Turner, J. M. W.

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J. M. W. Turner


Born April 23, 1775, in London, England; died December 19, 1851, in London, England; son of William (a barber and wigmaker) and Mary Marshall Turner. Education: Attended the Royal Academy Schools, 1789.


Artist. Exhibited watercolors from 1790, and oils from 1796; elected member of the Royal Academy, 1802: Professor of Perspective, 1807-37, and Deputy President, 1845-46. The major collection of his work can be found at the Tate Gallery in London, England. Works include: Calais Pier, with French Poissards Preparing for Sea, 1803; The Battle of Trafalgar as Seen from the Mizen Starboard, 1806; Snowstorm: And His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812; Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, 1835; The Fighting "Temeraire" Tugged to Her Last Berth, 1838; The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying), 1840; Snowstorm: Steamer off a Harbour's Mouth, 1842; Light and Color: The Morning after the Deluge, 1843; Rain, Steam, and Speed: The Great Western Railway, 1844.


Turner's Liber Studiorum (plates), Autotype Fine Art Company (London, England), 1871, also published as Liber Studiorum, Frederick A. Stokes Company (New York, NY), 1911.

The Sunset Ship (poems), edited by Jack Lindsay [London, England], 1966.

Collected Correspondence, edited by John Gage, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1980.


J. M. W. Turner was a "modern" painter that many art critics have considered at least fifty, if not one hundred, years ahead of his time. He was a romantic interpreter of nature and is still thought of as unrivaled in the virtuosity of his painting of light. His emotionally charged landscapes and seascapes are more appreciated today than they were in his era. Contemporary viewers, in fact, can see glimpses of many modern styles in Turner's paintings of the 1830s and 1840s, ranging from impressionism to abstract expressionism. Another sign of his forward thinking was Turner's interest in using light and color to express the feelings inspired by nature. Such portrayals were not accepted in Turner's time and led critics to deem his paintings full of "soapsuds and whitewash." They were criticized as vulgar and unfinished. But Turner was committed to the pursuit of his vision, which ultimately earned him a place in art history as one of England's finest.

Turner was born in London on April 23, 1775, to a barber and a wigmaker. His mother, Mary Marshall, was some six years older than his father, William. Turner was known as Billy to his family. He lived in London all of his life, which spanned some of the most exciting events in English history—from the loss of the American Colonies through wars with Napoleon, the Industrial Revolution, and the early years of Queen Victoria's reign. London was a teeming and dirty but also lively city during Turner's childhood, and he grew up a streetwise young man. The family lived above the father's barbershop in a slum area marked by narrow streets. Turner spent many hours in his father's shop and on the streets, sometimes to escape the rages of his mother, Mary, who was emotionally unstable.

When Turner's younger sister, Mary Ann, died at the age of eight, Mary Turner's mental state deteriorated further. His mother, apparently subject to fits of manic rage, was committed to Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane in December 1800—by neighbors, not family members—and died there in April 1804, in her early sixties. Biographers have frequently attributed Turner's problems with women and his fascination with nature in its most violent phases to his mother's influence. As he left no journals or autobiography, Turner's own thoughts on this subject, as on others, remain unknown. Only his words in reported conversations are available.

Art Training Begins

When Turner was eleven, he was sent to live with an uncle in Brentford, a country town. There he attended school for the first time and was afforded the chance to enjoy country life—fishing, hiking, and breathing clean air. Turner developed a love of nature and landscape that remained with him throughout his life. He spent many summers from the time he was seventeen until he was almost seventy taking walking and sketching trips to the countrysides of England, Wales, France, and Italy. When he returned to his parents in London at the age of twelve, his father hung some drawings he had done in Brentford in his barbershop. A patron saw them and arranged for Turner to enter the school of the Royal Academy of Art.

Just a year after entering the Royal Academy school, Turner showed one of his watercolors in the Academy's annual exhibition. This was the most important art show in London. Turner placed works there almost every year for over fifty years. At art school, Turner was educated in the conservative style of eighteenth-century painting. He produced copies of ancient statuary and life-studies of nudes in a very idealized and exacting style. Turner also took drawing classes with a local architect and earned some money coloring the prints of an engraver whose shop was near Turner's home. There he began to master watercolors, a medium which would earn him great fame.

