Who died, and who or what is responsible?
§ Considered a masterpiece, this painting was one of Turner's personal favorites and he never sold it, allowing it to molder in his shabby studio gallery on St. Anne Street until his death in 1851 when it became part of his bequest to the Nation (and ended up in the Tate Gallery). It's based upon a scene that he witnessed from his coach in 1812 somewhere in Yorkshire while on his way to visit Walter Fawkes at Farnley Hall, a wealthy landowner and Turner collector, and appears to show an early morning burial in a rural setting somewhere beside a dirt road.
The atmosphere is everything to the naive eye: the yellow/red tinge of dawn, the gossamer frost, the bare tree, the sad collection of people and animals, all rendered with a certain sadistic beauty, where the pain is concealed within a transcendental landscape that offers both hope and hopelessness. A masterpiece? Most certainly. And this isn't due entirely to its technical execution.
The point-of-view is elevated, as if from horseback or a coach window.
Frosty Morning [Turner, oil on canvas, 1812-13]
The painting presents a mystery: who or what is being buried, and why in this location? This mystery deepens when you discover that some of the figures are autobiographical, as if Turner used the scene to iconize some family members, i.e. his daughter, his father, his horse.
In all, the picture features eight living creatures: five people, two horses and a cow. We know a coach is approaching down the road, although it's too distant for a head count.
First exhibited in 1813 at the Royal Academy and according to Turner commentators features his daughter Evelina (in blue) and his crop-eared bay is the horse harnessed to the cart. The gentleman with the blunderbuss might be modelled on his father or someone else he knew, such as his Yorkshire patron, Walter Fawkes... or even himself, as some commentators have assumed. If indeed the primary figures in the foreground are Evelina and his father, and the bay horse is his, perhaps Turner is fantasizing his own death as he approaches the scene in the stagecoach. This would fit with the notion that he "paints visions rather than reality" and perhaps explains why he never parted with this picture. It was personal, psychic memorabilia on the one hand, and on the other, a telling record of England in 1812.
But then again, pushing the psychological interpretation even further, perhaps the hidden grave is symbolism for his discarded mistress Sarah Danby.
Why? He separated from Sarah in 1812 after the birth of their second daughter Georgiana. The reason for the split is unclear, although Anthony Bailey in his biography Standing in the Sun wonders if Sarah -- who was the widow of a musician -- was trying to get the Musicians' Society to continue her widow's allowance, rather than suspend it because of Turner. Was he tired of her? Perhaps. But he liked children and perhaps suffered some distress at this separation. If so, a concealed burial in a frosted landscape would be the perfect sublimation of his emotional state.
Turner's mother died in the Spring of 1804 while confined to the notorious 'Bedlam' hospital for the insane; there's no record of Turner attending her funeral, or if there was one. Perhaps Frosty Morning is it.
Still, other possibilities exist.
The conventional view of Frosty Morning is that Turner used James Thomson's blank verse poem The Seasons (1730) as his inspiration, and there's no doubt that he was familiar with it as he used it in his lectures at the Royal Academy and to provide blurb quotes for some of his paintings, including this one.
The rigid hoar frost melts before his beam.
Basic old school sexual personification. But... if you examine where this Thomson line appears -- The Autumn -- you'll find the lines that follow intriguing:
Ah see where
robb'd, and murder'd, in that pit
While you'd be hard-pressed to find a descriptive passage from The Seasons that provides the exact imagery for Frosty Morning, these lines are as close as it gets to revealing the mystery of Turner's pictorial scenario: a victim robbed and murdered and left in the pit. While the language is metaphoric, it can be assumed that Turner's intention was to present either a roadside burial or exhumation, possibly an act of foul play, certainly an criminal event... and hidden from our view, a corpse of either the victim or perpetrator... or someone or something who is both.
There's a powerful engraving of this picture which puts it all in black and white... but is it accurate? For example, a figure is standing over the grave like a clergyman in the painting, whereas in the engraving he appears to be in the grave as a digger. Or is the man in fact a woman in black throwing dirt on the coffin?
The 1859 Brandard engraving shows the wheelbarrow with a shovel beside a small dark pile of something & pick lying on the frozen ground... a man (is he wearing a cloth over his mouth?) removes a tailgate (or a box of lime or...) while standing thigh-deep in the excavation mound that the cart is backed into; the man who is digging is knee deep in the hole, or grave. There's a rough fence and a crude gate to his right, and on the rise behind this what look like crude stick crosses, suggesting hurried burials. Epidemic? Victims of a common killer?
