Joseph Mallord William “J. M. W.” Turner, RA (23 April 1775 – 19 December 1851) was a British Romantic landscape painter, water-colourist, and printmaker. Turner was considered a controversial figure in his day, but is now regarded as the artist who elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivalling history painting. Although renowned for his oil paintings, Turner is also one of the greatest masters of British watercolour landscape painting. He is commonly known as “the painter of light” and his work is regarded as a Romantic preface to Impressionism.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born on or around the 23 April 1775 in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, England. His father, William Turner (1738–7 August 1829), was a barber and wig maker,his mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. A younger sister, Mary Ann Turner, was born in September 1778 but died aged four in August 1783.
In 1785, as a result of a “fit of illness” in the family the young Turner was sent to stay with his maternal uncle, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford, which was then a small town west of London on the banks of the River Thames. From this period, the earliest known artistic exercise by Turner is found, a series of simple colourings of engraved plates from Henry Boswell’s Picturesque View of the Antiquities of England and Wales.
Around 1786, Turner was sent to Margate on the north-east Kent coast. Here Turner produced a series of early drawings of the town and surrounding area foreshadowing his later work. Turner would return to Margate many times in later life. By this time, Turner’s drawings were already being exhibited in his father’s shop window and sold for a few shillings each. His father boasted to the artist Thomas Stothard that: “My son, sir, is going to be a painter”.In 1789 Turner again stayed with his uncle, who by this time had retired to Sunningwell in Oxford. A whole sketchbook of work from his time in Oxford survives, as well as an early watercolour of Oxford. The use of pencil sketches on location as a basis for later finished paintings would form the basis of Turner’s essential working style for his whole career.
Many of the early sketches by Turner were studies of Architecture and/or exercises in perspective and it is known that the young Turner worked for several architects including Thomas Hardwick (junior), James Wyatt and Bonomi the Elder.
By the end of 1789 he had also begun to study under the topographical draughtsman Thomas Malton, whom Turner would later call “My real master”. He entered the Royal Academy of Art schools in 1789, when he was only 14 years old, and was accepted into the academy a year later. Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, chaired the panel that admitted him. At first Turner showed a keen interest in architecture but was advised to continue painting by the architect Thomas Hardwick (junior). His first watercolour A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth was accepted for the Summer Exhibition of 1790 when Turner was only 15.
As a probationer in the Academy, he was taught drawing (not painting) from plaster casts of antique sculptures and his name appears in the registry of the Academy over a hundred times from July 1790 to October 1793. In June 1792 he was admitted to the life class to learn to draw the human body from nude models.
Turner continued to exhibit watercolours each year at the Academy – travelling in the summer and painting in the winter. He travelled widely throughout Britain, particularly to Wales, and produced a wide range of sketches for working up into studies and watercolours. These particularly focused on architectural work, which utilised his skills as a draughtsman. In 1793, he showed a watercolour with the title The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent’s Rock Bristol (now lost) that foreshadowed his later climatic effects.
Cunningham in his obituary of Turner wrote that it was: “recognised by the wiser few as a nobel attempt at lift in landscape art out of the tame insipidities…[and] evinced for the fist time that mastery of effect for which he is now justly celebrated.”
Turner exhibited his first oil painting at the Academy in 1796, Fishermen at Sea. A nocturnal moonlit scene off the Needles, Isle of Wight. The image of boats in peril contrasts the cold light of the moon with the firelight glow of the fishermen’s lantern. Wilton has said that the image: “Is a summary of all that had been said about the sea by the artists of the eighteenth century.” and shows strong influence by artists such as Horace Vernet, Philip James de Loutherbourg and Willem van de Velde the Younger. The image was praised by contemporary critics and would found Turner’s reputation, both as an oil painter and as a painter of maritime scenes.
Turner travelled widely in Europe, starting with France and Switzerland in 1802 and studying in the Louvre in Paris in the same year. He also made many visits toVenice. On a visit to Lyme Regis, in Dorset, England, he painted a stormy scene (now in the Cincinnati Art Museum).
Important support for his work also came from Walter Ramsden Fawkes, of Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire, who became a close friend of the artist.
Turner first visited Otley in 1797, aged 22, when commissioned to paint watercolours of the area. He was so attracted to Otley and the surrounding area that he returned to it throughout his career. The stormy backdrop of Hannibal Crossing The Alps is reputed to have been inspired by a storm over Otley’s Chevin while Turner was staying at Farnley Hall.
Turner was also a frequent guest of George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont at Petworth House in West Sussex and painted scenes that Egremont funded taken from the grounds of the house and of the Sussex countryside, including a view of the Chichester Canal. Petworth House still displays a number of paintings.
As he grew older, Turner became more eccentric. He had few close friends except for his father, who lived with him for 30 years, eventually working as his studio assistant. His father’s death in 1829 had a profound effect on him, and thereafter he was subject to bouts of depression. He never married but had a relationship with an older widow, Sarah Danby. He is believed to have been the father of her two daughters born in 1801 and 1811.
He died in the house of his mistress Sophia Caroline Booth in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea on 19 December 1851. He is said to have uttered the last words “The sun is God” before expiring. At his request he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, where he lies next to Sir Joshua Reynolds. His last exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1850.