Turner began earning money for his own engravings before he finished school. Drawings of landscapes were very popular; people loved picturesque views of castles, churches, farmhouses, bridges, and mountains. These scenes were printed in magazines and sold in small collections. Drawings had become widely available because they were printed as engravings, designs etched into metal, usually copper, which can then be inked and printed. Much of Turner's fortune was made from engravings. He produced over nine hundred, from which thousands of copies were made and sold. Many of Turner's etchings stemmed from sketches of his summer travels. While his engravings earned him a comfortable living, it was his watercolors and oil paintings that brought Turner fame. He was very active at the Royal Academy of Art after he graduated from art school; the early paintings he showed in the Academy exhibitions were watercolors of various country scenes. They were traditionally rendered and lauded by critics and Academy members. But in the mid-1790s Turner's work began to display a more personal and unique style. Along with the expected hazy blues and grays, he began to add bright yellows and reds. Greater contrasts of light and shade appeared. Though critical response remained positive, some seemed uncomfortable with the imaginative style and emotion permeating these pictures. This ambivalence would set the tone for later criticism of Turner's work. There were, however, some unequivocally harsh words throughout his career.

Interest in the Sea

As a boy Turner had spent many hours along London's Thames River watching ships and boats going by. He developed a love for everything related to the sea. This was reinforced during his summer excursions. From the late 1790s on, many of his paintings focused on the sea. He painted seascapes of approaching storms, such as Calais Pier, and of clearing storms, such as Light and Color: The Morning after the Deluge. One of Turner's most celebrated works, Snowstorm: Steamer off a Harbour's Mouth, depicts a terrible snowstorm at sea. According to popular lore, Turner was actually aboard the steamer in question when the storm blew in; he took the opportunity to have the crew lash him to the mast so that he could experience the fury of the tempest on deck. In the painting, the viewer can hardly make out the vessel, but the swirling movement of color and dense texture of the atmosphere lend a strong impression of what the artist must have felt.

The Liber Studiorum (1807-1819) constitutes a text without words on the expressive power and scope inherent in landscape art. W. F. Wells, one of Turner's best friends, persuaded him to begin these engravings in 1806; the first volume was published in 1807 and the last in 1819. Turner published these engravings at his own expense and marked each of the seventy-one plates in one of six ways: as pastoral, epic or elevated pastoral, marine, architectural, mountainous, or historical. These engravings are in mezzotint on copper and printed in dark brown. The Liber Studiorum is an unequaled compendium of landscape styles.

Turner was no purist in method, but would use any means to achieve the truth he sought. While he used constant sketches as a basis for his drawings, water-colors, engravings, and paintings, his finished works were not intended to represent the optical truth of the moment in terms of light or weather, but rather his own inspiration. His two oils of the fire in 1834 at the Houses of Parliament are visionary, not realistic. Turner placed his Juliet in Venice rather than Verona because he was in love with the former city (Juliet and Her Nurse). In The Fighting "Téméraire" Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up and Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway, Turner shows his fascination with man's battle to control nature, however pessimistic he might have been about the future of humanity. The imagery in Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Peace: Burial at Sea, and Death on a Pale Horse is indubitably powerful and a significant achievement in British art.

Turner, like many other artists and writers of the eighteenth century, was greatly influenced by romanticism. Explorers, scientists, and philosophers were introducing new wonders and ideas to the culture. Knowledge of the world and its people seemed limitless. Artists generally were able to travel; some pursued questions of science. Most labored to capture this expansiveness in their work. Landscape painters in particular tried to render their subjects with scientific accuracy. Artists thought of their time as a new Golden Age and felt a kinship to the artists and scholars of ancient Greece and Rome. Scenes from mythology, history, and the Bible became very popular. The goal of many artists was to "see the world through the eyes of a poet."

Turner was part of this movement, yet he was able to venture beyond it. Indeed, he painted scenes from mythology, and many of his landscapes have a mysterious, passionate quality to them. But what distinguished Turner from the other romantics was his keen desire to approximate light and atmosphere, as well as his dedication to emotional expression through color. This focus connects Turner with the French impressionism of the nineteenth century. He even went so far as to paint out-of-doors, which the impressionist painters are often credited with spear-heading—Turner beat them by fifty years. With the sweep of his brush strokes and a wealth of luminous pinks, blues, and yellows, Turner was able to capture the feeling one gets when watching water crash in a storm or the sun cut through a mist at sunrise.

