Joseph Mallord William Turner was a great English Romanticist painter and is probably one of the most well-known British artists along with Lowry and Constable. He is regarded as an artist who elevated landscape painting to heights barely thought of before then. Although renowned for his oil paintings, he is considered to be one of the great masters of watercolour landscape painting. Known as ‘the painter of light’, his work is regarded as a Romantic precursor to Impressionism.
Nobody knows his exact date of birth, but he was baptised on May 14th 1775. He claims he was born on 23rd April but there is no proof. What we do know is that Covent Garden, London was his birthplace. His father, William, was a barber and wigmaker and his mother came from a family of butchers. He had a younger sister who died when she was 5.
When Turner was a young lad, his mother became ill and had to be admitted to a mental hospital so he was sent to stay with an uncle in Brentford, West London. It was here that he began to develop his artistic talent producing a series of simple colourings of engraved plates. A little time later, he was sent to Margate, on the north-east Kent coast, where he produced drawings of the town and surrounding area. By this time his father was exhibiting his work in his shop window and selling it for a few shillings.
In 1789 Turner joined his uncle, who had retired to Sunningwell, Berkshire, where he developed a working style (the use of pencil sketches on location as a basis for later finished paintings) which he would use for his whole career. In fact, as a young man Turner worked for several architects who used his sketches for architectural studies and exercises in perspective.
By the end of 1789 he had also begun to study under the draughtsman Thomas Malton and had entered the Royal Academy of Art schools when he was only 14 years old. A year later he became an Academy member. Though showing a keen interest in architecture, he was encouraged to continue painting and his first watercolour, ‘A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth’ was shown at the Academy’s summer exhibition in 1790 when Turner was only 15.
In the Academy, he was taught drawing from plaster casts of antique sculptures and later 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 and travelled widely. In 1796 he exhibited his first oil painting, ’Fishermen at Sea’, a scene depicting The Needles which lie off the Isle of Man. Wilton said ‘it is a summary of all that had been said about the sea by the artists of the eighteenth century’. The painting was acclaimed by prominent painters of the time and enhanced his reputation.
Turner travelled widely around Europe and even studied in the Louvre in 1802. He received important support from Walter Fawkes of Otley and his famous work ’Hannibal Crossing The Alps’ is said to be inspired by a storm over Chevin, Otley. Turner was a frequent guest of George Wyndham and painted scenes of his house and surrounding area.
As Turner grew older, he became more and more eccentric. He had few real friends except his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as his studio assistant. When he died, it had a profound effect on him and he suffered periods of severe depression. He never married but had a relationship with an older widow, Sarah Danby, who is believed to be the mother of their two daughters born in 1801 and 1811. Later on, he had a relationship with Sophia Booth, living with her for 18 years in her house in Chelsea. Turner, in fact, died in this very house on 19th December 1851, his last words being ‘The Sun is God’.
He is buried alongside Joshua Reynolds, another great English painter in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Fortunately, unlike many contemporaries, he was a highly respected artist during his lifetime. His influence has been enormous: the English art critic John Ruskin described him as the artist who could most ‘stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature’. His legacy is there for all of us to cherish and admire.
Tate Britain, the Museum in London, houses the world’s largest collection of Turner’s work. It is home to the Turner Bequest, including all works left behind in Turner’s studio at his death and comprising 300 oil paintings and many thousands of sketches and watercolours.