Petworth House from the Lake by JMW Turner

Petworth House from the Lake: Dewy Morning, painting by JMW Turner, c. 1810

In this view of Petworth from the lake – with its panoramic composition, low horizon and luminous treatment of water and sky – Turner took the topographical view to a new level of artistic ambition.

Atmospheric effects

Tuner painted this view of Petworth House from across the boating lake at the behest of the 3rd Earl of Egremont in 1809. He would later spend long periods of time at Petworth in the 1820s and 1830s as the Earl’s guest. The latter’s patronage would bring Turner much recognition and would result in the presence of 20 paintings by the artist in the house.

In this picture, Turner’s silhouetted pictorial forms – two tall-masted boats and a skiff in front of a small island – juxtapose brilliantly against the lake and sky. Petworth house itself is bathed in an iridescent light. The presence of dew is suggested along the mist-veiled horizon where the edging between trees, hills and clouds dissolves in untraceable gradations of light and colour.  

Closer inspection reveals the manner in which Turner used light washes of colour to explore the ephemeral atmospheric effects at sunrise. His use of a white undercoat – rather than the conventional brown – masterfully suggests the translucent presence of mist.

The tradition of marine art

This view of the lake also reveals the important influence of 17th-century Dutch and French marine paintings on Turner. The dramatic juxtaposition of lake and sky recalls similar striking compositions of Salomon van Ruysdael and the reflections of the hazy, golden sunrise on the lake surface evoke the shimmering light-filtered seascapes of Claude Lorrain.    

Indeed, Turner garnered critical praise for his depiction of water. Of this painting, contemporary critics wrote: ‘The chief excellence in this picture is the execution of the water, and the dewy vapour that floats through the vallies’. Another observer described it as a ‘most beautiful landscape, in which the water is pre-eminent, for the excellence with which it is finished. In clearness and brilliancy, we have never seen it excelled.’

Topographic changes

Although Turner finished ‘Petworth House from the Lake: Dewy Morning’ in 1810 – the year it was exhibited at the Royal Academy – he would return to the canvas during a later sojourn to record subsequent architectural changes.

Following the addition in 1827 of a lofty spire to the church situated in the village behind the house, Turner enhanced the skyline with a distant but significant vertical accent, thereby injecting height and elevation into the otherwise low, horizontal register formerly occupied by the house alone.

Interestingly, the spire was ultimately taken down from the church in the 20th century. This view therefore provides a unique record of changes to the Petworth skyline the 19th century.

The matter of architectural accuracy, however, is of secondary concern, for this view is, above all, a masterful exploration of evanescent light and ethereal atmospheric effects.  In this way we see the manner in which Turner developed a visual vocabulary that extended beyond mere topographic description. A master of light and colour, Turner’s free brushwork and high-keyed palette redefined landscape painting.