Turner became the most respected painter in England during the first half of the nineteenth century. His reputation was established with his early traditional paintings, many portraying critical events of the era such as the Battle of Trafalgar. And through his activities in the artistic community, he gained the further admiration of his peers. But by the 1820s Turner's image began to change; to some he was turning into a strange, eccentric man, who wore nothing but old clothes and zealously guarded his painting techniques. Critics began to criticize his paintings as unfinished. Indeed, his blobs and dabs of thick paint shocked viewers who were used to smooth, even brush strokes. His colors were denounced as too vivid and showy. A cartoon of the time shows Turner swabbing paint on a canvas with a mop. Of course, these are the same criticisms that have been aimed at modern painters throughout the twentieth century; in this, Turner's critics were also ahead of their time.

One of Turner's later works demonstrates how completely he could adapt to a changing world and yet remain true to his vision. In Rain, Steam, and Speed, he depicted a large steam engine crossing a bridge in a downpour of rain and thick fog. The engine seems about to hurtle off the canvas, the rain and steam smothering the composition. Turner had been painting rain for a long time, but trains were new and particularly modern—they did not exist during the artist's youth. To be sure, the world had changed enormously over the fifty years of his career. Turner seemed to admire the power of industry and invention just as he admired that of the sea and nature.

The Later Years

Much of Turner's life was a well-kept secret, including his relations with a widow, Sarah Danby, by whom he allegedly had two daughters. His short figure and beaklike face lent themselves to caricature, but he cut a not undistinguished figure in the academy and the social circles in which he chose to move—a few wealthy friends who were connoisseurs of art and a larger number of casual acquaintances among the uneducated, for he relished low life. His vulgarity of pronunciation was probably cultivated, for it gave flavor to his brusque humor. In his last years he lived the life of a recluse under an assumed name in Chelsea.

When Turner died in London on December 19, 1851, he was seventy-six years old, quite aged for his time. He had gathered a large fortune and managed to keep many of his works, which had become quite valuable. His will bestowed his life's work on the National Gallery of Britain—three hundred oil paintings, three hundred watercolors, and roughly nineteen thousand drawings. Turner stipulated that his works not be broken up, his will requiring the museum to add space adequate to display them. This request was not fulfilled until 1987, more than 125 years after Turner's death, when a special gallery was opened as part of the Tate Gallery in London. Despite the lateness of this grand exhibition, several generations of artists have admired Turner's work for its boundless imagination, expressiveness, and modern sensibility.

Turner has been likened to William Shakespeare, for the richness of his exploration of man's relationship with the environment is beyond measure. Only by mastering the difficulties of landscape could he free himself of society's views and express himself. He was a poetic, not a scientific, painter. He was seeking a reality of his imagination, even though he drew from nature. After Turner, landscape painting could never again be regarded as inferior. He perceived reality as constantly changing, as light and energy, and he saw light as color. According to an essayist for the International Dictionary of Art and Artists, "Turner is nowadays generally acclaimed as the most outstanding painter Great Britain has yet produced" and one who "displayed a technical virtuosity and a variety of achievement that are unrivalled in British art."

If you enjoy the works of J. M. W. Turner

you might want to check out the following:

The watercolors of Thomas Girtin, a landscape painter who was a contemporary and friend of Turner.

The paintings of Titian, one of Turner's greatest influences.

The works of Claude Monet, who adopted Turner's use of vivid color in his own landscape paintings.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Bailey, Anthony, Standing in the Sun: A Life of J. M. W. Turner, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1997.

Butlin, Martin, and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of Turner, two volumes, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1977.

Hardy, William, Turner, Chartwell Books (New York, NY), 1988.

International Dictionary of Art and Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1990.

Kenner, Robert, J. M. W. Turner, Abrams (New York, NY), 1995.

Lindsay, Jack, J. M. W. Turner: His Life and Work, a Critical Biography, New York Graphic Society (New York, NY), 1966.

Lindsay, Jack, Turner: The Man and His Art, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1985.

Stainton, Lindsay, Turner's Venice, Braziller (New York, NY), 1985.

Wilkinson, Gerald, Turner on Landscape: The Liber Studiorum, Barrie and Jenkins (London, England), 1982.

Wilton, Andrew, J. M. W. Turner: His Art and Life, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 1979. Wilton, Andrew, Turner in His Time, Abrams (New York, NY), 1987.


Ellen's Place,http://www.ellensplace.net/ (March 29, 2004), biography of Turner, with reproductions of his paintings.

Turner Society,http://www.turnersociety.org.uk/ (March 29, 2004).*

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