One of the most favourited English Romantic artists, Joseph Mallord William Turner’s wide body of work ranges from topography to atmospheric storms and includes watercolours, oils and engravings. Known as “the painter of light”, his use of brilliant colours became the main characteristic in his landscapes and seascapes. Considered a controversial figure in his day, Turner is now regarded as the artist who elevated landscape painting to a status rivaling history painting.
J. M. W. Turner is believed to have been born on April, 23, 1775 near Covent Garden in London, UK. His father, William Turner, was a barber and wig maker. His mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. His younger sister, Mary Ann, was born in September 1778, but died in August 1783.
In 1785, due to his mother’s mental illness, Turner stayed with his uncle Joseph Mallord William Marshall. He entered the Royal Academy Schools (still operating today as the Royal Academy of Art) at the age of 14, received additional training outside the Academy, and worked as a colourist and copyist with English painter Thomas Girtin.
Turner was inspired by 17th-century Dutch artists including Willem van der Velde, and by the Italianate landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Richard Wilson. He exhibited watercolours at the Royal Academy from 1790, and oils from 1796. He continued to practice watercolour throughout his life and was considered the greatest watercolourist of his time.
Turner’s first exhibited paintings were of English monuments and landscapes. In search of topographical material in the late seventeen-nineties, he discovered the sea which left a lasting impression on him. He would sketch rapidly, recording the sensations of travelling over the ocean, to work on in oils later in his studio.
Turner was elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799 and Academician in 1802, and was recognised as a prodigy who promised to be the outstanding painter of his generation. Already a prosperous artist, he opened a gallery in 1804 on the corner of Harley Street and Queen Anne Street. Among early exhibits were large watercolours as well as smaller paintings of English landscapes. During this time, Walter Fawkes and George O’Brien Wyndham, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, became avid collectors (as well as friends) of Turner.
Turner was not universally loved. At the Royal Academy he was known to be pushy or rude, and at times insulted his colleagues. Turner and other artists associated with him were dubbed ‘white painters’ because of their use of luminous, sometimes pale tones. British art patron Sir George Beaumont, particularly denounced Turner’s works. Beaumont’s and other’s criticism made little impact and Turner grew accustomed to and even courted controversy. When Turner exhibited Mercury and Argus in 1836, the reviews were generally hostile. However, the art critic John Ruskin, championed Turner’s work. Ruskin continually praised Turner’s work as being “truth to nature.”
From the mid-1790s, Turner traveled widely during which time he filled hundreds of sketchbooks with his visual records of England, Scotland, Wales, Belgium, France, Holland, Italy, the Rhineland, Switzerland and elsewhere. He maintained this routine for much of his life—touring in summer and working in the studio in the winter months.
Turner was a very private man and never married. For a few years, starting in 1799, he was the companion of Sarah Danby. She had two daughters, Evelina and Georgiana, who are widely recognised as Turner’s. A recent theory suggests however that they were his father’s children—his half-sisters.
Turner was very close to his father William and lived with him for some years. William was his son’s assistant, grinding pigments and preparing and varnishing canvases. His death in 1829 had a profound effect on Turner after which he experienced periods of depression.
In 1833, Turner met the widow Sophia Booth at her boarding house on the Thames River. Booth and Turner lived together at her house in Chelsea, keeping their relationship a secret for 18 years.
J. M. W. Turner died in the house of Sophia Booth on December 19, 1851. He is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. His last exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1850.
Turner was an extremely prolific artist and produced more than 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, and 30,000 paper works in his lifetime. Turner left an estate valued at the equivalent of 10 million dollars in today’s currency – with instructions to establish a charity for poor artists. Members of his family contested his will, however, and this wish was never realized. In the final settlement, the British nation received the entire contents of the artist’s studio, including 100 finished oils, 182 unfinished oils and oil sketches, 300 sketchbooks and 30,000 drawings and watercolours. They are now housed at Tate Britain in London.
On April 22, 2016 (the day before Turner’s alleged birthday), the Bank of England unveiled a new £20 bank note that will feature his 1799 self portrait and painting The Fighting Temeraire. The artist was chosen from a list of public nominations – the first time the Bank has asked who should appear on a specific banknote. (BBC)
For an in-depth biography of J. M. W. Turner, visit the Tate Britain website.
Watch an excerpt from the National Gallery Britain’s documentary chronicling the rise of Turner