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Ploughing Up Turnips, near Slough (Windsor)  by JW Turner ,1809

Like many of Turner's paintings,  Ploughing Up Turnips has usually been interpreted as totally apolitical or mildly patriotic. But this is Turner the radical, aligning himself with the rural poor and not the aristocracy. His juxtaposition of turnip cultivation and Windsor Castle, the ragged workers, the implied allusions to the Slough of Despond in the original title, the contemporary association of turnips with poverty, and with satire directed against the Hanoverian kings, all serve to indict agriculture as a source of increased hardship among the rural poor. This painting is in Tate Britain(Clore Gallery)

The Story


In the display caption next to Turner’s painting the Tate’s curators have written:  ‘.... Given the conditions of national self-sufficiency imposed by the Napoleonic Wars, the painting has been seen as a celebration of progressive agriculture in an Arcadian English setting, beneath the benign gaze of ‘Farmer’ George III. Details such as the nursing mother, the overseer with his back to us, the men attending to a broken plough and the woman bent double to grub up the turnip roots suggest a more difficult reality, and Turner’s sympathy for the participants.’ It’s a painting worth exploring in more detail.



 Picture Highlights


Ploughing Up Turnips with the dim, misty atmosphere shrouding the scene, is painted with bleak colours. The ill-defined royal residence – Windsor Castle - appears much less than majestic. While the figures aren’t detailed, the viewer is forced to confront them in the foreground. Their ragged clothes and hunched positions imply hard manual labour and the poverty of their situation. The harsh labour conditions illustrate the workers as men and women distinct from any Arcadian idealisations of them.


In Ploughing Up Turnips the open expanse of cloudy sky places an emphasis on the juxtaposition between these humble workers and the ominous murky form of the castle. The cold harsh conditions are indicated by the mist rising from the nearby River Thames.


The muddy turnip field has little to recommend it, compared with the fields of grain more typically favoured by artists at the time. Turner`s labourers in no way constitute models of industry and efficiency, nor are they rendered quaint and charming.


Their clothing is as dun-coloured as the field in which they work with no great enthusiasm, and their bodies bear the marks of a lifetime of toil. The women collecting turnips are bent nearly double, the man at the plough has a permanently stooped posture, and even the shoulders of the women resting near the roller at left are slumped in weariness.


Although Turner’s agricultural labourers are working, they appear inactive. The reason for this is unclear; it could be that the plough is broken. If so, this makes it impossible for the workers to work. They are not the kind of workers to be proudly displayed on a drawing room wall, particularly amid the aristocratic fear of revolt in the late 18th century. Does the pause in their labour pose a threat to the maintenance of upper class leisure?


Ploughing Up Turnips Near Slough has a specific context. Arguabley the name of the latter undercuts the magnificence of Windsor Castle by the proximity of the small hamlet of Slough. By contrasting the two residencies, an emphasis is placed on class differences. In addition ‘slough’ denotes a morass and indeed the name Slough is derived from its location as a muddy quagmire.


If Turner intended to depict a tranquil scene, turnips are not the obvious subject to choose. They are labour intensive, much harder to harvest than the haymaking we find in Constable’s  Hay Wain.


Turner depicts one cow investigating the vegetables and another with its udder directly above the pile. This emphasises the low status of turnips, which tend to spoil the taste of the milk when fed to cows. They are also considered a last resort replacement for meat or bread for rural workers in absolute poverty. To be reduced to eating turnips was seen as a sign of desperation. The turnip is a highly topical crop to depict, suggesting the effects of enclosure on the development of the rural economy.


The issue of drink and its impact on a worker’s efficiency is dealt with by Turner in ways quite different from his contempories like George Moreland (see below) .  Turner places the bottle and bundle in the right foreground.  It is located on the brightest patch of ground in the field. 


The handles of the wheelbarrow cast a shadow; the legs of the overseer and one large leaf of the weeds all direct our attention to these objects. The solitary bottle and small bundle could not have sustained the work group so are probably the property of one worker.  


