J. M. W. Turner
J. M. W. Turner was the leading figure in English landscape painting in the first half of the 19th century. He is particularly famous for his exploration of the effects of light, and his work influenced later 19th-century painters such as Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro of the Impressionist movement.
Turner’s full name was Joseph Mallord William Turner and he was born in London on April 23, 1775. His father was a barber and wig-maker. Little is known about his mother except that she died in a mental asylum in 1804.
Joseph showed a great talent for drawing from a very young age and was given lessons in perspective by the artist Thomas Malton. He studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from the extremely young age of 14.
In 1794 Turner started work for an engravers company, producing engravings of picturesque scenery, including ruined castles and abbeys, which was highly fashionable at the time. He also practised copying landscapes by the watercolourist John Robert Cozens. Cozens’s pictures, and those of a Welsh landscape painter called Richard Wilson, encouraged the poetic and imaginative aspects of Turner’s painting.
In 1802 Turner was elected as a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts. This was a great honour but also meant that he had to give lectures to students and help with the running of the academy. In 1807 he became a professor of perspective, a job he held for 30 years.
Turner was a shy man. He was very secretive about his private life and not very sociable. He never married, but did have two long relationships, first with Sarah Danby and then Sophia Booth. He also had children, but not much is known about them. In 1800 he found himself a house with a studio, and four years later he opened a private gallery at the back of the building, where he showed his work.
From around this time Turner shared his home with his father, who became his studio assistant and agent, until he died in 1828. Some ten years later Turner moved to Chelsea, outside what was then central London, and he lived there under an assumed name until his own death at the age of 76. By the end of his life, through a combination of hard work and a frugal lifestyle, Turner had become a very wealthy man.
The first works exhibited by Turner were watercolours he made in 1790 of buildings such as the Archbishop’s Palace in Lambeth, and the oil painting, Fishermen at Sea (1796). His talent was noticed by several aristocratic patrons, who commissioned him to paint views of their country estates. In the late 1790s he toured northern England and Wales, sketching views of cathedrals, castles, abbeys and bridges. These works show Turner’s developing interest in the effects of natural light.
After visits to France (where he studied the works of Europe’s greatest painters at the Louvre Museum) and Switzerland, Turner’s work became very ambitious. He produced wonderfully dramatic, stormy seascapes, such as Shipwreck (1805), imitating the style of 17th-century Dutch marine painters. The majestic landscapes of the great French master Claude Lorrain also had a major impact on Turner’s historical paintings, for example Dido Building Carthage (1815), which can be seen in the National Gallery. To show the full range of his skills, including historical, mountain, pastoral and ocean scenes, Turner also began a series of engravings that were very popular. These engravings were published between 1807 and 1819.
Turner began to use mainly light tones and white instead of earth colours, which led to him and his followers being called the “white painters” by some disapproving critics. He greatly admired the Venetian school of painters and travelled many times to Italy. Their works inspired him to use the brilliant colour and rich brushwork that you can see in his well-known dream-like views of Venice, such as The Grand Canal and The View of the Piazzetta (both 1835).
In the 1830s, Turner was commissioned by the Earl of Egremont to paint decorative panels for the dining room of his mansion, Petworth House, in West Sussex. Turner made numerous other canvases, drawings and watercolours of the house and its grounds, which are still on public show at Petworth today. Paintings from this stage in Turner’s career, such as Interior at Petworth (c. 1837), show his fascination with the effects of light and movement. In this picture the viewer can hardly make out any details of the architecture or people and objects in the room, but you do get a strong feeling of the atmosphere. The same is true of other major paintings from the 1830s and 1840s, such as Snowstorm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) and Rain, Steam and Speed (1844).
Although most art critics during his lifetime did not appreciate his work, Turner was much admired and praised by other artists. The influential critic and writer John Ruskin also spoke highly of him. Ruskin’s book Modern Painters increased public appreciation of Turner’s work, after it was published in 1843.
DEATH AND LEGACY
Turner died on December 19, 1851, and was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral. His will said that his money should be used to create a charity to help “poor and decayed male artists” and to build a special gallery in the National Gallery to house some of his pictures. Some distant cousins contested the will and won the money. However, the court decided that all the works that were still in Turner’s possession when he died should go to the National Gallery in London.