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21 January 2015updated 30 Jun 2021 11:55am

What Turner drank after a day sketching carnage

Nina Caplan drinks German wine and contemplates J M W Turner’s work on war.

By Nina Caplan

To those failing to honour resolutions to abstain this month, I have a message of cheer: “New Year, new you” is more of a myth than anything the ancient Greeks invented and probably of about the same vintage.

A century ago we were fighting the First World War. In 1815 the Napoleonic wars were dragging to their bloody conclusion after 12 and a half years. England may have welcomed 2015 without a major conflict thus far but there are plenty out there and I’m not counting any peacetime chickens just yet.

Instead, I’m drinking German wine and contemplating J M W Turner contemplating war. Two years after Waterloo, the great painter visited the Belgian battlefield where the Brits, Prussians, Dutch and Belgians finally put paid to Napoleon’s dreams of empire. The resulting painting, an unnerving clash between dark, roiling clouds and corpses illuminated by the torches of the bereaved, is no paean to victory.

“English troops in the Champs-Élysées!” crowed Turner’s contemporary Benjamin Robert Haydon, who is portrayed in Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner as a bumptious and talentless fool: “There is something . . . infinitely imposing, sublime and overwhelming in the present degraded state of France and Napoleon Bonaparte.” Turner, more humanely, focused on war’s sorrows. The only sublime element of his painting is the painting itself.

What does a thirsty man – which Turner was, by all accounts – drink after a day sketching carnage? Local ale, perhaps, but he toured Germany on this trip and it would have been polite, in any case, to raise a glass of Rhenish (Rhine) wine to the Prussian field marshal Gebhard von Blücher, Wellington’s ally at Waterloo.

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What was it like, that early-19th-century wine? Germany later lost vines (albeit fewer than France) to the dreaded phylloxera louse, so the plants that modern Rhine-dwellers tend are different; then there’s climate change and improved vinification methods (but not machine harvesting, because many vineyards are too steep for any vehicle that isn’t half goat). Turner, the Royal Academy’s professor of perspective, may well have enjoyed craning his neck up those vertiginous slopes; he certainly painted near some of them.

Recently at one of Tate Britain’s bimonthly “Late at Tate” evenings, the head sommelier, Hamish Anderson, speculated knowledgeably on the artist’s possible tipples. “Anyone who says there’s a better grape than Riesling is just wrong,” he pronounced, and certainly Riesling, which can wend from floral aperitif to viscous dessert wine, is as variable as a painter’s palette.

The lush bouquet of the 2011 Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland belied its ability to cut briskly through a salmon fillet’s oiliness; a 2011 Höllenpfad Riesling from the wonderful Dönnhoff, on the other hand, though delicious, tussled mildly with a honey mustard dressing. Both were trocken (dry) Rieslings, accompanied by delightful Rhine-side views of Bingen town and the monastery in Rüdesheim from the year of that Waterloo visit, although Turner’s sheer green hills and quiet stonework show no sign of their long French occupation.

I sip, and an imaginary 19th-century peasant echoes with a celebratory swig of a wine that evaporates on my mind’s tongue; freed from disruptive conflicts that are none of his business, he returns to the eternal job of tending vines as a portly painter sketches the surrounding soil and sky. Both are lapping up peace – trying, in their different ways, to distil its evanescent loveliness. We’re still reaping the fruits of their labours, with better Rieslings and evolved (if not improved) paintings. Peace, however, is still a long way down the river.