By putting a distance between the bottle and workers Turner carefully avoids stereotyping workers as drunk or drink dependent or linking their lethargy to the drink. He is also indirectly drawing attention to the lack of food available to most rural workers in the 18th century who in today’s language would have been malnourished.



Roadside Inn by George Moreland

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775 in Covent Garden, London. His father was a barber. Due to his mother's mental illness, Turner spent some of his childhood living with relatives. He worked as an assistant to various architects, but at the age of 14 he began to study at the Royal Academy Schools.


His early work consisted mainly of drawings and watercolours, but in 1796 Turner exhibited his first oil painting at the Royal Academy. He later built a gallery in his house in Harley Street to display most of his paintings, while continuing to exhibit at the Royal Academy. He was elected a member in 1802, professor of perspective in 1807 and deputy president in 1845.


Turner was successful from an early age, finding a group of wealthy patrons who bought and commissioned work from him and funded his trips abroad. By the time he was in his early twenties, he had established a pattern of work. In the summer he would travel, sketching and finding inspiration, and then he would return home to develop his paintings during the winter.


He travelled extensively in Britain and at the age of 27, made his first trip abroad, visiting Switzerland, Savoy and Paris. The Napoleonic Wars prevented foreign travel for a number of years, but in 1819, Turner was able to make his first trip to Italy. He was hugely inspired by the historical monuments and works of art and by the light and scenery. He returned to Italy a number of times, particularly favouring Venice which was the inspiration for some of his finest work.


Turner’s real love, however, was nature. Whether mountains, valleys, rivers, or the sea, he painted them all. Landscape painting, for which he and his contemporary Constable were most famous, was a relatively new artistic phenomenon developed mostly in Northern Europe. Prior to this, landscapes only really existed as a background for paintings. The main subject was a person or situation with the landscape framing the picture. Now, however, the landscape became the subject and though sometimes people were depicted in the painting they were just part of the landscape.


Whilst both Turner and Constable were contemporary, and ultimately became very influential on future artists, the two were completely different in terms of both style and context. While Constable had a more realist style he harked towards a more idealist view of the country side as is shown in his most famous painting the Hay Wain (1821), depicting an almost idyllic view of both the country and those who worked in it. Turner on the other hand developed an almost impressionist style that sometimes bordered on the abstract so intent was he to depict the light and its effects on the environment. Alongside this he also grasped the fact that the relationship that humans had to their environment was becoming altered by the advent of the industrial era.


It was this development by Turner that was to cause so much controversy. Constable himself stated that it was as if he painted with tinted steam so light and luminous was some of his work. Examples of this include Venice: Moonrise (1840) or Norham Castle, Sunrise (1835-40). Both depict the hazy, translucent almost unfinished quality that made his work so influential in later years.


This was only one side of his style, however, and the dreamlike quality of these paintings often give way to dark and violent storms and gales pitching ships around in stormy seas or howling round mountains.


Once in an attempt to capture the rage of a storm Turner, aged around 67, lashed himself to the mast of a ship in a storm for several hours to get the full effect. The idea of the sublime was coined to describe this type of painting. Usually concerning nature, the sublime moves away from just the beautiful to the realm of awe and wonderment in its depictions. A painting such as Calais Pier: an English Packet Arriving (1803) is an example of this.


Turner was able to make a living out of his painting, often making engravings of them and selling them that way: however he also had several patrons. These patrons and the times he lived in had an effect on Turner. People like the Earl of Egremont, who was seen as a progressive and Walter Fawkes a radical Whig (Liberal) had a large impact on Turner’s thinking. Whilst not a political painter like say David or Courbet, he nevertheless made comments about the times he lived in his paintings. Often these were very subtle, and to modern eyes the message is sometimes lost; however, they were understood at the time.


Turner lived in interesting times, the Napoleonic wars, the industrial revolution in full swing, agriculture undergoing a transformation and on the political front disquiet over parliamentary reforms. All of which ended up in his paintings.


In 1840, Turner met the critic John Ruskin. By this time, Turner's work was out of favour, but Ruskin became a great champion. This was Turner's most remarkable artistic period with paintings such as The Fighting Témérair and Rain, Steam and Speed. By the end of his life Turner's painting had become almost abstract.


