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Photographing JMW Turner

9 May 2014 by Lisa

Landscape by JMW Turner

‘The Thames from Richmond Terrace’ by JMW Turner

As well as putting on exhibitions of our collections, we also have staff working hard behind the scenes to photograph our works so they can be shared online. Here’s one of our specialist photographers, Steve Judson, who has been working on our ‘works on paper’ collection.

“Whilst carrying out research for my degree some years ago, I read the following quotation by Susan Sontag the American essayist, literary critic and cultural theorist:

“the painter constructs, the photographer discloses.”


Little did I realise back then, that this reference would be a narrative of my role working as a photographer at National Museums Liverpool on the ‘Watermark’ project to digitise the works on paper collection held at the Walker Art Gallery. The aim is to create an online gallery of the just over 8000 items in the collection.

With this in mind and so many works to photograph, people have suggested to me that my work must be very similar to working on a conveyor belt. The thinking was that I wouldn’t be able take in the detail or remember any of the individual art works as they pass me in the photographic process. But during the course of transferring the images onto our database, I examine every image in close detail, the equivalent to a quality control check.

Remarkable as this collection is in its own right, when the photographed work is magnified some 40 times in the processing, I can see an artist’s technique at such close scrutiny each and every work takes on a new level of complexity. It’s very difficult to forget them after. I see the work in several completely different layers, that reveal many artists altering, changing, shifting and varying techniques for their works.

The front piece to the 'Liber Studiorum' collection of prints.

The front piece to the ‘Liber Studiorum’ collection of prints

When photographing the collection of works by JMW Turner (1775 – 1851) to coincide with the exhibition ‘Turner: travels, light and landscape’ currently on dispay at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, I was privileged to photograph the ‘Liber Studiorum’, a set of 71 prints by Turner in the Walker’s collection. I understand that Turner was an uncompromising artist, somebody who liked to do things properly. Turner maintained complete control over the engraving of the ‘Liber Studiorum’ copper plates and kept his engravers under the strictest supervision to ensure his prints were of the highest quality at all times.

Knowing this, I could be forgiven for feeling at times as though I was working with the artist himself looking over my shoulder. I had to wonder what he would be thinking of me making a copy of each of his prints and would he be happy with the results. I’m sure that he would.

Take a browse through the online gallery and discover the ‘Liber Studiorum’ prints for yourself.

  1. Kevin Donovan says:

    Thanks to everyone at NMGM, in front and behind the scenes, for their work on this invaluable collection. It’s what helps to make Wirral and the world a decent place!

  2. Steve Judson says:

    Thank you for your lovely comments, I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments. Really glad you enjoyed the Turner exhibition.

    Please keep checking back to our online resource, as there will be lots more exciting additions from our ‘works on paper’ collection that I have been photographing and am currently preparing for uploading.

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