One of my favourite paintings in the world isn't very good. It's not actively bad, and it's far better than anything I could do, it's just not very good. It's a long way from great, comfortably non-brilliant. The gallery that owns it doesn't even have it on display most of the time. For most of its life on Earth I suspect it will be filed somewhere in the quiet dark.
I saw it when it was briefly on display, however. And I loved it immediately. Around the turn of the century - I love that I have lived through a period of time where I can just drop that phrase in - Tate Britain held an exhibition on Turner's paintings of Venice. I took my mum, for some reason. She absolutely hates Turner. Sadly, the exhibition didn't give me much ammunition to change her mind. Turner's paintings of Venice at their very best are merely odd: he occasionally captures something weird in the mixture of a radioactive sunset, distant buildings rising from the water covered with glittering lights, and people moving around on delicate boats, and for a second in these instants, you get to see the human race from the outside, as it were. In these moments we look elegant, dimly alien, serene and fantastical. I don't know if that was his intention. Most of his other paintings of Venice - and I say this as a big fan of Turner - are a bit dull.
The painting I want to talk about though isn't by Turner. Turner's such a superstar that even his off moments tend to end up on a gallery wall somewhere. Instead, and possibly because the curators of the Venice show knew they were dealing with patchy material, there was a room at the exhibition devoted to depictions of Venice by Turner's contemporaries. One of these turned out to be one of my favourite paintings in the whole world.
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