England’s greatest artist and one of the finest and most original landscape painters of all time
Joseph Mallord William Turner was an English Romantic landscape painter, famed for his vivid treatment of natural light effects in land and marine subjects. Yet despite his success he led a secretive life and shunned public attention.
The son of Mary Marshall and William Turner, a barber and wigmaker, Turner was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, in 1775. His actual birth-date is vague, but he always claimed that it was 23rd April, the Feast of St. George, patron of England, and also Shakespeare’s birthday. As a child he made money by colouring engravings for his father’s customers. However, for a time he also lived with his maternal aunt and uncle at Brentford, Middlesex, when his mother began suffering mental health problems, and there he attended John White’s school.
He returned to London some time during the late 1780’s, having completed his formal schooling, and began working under several architectural topographers (notably Thomas Malton, Jr, whose influence on his work is evident). In December 1789, after spending a term as a probationer, he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools at the age of only 14 – then the only art school in England. By the time he was 18 he had his own studio and was touring the country in search of materials, making architectural drawings in the cathedral cities. Indeed, before his 20th birthday, print sellers were already enthusiastically buying his drawings for reproduction.
For three years in the mid-1790s he teamed up with Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), after meeting him at Dr. Thomas Monro’s evening ‘Academy’. The young Girtin sketched outlines and Turner washed in the colour – between them elevating the art of watercolours to new heights of delicacy and seductiveness.
In 1796, under the influence of Richard Wilson and Claude, he took up oils, then in 1802, became a full member of the Royal Academy. During his late 20s, Turner began travelling widely in Europe, visiting the Louvre collections – by then enriched by Napoleon I’s spoils of war – and was much taken with Titan and Nicolas Poussin.
He gradually became preoccupied with the subtle rendering of shifting shades of light on such opposing forms as waves, mountains, shipwrecks and architecture, conveying a generalised mood or impression of a scene, sometimes emphasised by dramatically changeable and vivid colours. Examples from this period include The Shipwreck (1805); Frosty Morning (1813) and Crossing the Brook (1815). His use of colour was also enhanced by trips to Italy between 1819 and 1840, and his brushwork became increasingly free.
Turner was a master of his craft and his work was of enormous importance in the development of impressionism. However, in 1803, after changing his style, he was attacked by the critics and for some time had difficulty selling his paintings. Luckily, he found a champion in the English writer, John Ruskin (1819-1900), whose Modern Painters (volume 1, 1843) helped to turn the critical tide in the artist’s favour.
Turner never married (although he did have a mistress with whom he had three children) and was often accused of being eccentric. When not staying with his patron, Lord Egremont at Petworth, he lived a reclusive existence, taking rooms in London taverns. He had no close friends, and even towards the end of his life, resided in Chelsea under an assumed name. He died there in 1851, leaving the nation over 300 paintings, nearly 20,000 watercolours and 19,000 drawings.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851)" https://englishhistory.net/georgian/j-m-w-turner/, February 8, 2022