Falls of Schaffhausen (Val d'Aosta)
J. M. W. Turner

J. M. W. Turner

1775 - 1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner, known in his time as William Turner, was an English Romantic painter, printmaker and watercolourist. He is known for his expressive colouring, imaginative landscapes and turbulent, often violent marine paintings. He left behind more than 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, and 30,000 works on paper. He was championed by the leading English art critic John Ruskin from 1840, and is today regarded as having elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivalling history painting.

Turner was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, to a modest lower-middle-class family and retained his lower class accent, while assiduously avoiding the trappings of success and fame. A child prodigy, Turner studied at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1789, enrolling when he was 14, and exhibited his first work there at 15. During this period, he also served as an architectural draftsman. He earned a steady income from commissions and sales, which he often only begrudgingly accepted owing to his troubled and contrary nature. He opened his own gallery in 1804 and became professor of perspective at the academy in 1807, where he lectured until 1828. He travelled around Europe from 1802, typically returning with voluminous sketchbooks.

Intensely private, eccentric, and reclusive, Turner was a controversial figure throughout his career. He did not marry, but fathered two daughters, Evelina (1801-1874) and Georgiana (1811-1843), by his housekeeper Sarah Danby. He became more pessimistic and morose as he got older, especially after the death of his father in 1829; when his outlook deteriorated, his gallery fell into disrepair and neglect, and his art intensified. In 1841, Turner rowed a boat into the Thames so he could not be counted as present at any property in that year's census. He lived in squalor and poor health from 1845, and died in London in 1851 aged 76. Turner is buried in St Paul's Cathedral, London.

Turner entered the Royal Academy of Art in 1789, aged 14, and was accepted into the academy a year later by Sir Joshua Reynolds. He showed an early interest in architecture but was advised by Hardwick to focus on painting. His first watercolour, A View of the Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth was accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1790 when Turner was 15.

As an academy probationer, Turner was taught drawing from plaster casts of antique sculptures. From July 1790 to October 1793, his name appears in the registry of the academy over a hundred times. In June 1792, 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 while painting in the winter and travelling in the summer widely throughout Britain, particularly to Wales, where he produced a wide range of sketches for working up into studies and watercolours. These particularly focused on architectural work, which used his skills as a draughtsman. In 1793, he showed the watercolour titled The Rising Squall - Hot Wells from St Vincent's Rock Bristol (now lost), which foreshadowed his later climatic effects. The British writer Peter Cunningham, in his obituary of Turner, wrote that it was: "recognised by the wiser few as a noble attempt at lifting landscape art out of the tame insipidities...[and] evinced for the first time that mastery of effect for which he is now justly celebrated".

In 1796, Turner exhibited Fishermen at Sea, his first oil painting for the academy, of a nocturnal moonlit scene of the Needles off the Isle of Wight, an image of boats in peril. Wilton said that the image was "a summary of all that had been said about the sea by the artists of the 18th century". and shows strong influence by artists such as Claude Joseph Vernet, Philip James de Loutherbourg, Peter Monamy and Francis Swaine, who was admired for his moonlight marine paintings. The image was praised by contemporary critics and founded Turner's reputation as both an oil painter and a painter of maritime scenes.

Turner travelled widely in Europe, starting with France and Switzerland in 1802 and studying in the Louvre in Paris in the same year. He made many visits to Venice. Important support for his work came from Walter Ramsden Fawkes of Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire, who became a close friend of the artist. Turner first visited Otley in 1797, aged 22, when commissioned to paint watercolours of the area. He was so attracted to Otley and the surrounding area that he returned to it throughout his career. The stormy backdrop of Hannibal Crossing The Alps is reputed to have been inspired by a storm over the Chevin in Otley while he was staying at Farnley Hall.

Turner was a frequent guest of George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, at Petworth House in West Sussex, and painted scenes that Egremont funded taken from the grounds of the house and of the Sussex countryside, including a view of the Chichester Canal. Petworth House still displays a number of paintings.

Text courtesy of Wikipedia, 2024