Frosty Morning [Turner, 1859 Brandard engraving]
As in the original oil painting, much of the detail is ambiguous, open to easy misinterpretation. The figure at the tailgate appears Chinese in some prints, and the grave-digger could be a clergyman in some, a woman in others. What appears to be a small pile of soil in the engraving is a discarded overcoat in the painting. In some prints, the distant coach doesn't even exist. It might be fair game to criticize the Brandard engraving as little better than a Rorschach test, useful only for unintended hallucinations. Yet its simplification of the subject impels the imagery towards the emotional sub-text of the artist's vision.
And then, some of his peers criticized Turner's ability at rendering figures in oil, deeming them crude; yet... so much depends on the viewing distance. And the modern viewer is always looking at the fading memory of what a 200 year old painting originally must have been.
So the engraving enhances the reality of winter by making it a black and white world. The symbolism of the frost is stark and the darkness of evil pervasive. The beauty is grim, yet beauty it is, and the fact that we don't know exactly what is going on (that our eyes won't allow us to know) forces us into the 6th sense, becoming animal and mystic in one.
In the distance down the track a coach approaches, or possibly a hearse bearing another victim. On the periphery of the ceremony, a dark figure hangs back, either afraid to come too close, or is a sentinel (masked face gleams like a skull) whose shadow merges with a black frozen puddle on the verge. Invited or uninvited? By his stance he looks young and real, yet his inclusion suggests other possibilities, like the killer who shows up at the graveyard or the phantom who answers only to the horse.
The fact that the deceased is being buried just outside the gate(s) (a.k.a in old rural parlance, the 'slap') suggests a number of things, not just paradise denied (the hint of a road vanishing into light). The burial yard is full; the dead person has not been baptized, or is not a person at all; the dead person is a criminal (unconsecrated); the dead person's relatives cannot afford a burial beyond the fence.
In 1803 a severe influenza outbreak spreads along the coach roads, and a scarlatina epidemic decimates students at Quaker schools in Yorkshire. In 1810 there's a typhus epidemic in the Nottingham area; typhus emerged in Britain two hundred years earlier as a killer disease, with further epidemics in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the eight years following 1787, typhus killed over 24,000 people in the UK, with outbreaks continuing into the 1800s and beyond.
Smallpox and scarlatina were common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in 1797 & '98 there was an influenza epidemic among cats. While the rough burial in Frosty Morning might seem too elaborate for a cat, it has to be remembered that Turner was a cat lover and was capable of romanticizing the passing of a household pet, especially as an unseen model in his mise en scene. But this is a faint possibility, and if so, probably is being buried with its owner.
So, was disease the killer? Typhus was sometimes known as the 'Irish disease' as it and smallpox killed 100,000 in Ireland in 1816 following "the summer without a harvest" which led to famine and food riots in many places; in London in 1817, 1 for every 14 people died, and in some places in the north of England, the statistics were worse. These were paranoid times, and in his travels Turner witnessed many tragic scenes.
Certainly the figures wearing plague masks suggests death by disease.
Does Turner have a specific -- if unknown -- victim in mind?
Since the picture is about death, you can certainly tap the sociology of the period to find out what sort of corpses might fit a rural burial scene such as Turner presents in Frosty Morning.
It could be an animal, such as a cow or a horse or a dog. A solitary cow stands in the nearby field, just visible above the hedge in a parallel view to the bay horse in the foreground. The inclusion of the blunderbuss is provocative, as this raises the possibility that an animal was shot for some reason, perhaps because it was irredeemably crippled or diseased. But would a young girl be present for such a ceremony? Only if the animal was a pet, you'd think. A dog, therefore, is the best guess, as the cart is too small to transport either a cow or a horse -- which are likely to be buried where they fell -- and a dog seems to be the likely companion to a man with a gun.
Yet the production seems too involved for a mere animal burial. While the "robbed and murdered in that pit" might be a poeticism, the more you look at this painting the feeling increases that this involves a human corpse.
If the deceased was a male criminal, perhaps he was a Luddite.
In 1812 the revolt against the machines took an ugly turn in the north-west, with gangs of textile workers and their allies burning mills and wrecking machinery. Mostly weavers who saw their wages dropping and jobs vanishing in the austere Napoleonic war economy, this class revolt saw the 'Luddites' fighting pitched battles with the British Army in what today would be called a guerrilla war.
