Landscapes painted across Europe by a littleknown Norwegian artist with an English name are the subject of a pioneering exhibition at the Barber Institute, writes Terry Grimley.
In 2005. the select collection of Birmingham’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts was enhanced by the addition of a small but beautifully painted landscape of Ramsau in the Bavarian Alps.
It was painted in September 1832 by Thomas Fearnley, a Norwegian artist with a Yorkshire name, near the beginning of a more than 400-mile trek from Munich to Rome.
Like much of his work, it was painted on the spot, in oils on paper.
Even by the romantic standards of the time, Fearnley was a prodigious wanderer.
Into a life tragically cut short by typhoid at the age of 39, he crammed travel throughout Scandinavia and to Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Switzerland, Italy, France, Britain and Holland.
He was born in Fredrikshald, near Kristiania (now Oslo), in 1802, the grandson of a timber merchant from Heckmondwike, near Leeds, who emigrated to Norway from Hull in 1753.
Despite his British roots, Fearnley is very little known here, and the Barber painting is one of only two works by him in a public collection in Britain (the other is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).
It was acquired as a companion to a wonderful seascape by Fearnley’s friend and mentor, Johan Christian Dahl, which the Barber bought in 2002.
Although better known than Fearnley, Dahl is also a very rare artist in Britain, where Scandinavian painting was right off the map for art historians until recent decades.
Now the Barber is staging the first major exhibition of Fearnley’s work in Britain, accompanied by the first book on the artist in English. Both reflect new research in a collaboration between the universities of Birmingham and Leeds, which has shed new light on Fearnley’s time in England between 1836 and 1838.
Former Barber director Ann Sumner, who co-curated the exhibition with Greg Smith, highlights the contrast between Fearnley’s obscurity here and his status in the National Gallery of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, where crowds congregate around his major paintings.
The star of the Barber exhibition is one of these masterpieces, The Grindewald Glacier, now being shown in Britain for the first time since Fearnley exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1838.
Many other works in the exhibition are also drawn from Norway’s National Gallery, but there are also a considerable number from private collections in Norway and elsewhere.
The Fearnley family has maintained not only its custom of naming its eldest sons Thomas - the artist’s 79 year-old great-great-grandson, also Thomas Fearnley, was at the exhibition opening last week - but also its involvement in both the shipping trade and art.
In 1993, the Thomas Fearnley Foundation joined the Astrup Foundation - also linked to the Fearnley family - to found the private Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art.
A month ago the museum moved into a spectacular new home designed by superstar architect Renzo Piano, designer of London’s tallest building, The Shard.
The new building, in a waterside setting in the centre of Oslo, is divided by a canal into sections devoted to temporary exhibitions and the permanent collection, which includes works by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.
This image of Oslo as part of a cosmopolitan international art scene could hardly be more different to the situation confronting the young Thomas Fearnley in the early years of the 19th century.
Having recently emerged from 400 years as a province of Sweden, Norway was a backward country in many respects, and one of them was that it had no academy for the training of artists.
Travel was therefore a necessity for young painters, and Fearnley followed in Dahl’s footsteps to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, following by four years of study in Stockholm.
Emerging in 1828, he embarked on his peripatetic career, travelling first through Copenhagen, Dresden, Munich and Switzerland to Italy, arriving in Rome in 1832. Rome was a major magnet for artists from the North, with a sizeable community of Danish artists in permanent residence.
A feature of Fearnley’s career is the sense of comradeship between artists on the road. He was accompanied on many of his journeys by colleagues like the Dane Wilhelm Bendz, the German Christian Morgenstern and the Englishman Charles West Cope.
He was a popular figure among fellow artists and a self-portrait drawing of 1831, showing a well-upholstered figure with contented smile and picturesque Norwegian pipe in hand, vividly evokes the affable bon viveur with a taste for practical jokes recalled in various memoirs.
In 1832 Bendz gave Fearnley and his pipe a central place in his painting Artists in Fink’s Tavern, Munich.
Other notable contemporaries whom he befriended included the writer Hans Christian Andersen, the Norwegian violinist and composer Ole Bull and, in London, the painter, administrator and chronicler of the British art scene, Richard Redgrave.
Fearnley spent three years in Italy, visiting the Bay of Naples and Sicily as well as Rome, before once more heading north, passing through Switzerland on his way to Paris and setting foot in England for the first time in May 1836.
After a brief return to Norway he came back to London in October for an extended visit which included an expedition to the Lake District in the late summer of 1837.
In London, Fearnley exhibited his work at the Royal Academy and the British Institution, where he made a small oil sketch, included in the Barber exhibition, of Turner finishing a painting on “varnishing day”.
A year after the death of Constable, Turner was the unrivalled master of British landscape, and his eccentric habit of finishing paintings when they were already hung for exhibition was a famous phenomenon of the London art world.
Despite his pre-eminence, Turner had his detractors among those who found his work over-melodramatic.
Fearnley’s terse comment that English artists had “a devilish force to Effect and Colour” does not name Turner, but a remarkable inclusion in the Barber exhibition is a parody of his style, with figures in a rocky landscape gazing into a blazing sunset. Its title is The Devil Tempting Christ. In London, Fearnley took up etching and joined the recently formed artists’ association, The Etching Club.
An etching from 1838, included in the exhibition, was posthumously given the misleading title Norwegian Scenery. Based on a painting of 1830, it actually shows mountainous scenery in Austria.
Because of his method of working, collecting sketches on the road which might be turned into finished paintings in the studio, Fearnley was frequently working on paintings of one country while living in another.
His expedition to the Lake District began with a diversion which suggests he was revisiting family history.
While his friends travelled by road, he took the paddle steamer Waterwitch from London to Hull, recording the journey in a smokey on-deck oil sketch.
The section of the exhibition devoted to the Lake District includes a drawing of a tree trunk covered in ivy which was drawn on the back of a letter from a Miss Roberts expressing the hope that Fearnley would call on her before leaving Rydal.
It apparently accompanied the gift of a duck, Fearnley having complained about the diet of ham and eggs on offer at his lodgings.
The subject of this drawing calls to mind the critic and artist John Ruskin, and in some of Fearnley’s paintings, which reject the established formula of landscape painting to concentrate on a dead tree leaning over a muddy brown stream, or to study the piled-up rocky cliffs near Sorrento with only a minimal glimpse of the sea, there is a pre-echo of Pre-Raphaelite landscapes.
Fearnley considered settling permanently in London, and it is intriguing to imagine what might have happened had he become more fully integrated into the British art world.
His paintings, which had initially attracted little attention, were beginning to appeal to some critics as a more sober counterpart to Turner’s.
But instead he upped sticks once more in June 1838 – possibly because The Grindewald Glacier failed to find a buyer at the Royal Academy - and returned to Munich where, after a final visit to Norway, he died in 1842.
Fearnley had already departed when a review by the Rev John Eagles appeared which identified his painting as the best landscape at the RA.
It was Eagles whose criticism of Turner had prompted the young Ruskin to write a defence which evolved into his monumental book, Modern Painters.
The first volume, published the year after Fearnley’s death, contains a piece of advice to young artists which has often been seized upon as the starting point for the Pre-Raphaelites but might equally serve as Fearnley’s epitaph: “Go to Nature in all singleness of heart...having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.”