Turner, Towneley, and the Romantic North

Towneley Hall by J.M.W. Turner, R.A.
Towneley Hall by J.M.W. Turner, R.A.

You can read my original article as published in The Guardian newspaper here in 2012.

It is an age of forgotten assets: a time for talk of the scarce resource; a landscape of less and not more… except in one Lancashire town.

It is hard to imagine our northern landscape being described as the ‘wildest, most barren and frightful of any place.’ It is hard to imagine the gateway to Lake District or the Pennines being dismissed as where the ‘pleasant part of England was at an end.’ Yet these words by Daniel Defoe articulated the views of the majority at the turn of the 18th century.

The Age of Enlightenment had done much to quell superstitions of witches and goblins yet our landscape remained, according to pioneering female traveler Celia Fiennes in 1698, full of ‘inaccessible high rocky barren hills which hang over one’s head in some places and appear very terrible.’

It took one man to change this, to see things differently and transform the ‘terrible’ into the picturesque; to transform that which ‘hangs over one’s head in some places’ to that which hangs over one’s head in galleries: Dr John Brown. In 1753 his published description of Keswick as ‘beauty, horror and immensity united’ was revelatory. It marked the beginning of the ‘romantic movement’; the birth of the picturesque, here in the north of England.

Everything and nothing changed: the grandeur of Fiennes ‘terrible’ hills now had artists flocking back from the continent; the beauty of Defoe’s ‘frightful’ landscape now captivated painters like J.M.W Turner – and it was an original J.M.W. Turner painting that I hoped would captivate a room full of potential ‘Dr John Browns’ in Lancashire last week.

Known as Bondholders, these one hundred or so business leaders see their town very differently from the way it has so often been portrayed: they see a place full of life, modernity and ambition; breathtaking countryside, world-leading engineering and heritage, and so are promoting their view of their town as a way to raise confidence, attract investment and visitors.

It is not a ‘romantic movement’, but it is a movement and it is making a difference.

The subject, and name, of the J.M.W Turner painting was five-hundred year old Towneley Hall in Burnley, now home of BBC Two’s Antiques Master. It was a reminder of another Burnley asset for Bondholders to talk about and help challenge perceptions.

Although it is said an object in possession seldom retains the same charm that it had in pursuit, it can; and in a time of scarce resource, it must. Every asset must be revisited and remembered; there has to be a balance to the local, national and global conversation about what we have not got, with what we have got.

Bondholders know this and their message is building confidence in their town and setting it apart from the competition. What inspired J.M.W Turner two-hundred and fifty years ago continues to inspire today. Another forgotten asset remembered.

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