Turner was a fiercely private and often eccentric man. He never married, but he had a long-standing relationship with Mrs Booth, the landlady of the seaside house he often stayed in at Margate. Turner died at his home in Chelsea on 19 December 1851 and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral. He bequeathed much of his work to the nation.


Turner remained a Londoner and kept a Cockney accent all his life, avoiding the veneer of social polish acquired by many artists of the time as they climbed the professional ladder.


Turner lived in his paintings. You only have to stroll through Tate Britain’s Clore Gallery, which displays works from the copious bequest of his own work that Turner left the nation, to realise that most of the painter’s time, energy and emotion must have gone into producing sketches, watercolours and oil paintings. Turner wanted to compete not just with contemporaries such as John Constable but Poussin, Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci. He did it – he painted himself into the pantheon of the greatest artists of all time. There is no evidence that he cared who he hurt to get there.


Art historians have focused on Turner’s innovative landscapes with his brilliant use of colour to create haunting atmospheres and his stunning seascapes.  They overlook his willingness to tackle divisive social issues as in Ploughing Up Turnips, Harvest Dinner, Frosty Morning  and The Slave Ship, sailing through a tumultuous sea of churning water and leaving scattered human forms floating in its wake. These works reveal Turners underlying concern about the big issues of his day.  Turner was a radical who despite his country house contacts and membership of the Royal Academy was always something of an outsider in terms of social attitudes and morals.


The Bigger Picture

Why did Turner choose to depart from the dominant conventions for representing agricultural work, and instead depict a motley and disorganised crew of turnip lifters, grubbing after a harvest of unsightly roots, on a morning cold and damp enough to cause mist to rise from the nearby river?


Although Turner’s depiction of the poor isn’t explicit, it offered a critique of the class system and undermines the legitimacy of the monarchy. These feelings were held at the time by a minority of middle class radicals who criticised aristocratic indulgence and privilege.


Arguably Turner allows for this interpretation by juxtaposing hereditary privilege with hard labour. The Liberals opposed the French war, considering it to economically benefit the wealthy whilst a burden for others. This anger was also shared by a crowd of two thousand who attacked George III’s carriage in 1795, motivated by severe winters, crop failures and high wheat prices. Ploughing Up Turnips illustrates something troubling going on in the countryside.


While Turner does not explicitly depict poverty or social unrest, his figures are confrontational. Turner presents his labourers to be real people, acknowledging the harsh conditions of work. By juxtaposing them with Windsor Castle, Turner undermines the class system and subtly mocks the monarchy by his association with turnips. Ploughing Up Turnips present a valuable insight into the ideological positions which underpin perceptions of agricultural labour in this period.Throughout the 18th century turnips had been promoted by agricultural theorists, and much admired by Cobbett.


They became an increasingly important component in systems of four-course crop rotation aimed at increasing productivity by eliminating the need for a fallow season. Turnips not only restored to the soil nutrients depleted by grain crops, but were also useful as winter fodder for livestock. After the plants matured, animals could be fed on the greens while the roots were still in the ground; the roots could then be harvested and stored for later use, making them doubly desirable as livestock feed. The better quality of feed made it possible to sustain larger herds over the winter, and when the animals were fed in the fields on which the roots were grown, the soil would be further improved by the resulting manure.Such new systems of agriculture were practiced primarily by farmers or estate holders with access to extensive fields created through the process of enclosure.


Windsor is located at the south-eastern edge of Berkshire, and Slough lies across the river in Buckinghamshire.

By the end of the 18th century, farmers in both counties were reputed to be especially ‘forward-looking’.


Their enthusiasm for the new agriculture was shared by George III, who was popularly known as "Farmer George." During the late 1780s the king converted large portions of the parks at Windsor and Richmond into farms on which the latest methods were employed. The crop in Ploughing Up Turnips, thus represents large-scale progressive agriculture.


