'Dudley', JMW Turner

Accession number LL 3923

Watercolour, 29.3 x 43.2cm

Hazy landscape painting of an industrial town on a hill overlooking barges on a river

Purchased in 1919.

Throughout his career, Turner visited and sketched towns and cities which were centres of manufacturing industry, including London, Newcastle, Sheffield and Leeds. He visited Dudley, Worcestershire in the late summer and autumn of 1830. The town is situated half-way between Birmingham and Wolverhampton in the heart of England's Black Country, so called because of 'the dense clouds of smoke which belched continuously from thousands of coal-fired hearths and furnaces'.

These polluted the environment with vast amounts of soot. In addition to highly concentrated manufacturing enterprises, Dudley was associated with the invention of the steam engine (it was first operated near Dudley Castle in 1712) and in 1821 the first iron steamship was built in the Dudley area at the Horseley Ironworks. If Turner wanted to capture the essence of English industrialisation, he could hardly have chosen a better subject than Dudley.

In both the watercolour and its engraved version of 1835, Turner depicts the dramatic intensity of a town in the throes of industrial change against the backdrop of a traditional landscape. The symbols of tradition and faith (the ruins of Dudley castle on the hillside and the church steeples to the left) are pictured alongside the furnaces, chimneys, boilers and canal boats of the modern industrial age.

For the writer and painter John Ruskin (1819-1900), who owned the work at one stage, 'Dudley' represented Turner's own hatred of industrialisation. In 1878, he wrote that he found it a clear expression 'of what England was to become', with its 'ruined castle on the hill and the church spire scarcely discernible among the moon-lighted clouds, as emblems of the passing away of the baron and the monk'. In fact, Ruskin's interpretation is distorted by his own increasing antipathy towards industrialisation and probably had little to do with Turner's real intentions.

In 'Dudley' the emphasis is on the remarkable forces of power and energy beneath the surface of industry. This is emphasised by the nocturnal setting; we see figures at work in the artificial light produced by the many fires associated with manufacturing. There is a mysterious aspect to this illumination because we are never quite sure where the light is coming from- it represents the hidden, mysterious powers of mechanisation.

A 'cheerless region'

By the 1830s Dudley had become an essential destination for those contemporaries interested in observing England's extensive manufacturing culture. There were, of course, those observers who concentrated on the negative effects of industrialisation. Charles Dickens, for example, visited the Black Country in the 1830s and drew on the experience for his 1841 novel 'The Old Curiosity Shop'.

He described it as a 'cheerless region' in which 'tall chimneys, crowding on each other and presenting that endless repetition of the same, dull, ugly form poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air'. However, just as many other observers found the vision of modern industry surprisingly appealing.

The Reverend Luke Booker, Vicar of Dudley (1812-1835), published in 1825 'A Descriptive Account of Dudley Castle' which celebrated Dudley's ancient past along with its present. Booker wrote that this land of forges, coal fires and the 'wonderful phenomenon' of steam engines, represented ' a region of almost exhaustless wealth' and was 'alive with worthy human activity'.

Whilst we have no evidence to suggest that Turner ever read Booker, his watercolour can be seen to mirror this these sentiments. The text that accompanied the engraving of the work, written by Hannibal Evans Lloyd, wrote of the economic benefit of this industrialisation: 'The neighbourhood abounds in mines of coal, iron-stone, and limestone, which furnishes employment for a great number of the inhabitants'. Indeed, in 'Dudley', the artist omits any suggestion of the social and economic problems associated with industrialisation which would preoccupy later critics like Ruskin.