Turner

The English Artist who made an Impression

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was one of the finest landscape artists whose work was exhibited from his being a teenager until the year before his death, and who devoted his life to art. Unlike many artists of his era, he had a long and successful career.

Joseph Turner was born in Covent Garden, London on April 23rd, 1775. His father was a barber and wig maker; his mother died when he was 29. It was his father who taught him to read, and except for his study of art, Turner received little formal education. By the age of 13 he was sketching at home and exhibiting his work in his father's shop window for sale. 

Turner was 15 years old when one of his paintings was exhibited at the Royal Academy, a rare honour. By the time he was 18 he had established his own studio and had decided on his future course in life. Before he was 20 print sellers were eagerly buying his drawings for reproduction.

He quickly gained a fine reputation and was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. In 1802, when he was only 27, Turner became a Member. It was also about this time that he started travelling. From this date almost until his death he would spend at least some of each year abroad in Europe painting and sketching. Turner's father took over the work of administering his son's household and business affairs in 1804, a task he continued until his death in 1829 when the artist was 54.

Venice was the inspiration for some of Turner's finest work. Wherever he visited he studied the effects of sea and sky in every kind of weather. With the passing years he developed an individual and characteristic painting style. Instead of merely recording factually what he saw, Turner translated scenes into a light-filled expression of his own romantic feelings. A much repeated quotation form his mature period is, "I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like."

As he grew older Turner became more eccentric. Except for his father, with whom he had lived for 30 years, he formed no close friendships. He never allowed anyone to watch him paint, and he gave up attending Academy meetings. His acquaintances missed him for months at a time. Turner continued to travel but always alone. He still held exhibitions, but he usually refused to part with his paintings. When he was eventually persuaded to sell one, he became dejected for days. His last exhibition was in 1850.

During 1851 Turner failed to return to his home. His housekeeper, after a search of many months, found him hiding in Chelsea. It appeared that he had been ill for some time and he died the following day, Dec. 19th, aged 76.

Turner left a large fortune to be used to support future artists without means, a continuing legacy extending down the years to today. He bequeathed his vast collection to his country and at his request was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.

Although known for his oils, Turner is regarded as one of the founders of English water-colour landscape painting. Some of his most famous works are 'Calais Pier', 'Dido Building Carthage', 'Rain, Steam and Speed', 'Burial at Sea', and 'The Grand Canal, Venice'. It has often been remarked that Turner was a trail blazer for the later French Impressionist movement, but it must be remembered that Turner worked within the Art establishment whilst the Impressionists largely sniped at the Art world from without.

 Illustarated painting: Regulus, 1828. Oil on canvas, 91 x 124 cm,
The Tate Gallery, Millbank, London..

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