Joseph Mallord William “J. M. W.” Turner, RA (baptised 14 May 1775 – 19 December 1851) was an English Romanticist 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. Some of his works are cited as examples of abstract art prior to its recognition in the early 20th century.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was baptised on 14 May 1775, but his date of birth is unknown. It is generally believed he was born between late April and early May. Turner himself claimed he was born on 23 April, but there is no proof. He was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, in London, England. His father, William Turner (1745–21 September 1829), was a barber and wig maker, His mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. A younger sister, Mary Ann, was born in September 1778 but died in August 1783.
In 1785, due to his mother showing signs of the mental disturbance for which she was admitted first to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in Old Street in 1799 and then Bethlem Hospital in 1800, the young Turner was sent to stay with his maternal uncle, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford, then a small town on the banks of the River Thames west of London. 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 he produced a series of drawings of the town and surrounding area foreshadowing his later work. Turner returned to Margate many times in later life. By this time, Turner’s drawings were being exhibited in his father’s shop window and sold for a few shillings. 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 had retired to Sunningwell in Berkshire (later, following the 1974 boundary changes, part of Oxfordshire). A whole sketchbook of work from this time in Berkshire survives, as well as a watercolour of Oxford. The use of pencil sketches on location as a basis for later finished paintings formed the basis of Turner’s essential working style for his whole career.
Many early sketches by Turner were architectural studies and/or exercises in perspective and it is known that as a young man he worked for several architects including Thomas Hardwick (junior), James Wyatt and Joseph 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 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. His first watercolour painting A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth was accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1790 when Turner was 15.
As a probationer in the academy, he was taught drawing 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 exhibited 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 titled 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 noble attempt at lifting landscape art out of the tame insipidities…[and] evinced for the first 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 of The Needles, which lie off the 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 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, Peter Monamy and Francis Swaine, who was admired for his moonlight marine paintings. This particular painting cannot be said to show any influence of Willem van de Velde the Younger, as not a single nocturnal scene is known by that painter. Some later work, however, as shown below, was created to rival or complement the manner of the Dutch artist. The image was praised by contemporary critics and founded 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 made many visits to Venice. On a visit to Lyme Regis, in Dorset, he painted a stormy scene (now in the Cincinnati Art Museum).
Important support for his work 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 the Chevin in Otley while he was staying at Farnley Hall.
Turner was 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 Turner grew older, he became more eccentric. He had few close friends except for his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked 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.
Later he had a relationship with Sophia Caroline Booth, after her second husband died, living for about 18 years as ‘Mr Booth’ in her house in Chelsea.
Like many of the day, Turner was a habitual user of snuff; in 1838 the King of France, Louis-Philippe, presented a gold snuff box to him. Of two other snuffboxes, an agate and silver example bears Turner’s name, and another, made of wood, was collected along with his spectacles, magnifying glass and card case by an associate house keeper.
Turner died in the house of his lover Sophia Caroline Booth in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea on 19 December 1851, and is said to have uttered the last words “The sun is God”. 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.
Turner’s friend, architect Philip Hardwick (1792–1870), son of his tutor, Thomas Hardwick, was in charge of making the funeral arrangements 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 executors were his cousin 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 recognised as an artistic genius: the influential English art critic John Ruskin described him as the artist who could most “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature.”
Suitable vehicles for Turner’s imagination were found in 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), seventy prints that he 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 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. ‘Sublime’ here means awe-inspiring, savage grandeur, a natural world unmastered by man, evidence of the power of God – a theme that romanticist artists and poets were exploring in this period. To Turner, light was the emanation of God’s spirit and this was why he focused the subject matter of his later paintings by leaving out distractions such as 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 early works, such as Tintern Abbey (1795), stayed true to the traditions of English landscape. However, in Hannibal Crossing the Alps (1812), an emphasis on the destructive power of nature had already come into play. His distinctive style of painting, in which he used watercolour technique with oil paints, created lightness, fluency, and ephemeral atmospheric effects.
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 recognisable. The intensity of hue and interest in evanescent light not only placed Turner’s work in the vanguard of English painting, but exerted an influence on art in France; the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet, carefully studied his techniques.
Turner used pigments like carmine in his paintings, knowing that they were not long-lasting, despite the advice of contemporary experts to use more durable pigments. As a result, many of his colours have now faded greatly. John Ruskin complained at how quickly Turner’s work decayed; Turner was indifferent to posterity and chose materials that looked good when freshly applied. By 1930 there was concern that both his oils and his watercolours were fading.
High levels of ash in the atmosphere during 1816, the “Year Without a Summer”, led to unusually spectacular sunsets during this period, and were an inspiration for some of Turner’s work.
John Ruskin says in his “Notes” on Turner in March 1878, that an early patron, Dr Thomas Monro, the Principal Physician of Bedlam, was a significant influence on Turner’s style:
His true master was Dr Monro; to the practical teaching of that first patron and the wise simplicity of method of watercolour study, in which he was disciplined by him and companioned by Giston, the healthy and constant development of the greater power is primarily to be attributed; the greatness of the power itself, it is impossible to over-estimate.
On a trip to Europe, circa 1820, he met the Irish physician Robert James Graves. Graves was travelling in a diligence in the Alps when a man who looked like the mate of a ship got in, sat beside him, and soon took from his pocket a note-book across which his hand from time to time passed with the rapidity of lightning. Graves wondered if the man was insane, he looked, saw that the stranger had been noting the forms of clouds as they passed and that he was no common artist. The two travelled and sketched together for months. Graves tells that Turner would outline a scene, sit doing nothing for two or three days, then suddenly, “perhaps on the third day, he would exclaim ‘there it is’, and seizing his colours work rapidly till he had noted down the peculiar effect he wished to fix in his memory.”
The first American to buy a Turner painting was James Lenox of New York City, a private collector. Lenox wished to own a Turner and in 1845 bought one unseen through an intermediary, his friend C. R. Leslie. From among the paintings Turner had on hand and was willing to sell for £500, Leslie selected and shipped the 1832 atmospheric seascape Staffa, Fingal’s Cave. Worried about the painting’s reception by Lenox, who knew Turner’s work only through etchings, Leslie wrote to Lenox that the quality of Staffa, “a most poetic picture of a steam boat” would become apparent in time. On receiving the painting Lenox was baffled, and “greatly disappointed” by what he called the painting’s “indistinctness”. When Leslie was forced to relay this opinion to Turner, Turner said “You should tell Mr Lenox that indistinctness is my forte.” Staffa, Fingal’s Cave is now owned by the Yale Center for British Art.
Text and images from Wikipedia.com