The architect Philip Hardwick (1792–1870) who was a friend of Turner’s and also the son of the artist’s tutor, Thomas Hardwick, was in charge of making his funeralarrangements and wrote to those who knew Turner to tell them at the time of his death that, “I must inform you, we have lost him.” Other active executors were his cousin and executor, and chief mourner at the funeral, Henry Harpur IV (benefactor of Westminster – now Chelsea & Westminster – Hospital), Revd. Henry Scott Trimmer, George Jones RA and Charles Turner ARA.
Turner’s talent was recognised early in his life. Financial independence allowed Turner to innovate freely; his mature work is characterised by a chromatic palette and broadly applied atmospheric washes of paint. According to David Piper’s The Illustrated History of Art, his later pictures were called “fantastic puzzles.” However, Turner was still recognised as an artistic genius: the influential English art critic John Ruskindescribed Turner as the artist who could most “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature.” (Piper 321)
Suitable vehicles for Turner’s imagination were to be found in the subjects of shipwrecks, fires (such as the burning of Parliament in 1834, an event which Turner rushed to witness first-hand, and which he transcribed in a series of watercolour sketches), natural catastrophes, and natural phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain, and fog. He was fascinated by the violent power of the sea, as seen in Dawn after the Wreck (1840) and The Slave Ship (1840).
Turner’s major venture into printmaking was the Liber Studiorum (Book of Studies), a set of seventy prints that the artist worked on from 1806 to 1819. The Liber Studiorum was an expression of his intentions for landscape art. Loosely based on Claude Lorrain’s Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth), the plates were meant to be widely disseminated, and categorised the genre into six types: Marine, Mountainous, Pastoral, Historical, Architectural, and Elevated or Epic Pastoral.His printmaking was a major part of his output, and a whole museum is devoted to it, the Turner Museum in Sarasota, Florida, founded in 1974 by Douglass Montrose-Graem to house his collection of Turner prints.
Turner placed human beings in many of his paintings to indicate his affection for humanity on the one hand (note the frequent scenes of people drinking and merry-making or working in the foreground), but its vulnerability and vulgarity amid the ‘sublime’ nature of the world on the other hand. ‘Sublime’ here means awe-inspiring, savage grandeur, a natural world unmastered by man, evidence of the power of God–a theme that artists and poets were exploring in this period.
The significance of light was to Turner the emanation of God’s spirit and this was why he refined the subject matter of his later paintings by leaving out solid objects and detail, concentrating on the play of light on water, the radiance of skies and fires. Although these late paintings appear to be ‘impressionistic’ and therefore a forerunner of the French school, Turner was striving for expression of spirituality in the world, rather than responding primarily to optical phenomena.
His distinctive style of painting, in which he used watercolour technique with oil paints, created lightness, fluency, and ephemeral atmospheric effects.
One popular story about Turner, though it likely has little basis in reality, states that he even had himself “tied to the mast of a ship in order to experience the drama” of the elements during a storm at sea.
In his later years he used oils ever more transparently, and turned to an evocation of almost pure light by use of shimmering colour. A prime example of his mature style can be seen in Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, where the objects are barely recognizable. The intensity of hue and interest in evanescent light not only placed Turner’s work in the vanguard of English painting, but later exerted an influence upon art in France, as well; the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet, carefully studied his techniques.
Turner left a small fortune which he hoped would be used to support what he called “decayed artists”. He planned and designed an almshouse for them at Twickenham with a gallery for some of his works. His will was contested and in 1856, after a court battle, part of his fortune was awarded to his first cousins including Thomas Price Turner.
Another portion of the money went to the Royal Academy of Arts, which occasionally awards students the Turner Medal. His collection of finished paintings was bequeathed to the British nation, and he intended that a special gallery would be built to house them. This did not come to pass owing to a failure to agree on a site, and then to the parsimony of British governments. Twenty-two years after his death, the British Parliament passed an Act allowing his paintings to be lent to museums outside London, and so began the process of scattering the pictures which Turner had wanted to be kept together.
In 1910 the main part of the Turner Bequest, which includes unfinished paintings and drawings, was rehoused in the Duveen Turner Wing at the Tate Gallery. In 1987 a new wing of the Tate, the Clore Gallery, was opened specifically to house the Turner bequest, though some of the most important paintings in it remain in the National Gallery in contravention of Turner’s condition that the finished pictures be kept and shown together.
Increasingly paintings are lent abroad, ignoring Turner’s provision that they be kept “constantly” in Turner’s Gallery. After the Turner content was diminished and diluted in the Clore Gallery from c. 2002, in 2010–12 only two of the nine rooms on the main floor were devoted to Turner. The claim that the Tate was fulfilling Turner’s wishes was dropped in 1995, when the Charity Commission said that the Turner Bequest had been free of Turner’s conditions. This was challenged by Leolin Price QC.
The Turner Society was founded by Selby Whittingham at London and Manchester in 1975. After that endorsed the Tate Gallery’s Clore Gallery wing as the solution (on the lines of the Duveen wing of 1910), to the controversy of what should be done with the Turner Bequest, Selby Whittingham resigned from that and founded the Independent Turner Society.
A prestigious annual art award, the Turner Prize, created in 1984, was named in Turner’s honour, and twenty years later the Winsor & Newton Turner Watercolour Award was founded.
A major exhibition, “Turner’s Britain”, with material (including The Fighting Temeraire) on loan from around the globe, was held at Birmingham Museum & Art Galleryfrom 7 November 2003 to 8 February 2004.
In 2005, Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire was voted Britain’s “greatest painting” in a public poll organised by the BBC.
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