Not normally one to be wowed by landscapes or to enthuse about Romanticism, I entered the Barber Institute’s temporary exhibition, ‘In Front of Nature’, without lofty expectations. What a surprise I had. The Blue Gallery, which normally houses the Institute’s more modern paintings, has been transformed into an early-nineteenth-century feast of mountains, fjords and seascapes by a somewhat neglected artist, Thomas Fearnley. Despite his distinctively English name – and his ancestral links with Yorkshire notwithstanding – Fearnley was born in Norway in 1802 and spent most of his short life travelling around Europe. It is clear that he adored the drama and purity of the Norwegian scenery, and found its echo in the Bavarian and Swiss Alps. But he did not neglect the sunny warmth of the Italian coast or the tranquility of the Lake District in his search for the ideal subjects.
My ideas about the monotony of landscapes dissipated with this exhibition. These works are not dull; they are inspired, even moving. As a country girl I am always moved by a great view, and appreciate the miracles of nature, but somehow, for me, the canvasses of Constable and Turner have never quite captured its essence. I feel that the beauty of Fearnley’s work is achieved by three particular elements: drama, precision, and light. Especially the glorious effects of light, which make you stop and gaze from the other side of the room. And he has achieved this very cleverly, considering the small scale of most works; they were generally all painted on paper small enough to fit the wooden frame in that was carried around in his paintbox.
Certain works have stuck firmly in my mind, and I feel they are worth pausing at. There is really stunning light in Sorrento (1840); buildings are softly illuminated and dwarfed by dramatic hills behind. The sunset colours in The Port of Agrigento (1839) are more intense still. Near Meiringen (1835) captures the beauty and stillness of the Swiss Alps, and I would love to have Sunrise from the Wengernalp (1838) on my wall; the apricot sky forms the focal point, and radiates outwards to bathe the surrounding hills and fields in a magical glow. Fearnley often focuses on the effects of weather on a landscape, painting gnarled old trees and windswept branches. Although he basically painted landscapes uninterrupted by human presence, there are some exceptions. King William II’s Arrival in Amsterdam (1840), the only Dutch subject the artist produced, is a rare city scene with incredible detail; the reflections in the water are almost photographic, and try to count the individual figures that make up the vast crowds! While most of Fearnley’s scenes are foreign, he makes a gesture towards his background with his paintings of the Lake District, the destination for his English sketching tour in August and September 1837. Coniston Water with a Boat (1837) is unmistakeably English and perhaps less of a spectacle without a mountainous setting, but it has all the serenity of a Norwegian fjord. I was also fascinated to see some of the artist’s sketchbooks, beautifully preserved and displayed in cabinets to complement the works on the walls.
The arrangement of the exhibition – over 60 framed works, which have come from Norway and the USA, and from private collections – is well considered, taking the visitor on a journey through the different countries in much the same way as Fearnley would have travelled, in the guise of the ‘rootless Wanderer’. The journey culminates in the enormous and extraordinary Grindelwald Glacier at the far end of the gallery. The sheer scale of the glacier is well demonstrated by the lone figure and grazing sheep, and the canvas size is unmatched by any other painting here. What contemporaneously must have been deemed one of Fearnley’s most impressive works – and shown at the Royal Academy, making him the first Norwegian artist to exhibit there – it makes a fitting conclusion to the exhibition. I was captivated by it all; I stand converted. Any other landscape-doubters out there, I urge you to be converted too.
Curated by Professor Ann Sumner and Dr Greg Smith, ‘In Front of Nature: The European Landscapes of Thomas Fearnley’ is open at the Barber Institute until 27th January, 2013.