Peat Bog, Scotland

J. M. W. Turner, Peat Bog, Scotland, 1812, mezzotint, printed in brown ink, 21cm x 29.1cm, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

J. M. W. Turner’s mountainous landscape is an etching, printed using the mezzotint method, and is part of his Liber Studiorum – a record of the artist’s land- and seascape oeuvre. We are presented with what, from a human point of view, is a rather miserable scene, of a peasants laboriously cutting peat in the harsh conditions of a Highland bog. The figures are enduring the intense Scottish weather to obtain peat for selling and for personal warmth, and the print works to convey the power and wild beauty of the formidable landscape. 

The mezzotint process, in which a roughened metal plate is scraped with a tool to reveal smoother areas which retain less ink, allowed Turner to achieve strong linework as well as smooth gradations of tone without hatching. As a result, the composition captures the magnificent but fleeting effect of the stormy weather and atmosphere alongside the rugged permanence of the mountainous topography. In addition to his varying marks, Turner has presented a contrast of tones that introduces drama to the scene, as the figures in the foreground, dwarfed by the sheer size of the landscape, work in the forbidding shadow of the rain-clouds. The viewer of this print can really sense how the demanding labour of the peat cutters is affected by the landscape and climatic conditions. 

This is testament to Turner’s careful study of reality. The great nineteenth-century critic John Ruskin even considered the scene to be ‘taken, with hardly any modification by pictorial influence, straight from nature.’[1] This is despite the composition having no known visual source, but rather being the product of various scenes that Turner would have witnessed during his travels in Scotland[2] – and also despite the fact that the black and white medium and changeful weather answer to the eighteenth-century theorist Edmund Burke’s identification of ‘quick transition from light to darkness, or from darkness to light’ as inherent to the aesthetic of the ‘Sublime’.[3] Turner’s acute understanding of the atmospheric effects of light and weather allows him to produce a landscape that feels grounded in reality, yet still prompts an emotional response from the viewer. But if the Sublime was supposed to make fear pleasurable, because experienced at a remove – in art rather than reality – then the picture gives this a new twist, by inviting us to admire the peasants; they are not mere ‘staffage’, but real, dignified people. They are at the mercy of the unforgiving landscape, but crowned by a rainbow or ray of sunshine emerging from the clouds, a traditionally positive symbol. Turner thus seems to rise above the patronising or stereotypical ways in which Highlanders were depicted by some other artists at this time. Meanwhile, the sense of beauty, danger, scale, and first-hand experience clearly signal the new ‘Romantic’ appreciation of beauty and value in ‘wilderness’, that had begun to emerge in the early nineteenth century. 

Holly Mullins and Clare A.P. Willsdon

Rannoch Moor (by koolzakukumba)
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[1] E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn eds., Library Edition: The Works of John Ruskin: Volume V: Modern Painters: Volume III, London 1904, p.399.

[2] Matthew Imms, ‘Peat Bog, Scotland c.1808 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2008, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, (accessed 8.9.21).

[3] Cited in Andrew Wilton, Turner in the British Museum: Drawings and Watercolours, British Museum, London, 1977, p. 23.