Anonymous death threats, moonlit vigilante raids, assassinations, sabotage... a rise in bolt-hole construction in the homes of the wealthy, a rise in the homeless vagrants prowling the byways. George Mellor, the Luddite leader in Yorkshire, was arrested with two others for the murder by ambush of the mill owner William Horsfall on Huddersfield moor; some say Horsfall got what he deserved, as he boasted he would "ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood", so when the bullet hit him in the balls and he fell from his horse, no one save another industrialist stepped forward to help him. He died, although this didn't matter, as Mellor and his co-conspirators Smith and Thorpe would've been hanged anyway.
Looking at Frosty Morning, it's not hard to imagine it as the scene of an ambush, and subsequent burial of the victim, or an unconsecrated burial of an assassin, hung and repatriated to his family.
The Frame Breaking Act of 1812 made the destruction of mechanized looms a capital felony, which meant the guilty could be hung.
And they were hung by the dozens. The poet Lord Byron was from Nottinghamshire and gave his first speech in the House of Lords opposing The Frame Breaking Act and expressing sympathy for the predicament of the workers:
These men were willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands; they were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them. Their own means of subsistence were cut off; all other employments pre-occupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be the subject of surprise.
But... those caught and unlucky enough to be deemed a Luddite agitator were hung anyway. It didn't take much to be called a Luddite, so many petty criminals were swept up in the purge. On January 16, 1813, fourteen men were hung in two batches in front of York Castle. They went to the gallows singing... and of course they left behind women and children. One estimate suggests the execution destroyed fourteen families leaving thirteen widows and fifty-seven children fatherless.
The fear of the French revolutionary sickness was the source of much injustice in Turner's time. The Navy mutinies of '97 and '98 were alarming, as was the unrest in Ireland, and the smallpox/typhus epidemics added a Biblical touch to the Establishment paranoia. The value of life was lowered, and punishment for trivialities were more often than not political. No wonder Turner was so secretive about his comings and goings.
If the deceased was a woman, possibly she was hung for murder or some other worthy crime. Murder of a bastard child seems to dominate female hangings in the early 1800s, with forgery a distant second.
Yet between 1800 -- 1829, over 200 people were to die for forgery in England and Wales, a punishment that seems ridiculous today. It's evidence of the institutional paranoia that existed, as if forgery was deemed a crime so heinous it was like stealing the sperm of the monarch. Interestingly, Turner studied the art of forgery, ostensibly to improve his ability to make engravings from his pictures. He might, therefore, be assumed to have some sympathy for those who followed the criminal art.
In the peculiar logic of the times, men were never put on trial for impregnating women out of wedlock, yet women were routinely hung for the actions of men and Nature. Sin wasn't a religious action but a political one, although religion was used to justify the latter. The victimization of women as purveyors of sexual witchcraft dressed up as infanticide led to many hangings, many of them teenage girls aged fourteen and up. This sex and death roulette wheel was a source of great enjoyment for the public, for while these women were usually viewed sympathetically, their public hangings provided a group thrill of the sort only tragedy can deliver.
And of course in Frosty Morning the crime could be a sex crime.
The rigid hoar frost melts before his beam.
The rising sun is so low on the horizonal plane that "he" and his "beam" are implied rather than featured. However, the sun is repeatedly personified throughout the four seasonal eulogies that Thomson published, and this deification certainly fits with Turner's lifelong obsession with the solar articulation of things.
The influence is more in the theistic enunciation of the landscape rather than in specifics. Thomson's poem is impressive for its metaphoric use of language, and is especially evocative in terms of light and atmosphere in its poetic merging of past and present, as if optical illusion is the true mystic marker of memory and awareness.
'All nature feels
the renovating force
Thomson's extended set -- Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall -- was dedicated "to the Memory of Sir Isac Newton" which gives some indication that its religious theme of cyclical regeneration was rooted in what modernists call intelligent design and was something Newton believed. Newton is sometimes called a "Deist" -- God set up the universe, then stepped back, hands off -- whereas Turner was an out-and-out pantheist, someone whose close observation of Nature inclined him towards sun worship. For him, everything about reality was in the nuance of light, including our sense of good and evil.
And this is what you see in Frosty Morning, where the objectivity masks the unpleasantness, allows the tonal beauty to distract the viewer from confronting the grim reality. Like the passengers in a passing coach, you, he, she and they pass on by, emerging from the chiaroscuro over the glittering frost into the yellow, the red, the brown... and 'the thoughtless eye'.
© Lawrence Russell 2015
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