Leeds
J M W Turner


1816
Watercolor
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven



 
Objective Description
      An atmospheric rendering of a metropolis dominates the background and two thirds of the picture plane. Horizontal bands of buildings fade out in the distance with tall smoking chimneystacks adding vertical and diagonal movement. An occasional tall church spire complements the vertical lines of the chimneys.
      The horizontal band of the middle ground is sparsely populated with open land, trees, and domestic buildings. The contrast is sharper than in the background.
      The darkened and sharper foreground is peopled with figures in various attitudes of work. Two figures on the left hold a large piece of cloth between them, while another large piece rests on the ground near them. On the right, two figures wrap what appear to be parcels as they use the stone wall for support. In the right foreground, outside of the wall, figures are in movement —both by foot and on mules. They too hold parcels as they appear to be climbing a hill.
      The circular movement of the strong wall in the foreground, through to the line of domestic buildings leads the eye directly to the smoking factory buildings in the background.

Subjective Analysis
      Leeds, a center in the wool and flax industries in the 18th and 19th centuries, is depicted here as a growing metropolis - spread out onto the flat plains of the background and slowly encroaching onto the hills of the domestic middle ground. The activity of the cloth workers outside the mills is pictured in the foreground. Rolls of cloth are brought up the hill, away from the mills, to be washed and dyed, hung to dry and then folded. This activity was an important one, as the fabric needed to be dyed and sized after initial production in the mills. The inclusion of a human element in the tasks of the textile workers strongly contrast with the smoke filled industrial city in the background. Although the viewer focuses on the activities of the workers' outside activities, one cannot but wonder about the conditions within the mills themselves as no reference to the human condition is exhibited, only an atmospheric one.
      Originally conceived as a picturesque watercolor, this image was eventually lithographed for inclusion in an edition of Dr. Whitaker's 1823 edition of History of Leeds. The original watercolor was purchased by noted British art critic John Ruskin. Ruskin attributed to Turner his own pessimistic views about the impact of industrialization on civilization and the environment.

The representation of facts… is the foundation of all art; like real foundations, it may be little thought of when a brilliant fabric is raised on it; but it must be there… And thus, though we want the thoughts and feelings of the artist as well as the truth, yet they must be thoughts arising out of knowledge of truth, and feelings arising out of contemplation of the truth...nothing can atone for the want of truth, not the most brilliant imagination, the most playful fancy, the most pure feeling,… not the most exalted conception, nor the most comprehensive grasp of intellect, can make amends for the want of truth, and that for two reasons: first, because falsehood is in itself revolting and degrading; and secondly, because nature is so immeasurably superior to all that the human mind can conceive, that every departure from her is a fall beneath her, so that there can be no such thing as an ornamental falsehood…

John Ruskin; Modern Painters, 1843

As soon as one mill is at work, occupying two hundred hands, we try, by means of it, to set another mill at work, occupying four hundred. That is all simple and comprehensible enough—but what is it to come to? How many mills do we want? Last week I drove twenty miles from Rochdale to Bolton Abbey… naturally, the valley has been one of the most beautiful in the Lancashire hills; one of the far away solitudes full of old shepherd' ways of life. At this time there are not—I speak deliberately and I believe quite literally—there are not, I think, more than a thousand yards of road to be traversed anywhere, without passing a furnace or mill.

John Ruskin; The Two Paths, 1859