J.M.W. Turner

"He is the only painter who has ever represented the surface of calm, or the force of agitated water; who has represented the effects of space on distant objects, or who has rendered the abstract beauty of natural colour".

– John Ruskin (1848)

The best-loved English Romantic artist known as “the painter of light,” Joseph Mallord William Turner’s extensive body of work ranges from local topography to atmospheric storms and includes watercolours, oils and engravings. He was inspired by seventeenth century Dutch marine painting, especially Willem van der Velde, and by the Italianate landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Richard Wilson. Despite an early success, the influence of Turner’s atmospheric technique would have its greatest impact later on in the nineteenth century.

The son of a London barber and wigmaker, Turner showed early signs of talent. Turner’s first known watercolour was painted when he was twelve.  By his late teens he was a master of the then traditional style and technique of topographical drawing and watercolour. Entering the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 14, Turner first exhibited his watercolours the following year and his oil paintings six years later. He sought additional training outside the Academy and, working as a colourist and copyist with Thomas Girtin, he copied drawings by John Robert Cozens, a renowned figure in early English watercolour. By age 27 he was elected full Academician of the Royal Academy. That same year the Treaty of Amiens brought a temporary peace between warring England and France, permitting Turner to carry out the first of several trips abroad. During five decades, he filled hundreds of sketchbooks with his visual records of England, Scotland, Wales, Belgium, France, Holland, Italy, the Rhineland, Switzerland and elsewhere.

Watercolour was the first medium in which Turner made his reputation. At 21, his first exhibited paintings were of English monuments and landscapes such as Christ Church, Oxford, from near Carfax and Hilly Landscape with a Large Tree. He continued to practice watercolour throughout his life and was considered the greatest watercolourist of his time.  In search of topographical material in the late seventeen nineties, Turner discovered the sea which left a deep and lasting impression on him.  Out on the water, he would sketch rapidly recording the sensations of traveling over the ocean to later work up in oils in the studio. Shoeburyness Fishermen Hailing a Whitstable Hoy is an example of this practice. He was happy with bad weather: wind and waves causing convulsions of the sea that were expressive of his spirit. After Turner’s first visit to Italy (1819) a shift occurred in his style – not only in his chromatic scales and the increasingly intense effects of light, but also in the freedom of his technique. When Turner exhibited Mercury and Argus in 1836, the reviews were unanimously hostile. However, the art critic John Ruskin, championed Turner’s work.  Ruskin repeatedly praised Mercury and Argus in his treatise on art, Modern Painters (1840), asserting the painting’s “truth to nature.” In his later life, Turner would send unfinished canvases to the Academy exhibitions and complete them on “Varnishing Days” – performances that became legendary. At his death at the age of 76, Turner bequeathed some 300 paintings and 20,000 drawings and watercolour sketches to the British Nation. He joins notable Britons buried in Saint Paul’s Cathedral

Photo Credit : Clore Collection, Tate Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY