history, the reminder of mortality and the inexorable reclaiming of man’s construction by nature.
At the Metropolitan Museum, the exhibition is curated by Malcolm Daniel, associate curator and administrator in the department of photographs. The exhibition is designed by Michael Batista, exhibition designer, with graphics by Constance Norkin, graphic designer, and lighting by Zack Zanolli, lighting designer.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog, Benjamin Brecknell Turner: (London: V&A Publications, 2001, and Harry N. Abrams, Inc, New York) by Martin Barnes with an introduction by Daniel and biography by Mark Haworth-Booth, available at the Metropolitan Museum book shop for $39.95.
Martin Barnes, assistant curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum and organizing curator of the exhibition, will give a slide lecture on Sunday, April 21, at 3 pm in the Uris Center Auditorium.
Gallery talks led by the Metropolitan Museum’s curator Malcolm Daniel will take place on Friday, March 29, at 7 pm, and on Wednesday, April 10, at 11 am. Daniel will provide a scholarly introduction to readings of Victorian poetry in the gallery at 6:15 pm on Saturday, April 13.
The museum is at 1000 Fifth Avenue. Hours are Friday and Saturday, 9:30 am to 9 pm; and Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday, 9:30 am to 5:30 pm. For information, 212-535-7710.
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