Between the Sheets: Turner’s Nudes – a ‘perfect peep-show of a show’

Exhibition offers ‘tantalising glimpses’ into the personal life of one of our greatest painters

Nude Swiss Girl and a Companion on a Bed (1802)
Nude Swiss Girl and a Companion on a Bed (1802)
(Image credit: Turner’s House)

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) is best remembered as “a genius landscape painter”, said Mark Brown in The Guardian. We revere him for his “turbulent” maritime scenes, his dramatic skies and his radical visions of the English countryside coming into contact with industrialisation.

It is rare that we ever think about his private life, much less his sex life. Yet Turner was a compulsive draughtsman, recording almost everything he saw around him; his romantic encounters were no exception.

Now a new exhibition, held in a bedroom at Turner’s House in Twickenham, is displaying “rarely seen erotic watercolour drawings” made over the course of his long career. The exhibition brings together ten works on paper, some drawn from life classes, others displaying “more erotic, intimate bedroom scenes”; one apparently depicts Sophia Booth, Turner’s lover. The show offers “tantalising glimpses” into the personal life of one of our greatest painters.

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These drawings are “a world away” from emblematic Turner works such as The Fighting Temeraire (1839) or Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), said Lucy Davies in The Daily Telegraph. There are some interesting curios here: one “graphic study of couples during sex” highlights Turner’s interest in “classically inspired erotica”, a fashionable genre at the time. Elsewhere, even the more formal studies of nudes convey the artist’s evident “delight in the female form”.

Yet there is no escaping the artist’s “ineptitude when it comes to bodies”: the figures in these throwaway sketches are almost invariably “crudely done”. The “most satisfying moments” are to be found in depictions of interior details: “canopies, plump pillows, ruffled coverlets and ornate chairs”.

The “famously prudish” critic John Ruskin is said to have burned many of Turner’s erotic sketches, believing they displayed “a failure of mind” on the part of the artist. In a sense, Ruskin had a point. This show is “not an exhibition of masterpieces”.

It hardly matters, said Laura Freeman in The Times. This is a “perfect peep-show of a show”. Each sketch here is “intimate and inviting”, the mood “tender rather than lewd”. A graphite and watercolour drawing from Turner’s Swiss Figures sketchbook (1802) depicting a “two-in-a-bed romp” is mysterious; indeed, it’s difficult to distinguish the sex of the figures it portrays, though “the Swiss dirndl dropped on the floor is unmistakeable”.

More interesting still are a “seductive” group of “loose and languorous” nudes, drawn so faintly that they are “barely there”. Small though it is, Between the Sheets explores its subject “with aplomb”.

Turner’s House, Twickenham TW1 (turnershouse.org). Until 30 October

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