A ‘murky veil’: exploring JMW Turner’s work through an ecological lens

16 May 2023

Regular hours

Tue, 16 May
17:30 – 18:30

Free admission

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The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery

Leeds, United Kingdom

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Join artist and researcher Martha Cattell for a talk exploring environmental ruins and the wider ecological themes within JMW Turner’s work


In 1792, a young JMW Turner witnessed the fire which destroyed the Pantheon Opera House on London’s Oxford Street. He created a series of pencil and watercolour sketches of the scene. Using Turner’s ‘The Pantheon, The Morning After the Fire’ as a starting point, this talk explores environmental ruins and the wider ecological themes within JMW Turner’s work.

Ruins and the sense of loss associated with them have always haunted the work of Turner, and this talk will explore, through an ecological lens, the environmental haunting present within his paintings and sketches. From air pollution to industrialisation, agriculture to whaling, it will ask how Turner’s work documents an era of environmental turmoil, via subject matter and also the materials used in making them.

In 1809 Turner makes reference to the ‘murky veil’ of ‘doubtful air’ hanging over London - an observation on the thick smog of growing industries and domestic chimneys in the city, but a reference that was perhaps unaware of the real impact it was having on the wider climate. There has never been a more pertinent time to think of his work in such a way, with predictions of increased extreme weather events and environmental related stories barely out of the news. This talk will ask then: How can we use historic works such as Turner’s in climate narratives? And what does retrospectively looking at these works through such a lens open up about them, and our environmental past, present and future?

The talk will take place from 5.30pm. Attendees arriving before 5.30pm will be able to see JMW Turner's ‘The Pantheon, the Morning after the Fire’ (1792) in The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery. The work is on loan from Marks and Spencer Group plc.

Martha Cattell is an artist, curator and researcher whose work explores tensions between nature/culture through memory and material. They are concerned around the ethics of representing environmental and animal trauma, and questions of how you can have a sustainable practice in an era of climate breakdown. They completed their PhD at the University of York exploring the visual and material culture of the 19th century whaling trade, during which time they co-curated the 2018 'Turner and the Whale' exhibition as part of the Hull's city of culture celebrations.

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