The presence of additional workers with a harrow and seed lip (behind the women gathering turnips and chatting with the men gathered around the plough) confirm that this is an image of progressive agriculture, in which the field will be replanted with another crop as soon as the turnips have been gathered.


Although the field in Ploughing Up Turnips is not actually part of the royal farms, Windsor Castle occupies the centre of the composition, terminates our view across the river, and calls to mind the king`s role in promoting the new agriculture. The increased food production that it promised became critically important during the Napoleonic wars, when Britain was effectively cut off from trade with the continent.


By 1808 almost no foreign grain was available, and poor harvests between 1799 and 1809 exacerbated the situation. There was a strong patriotic current linking turnip growing with the king, who set an example on his own lands and encouraged enclosures in order to bring more of the countryside under the plough. The cultivation of turnips near Slough reminds us of this patriotic duty and lifts a workaday incident to the level of an epic. But if this was, in fact, intended as a patriotic image of the newly improved landscape, it is strange that the work proceeds in so disorderly a fashion, and that the labourers appear more dispirited than uplifted by their participation in this ostensibly noble enterprise.


The lack of images of turnip cultivation in English landscape painting is not difficult to explain. The roots themselves hold little inherent aesthetic appeal, and their cultivation was labour-intensive. In addition to the rigours of the harvest, the growing plants needed to be hoed several times, and the roots had to be chopped or sliced before they could be fed to livestock. Where activities such as haymaking, harvesting grain, or washing sheep were traditional agricultural operations, with well-established precedents for their representation in poetry and painting, large-scale turnip cultivation was a relatively modern development, with little chance of evoking any sense of the timeless continuity of English rural culture.


The harvest thus far - filling only a small wheelbarrow - fails to convey a sense of agricultural bounty. Indeed, the broad-leaved weeds in the foreground are more conspicuous than the gathered turnips. Similar weeds appear in several of Turner`s paintings, but here the vertical alignment of weeds, broken plough, and Windsor Castle along the central axis of the canvas casts further doubt on the efficacy of the progressive agriculture promoted by George III. Although turnips continued to be an important element in new systems of agriculture, it was clear well before Turner painted this picture that they were not a miracle crop.


Nor did the new agriculture -- for the sake of which enclosures were ostensibly undertaken -- appear to be performing any immediate miracles. Despite all increases in the amount of acreage under wheat, domestic food production remained inadequate throughout the war years, largely as a result of poor harvests. The bread shortages were blamed on the increased consumption of grain-fed meat by the moneyed classes, on the distillation of grain into alcohol, and on the conversion of arable lands to pasture and parks for the aristocrat’s estates.


Although landowners were able to profit during the war years, labourers’ wages failed to keep up with rising prices. Grain prices remained so high that poor families were likely to spend two-thirds or more of their income on bread; even those who were employed needed parish assistance in order to be able to eat.


The relatively large number of women in the painting calls to mind the shortage of male labourers during the war years. With the advent of large-scale farming, however, working women were increasingly being driven from the fields, and their labour channelled into industrial crafts. Poor women, if not encumbered by a nursing infant, might have been able to gain some extra income at harvest time, when the need for hands was greatest. That one of these turnip lifters is a nursing mother, who looks after her baby while sitting on the roller at left, suggests something of farmers` pressing need for additional labourers, and poor families` desperate need for more income during these years.


Although it is not possible to know precisely how Turner and his contemporaries understood this painting, Turner would have been hard-pressed to find a subject or site more imbued with political implications. The combination of large-scale turnip cultivation, Windsor, and Slough -- resonant with associations to George III, the new agriculture, enclosures with all of their consequences, and the Slough of Despond in John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress- produces a complex and disquieting image. It is not difficult to believe that Turner could have felt a sense of national pride in English agriculture and its part in the war effort, while simultaneously being aware of and concerned about the toll exacted of the rural poor.


Far from an unquestioningly patriotic celebration of national solidarity in which all men, from lowest labourer to the king himself, cooperate in the interest of the common good, this painting challenges the fundamental assumptions on which the existing social order was built.

Frosty Morning  by Turner
Clore Gallery, Tate Britain
The Slave Ship by Turner
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