Lunch was a joyless chore in South Shields. The allowed hour was passed in that miserable and stifled staff room of P. Marsk Hairdressing, where the legend We Make You Look Good – that irritating and irksome italicised ‘Good’ – bearing down erroneously from the brown wall behind him, into him, through his thinning crown, his dimming mind, his grim sandwich, his crumbs and blah blah blah, became a cursive ogle, as mean and meaningless as that other welcome, wrought in iron, above the gates of Auschwitz.
So, tiring of both it and the fodder before him, he slipped, one day, away and ventured, stepping through the glass, beyond, out into the crippling wind and the haunted faces of the harried, the desolate, near-destitute, length of the mischievously titled King Street.
Heraldic breezed the tattered banners from the withered trees: they blithered. Asda, Aldi, Poundland, Lidl. Heroic crowns of hound shite paved the street and sullen rubbish twisted upwards – Pol pot-noodlers, portly sportswear psycho rangers, roughshod electric steads. In the doorways, the hollowed and the sorry, suckling hooch, aerosol, second-hand sneeze and weed. This one with her comedies, deadpan. This one coughing and coughing and – into the pelt of some sad mutt between his knees – (coughing) remembering, at last, to breathe. Pissed, perfumed and soaked to his knees, red eyed, he spats the street.
He counted a handful of people with no legs being wheeled, palms flat on thin blankets wrapping their laps. And he counted the junkies pooling by the phone box. They were busy being desperate, and almost invisible, breath smears on glass.
“I ain’t scared of that motherfucker. Ring him!”
“Twenty minutes he said.”
A banner tied to the railing of the museum announces the unlikely sounding ‘JMW Turner Exhibition. Free’.
Raising a trousered leg, she arched a black shoe briefly across the space, saying, “There.” There was a price sticker still on her sole. He followed her direction toward the far end of the room. A wall of large oils, blurred blues, sea greens and cloud greys, but nothing he recognised as Turner. He turned to her foot again, but it was already back on the floor with its relative. She nodded once. “There. In the corner. The small one. There.” And there it was, a postcard sized watercolour in a simple frame, fending off a titanic oil seascape on its left and, to its right, some other nautical scene of a ship mashed on the rocks.
Shields, on the River Tyne (1823)
This composition is painted on medium weight white wove paper. The paper was not heavily sized with glue, to judge by its response to paint application. The predominant blue tonality could suggest at first glance that a blue paper was used, but the key compositional element, the moon, could not have been painted with the same technique, had this been the case.
The study was begun with blue washes applied to soaked paper, for the sky, water, and the steep shore on the right. Most of the sky was worked while the paper was wet. Then moon was created by washing out a neat circle in the blue paint, using clean water, and thereafter leaving this area alone, so that further working and wetting of the paper would not disturb its crisp outline. The more distant sails were worked on fairly wet paper too, and probably with the brush angled towards the paper to apply broad, even sweeps of colour, with one brush-stroke creating each sail. Quite possibly, the foreground illuminated by the brazier was washed clear of paint at a later stage, over a larger and more diffuse area. This ensured that the red paint for the firelight would show in dramatic contrast against the brown paint for the ships, which is largely painted over existing blue washes after the paper had dried. The masts nearest to the viewer, and also the nearest figures, were painted over similarly washed-clear paper, after it had dried, so that they would have a crisper outline. In this image, control of the wetness of the paper is more important to the overall effect than the selection of brush size or the degree of loading of paint on the brush. Such control can only be achieved when the artist is very familiar with the absorbency of the paper, and the way it changes and increases each time the paper has been wetted with another brush-stroke. Turner used such white linen-based papers frequently, and generally bought them in large batches.1 He would have been very familiar with the changing response of its glue-sized surface to water.
There is a thrill in being able to recognise, not only an artist by their hand, but also the landscape rendered. JMW Turner, touring England, came to South Shields in May 1823. For some months after visiting that exhibition that lunchtime he carried the postcard of the painting in his pocket and searched the river front for the precise location… finding it, or approximately it, only some half mile from where he resided.