The Barber Institute currently have an exhibition on Thomas Fearnley’s landscapes, which I recommend highly. Fearnley is not a well-known name, but clearly he is a painter who deserves more recognition, and this exhibition will surely help his reputation. Born in Norway, though with a Yorkshire grandfather, Fearnley (1802-42) spent much of his short life travelling around Europe and painting the sublime and towering landscapes he saw. The exhibition notes suggest that his life and work may seem reminiscent of the ‘Romantic figure of the rootless Wanderer, travelling in search of enlightenment’, but add that in fact he was a cheerful and sociable soul who doesn’t really fit this stereotype. His paintings, however, are very much in the Romantic mode. They are almost all landscapes of marvellous views, yet what he produces is so much more than picture-postcards. From the amazing detail in his pencil tree studies, to perfectly finished, almost photographic oils, to more impressionistic painted sketches (which are all the more impressive for having been executed so quickly), etchings, and watercolours in his sketchbooks, there is considerable variety in his media, but his way of catching the mood of a place as well as its appearance is remarkable. Fearnley also captures weather and seasonal changes, making his paintings remarkably atmospheric. ‘The Grindelwald Glacier’ (1838, top), is huge and quite amazing: its contrasts, the small figures, the dark of the woods, the almost sculptural contours of the glacier, with mist above it, provides a genuinely sublime image in the Romantic mode, the eye drawn towards the heavens and the spirits uplifted.
The landscapes range from the chilly glaciers of Northern Europe to the warmer climes of Capri and Southern countries, but in each there is always more than a straightforward depiction of nature: a small cross in ‘Forest Track with a Cross’ as a reminder of faith; tiny figures, human or animal, a boat, all serve both as reminders of civilisation and humanity’s impact on nature, and also of scale. The paintings manifest amazing drama and symbolism, then, such as shafts of light and striking contrasts. It is certainly in the northern scenes that Fearnley excels, and it is no surprise that he also visited the Lake District, where as well as the mountains and water with which he clearly felt at home, he also painted the Gothic ‘The Church at Pattendale’ (1837), featuring an ancient church in the shade of an old yew tree, and ‘Derwentwater’, in the Northern European mode.
British reviews apparently saw him as a ‘refreshing contrast to the garish effects painted by JMW Turner’, according to the exhibition notes, and of course there are some striking similarities of subject and even approach: think of Turner’s ‘St Gotthard Pass’. The painters do have a very different approach to colour, however, and styles too; Fearnley is closer perhaps to Constable than to Turner, though comparisons seem unnecessary. But, like Turner, Fearnley’s paintings do seem to have that Romantic ability to encourage the viewer to access the sublime, to see beyond the world in which we live to something greater, just beyond our comprehension. As Burtke says in On the Sublime and the Beautiful:
‘For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive.’