Heritage - 6: Joseph Mallord William Turner - 'Master of Light and Air, Father of Impressionism'
Auspicious beginnings... Acknowledged early on in his lifetime as a rising star of the art world in Britain
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Born St George's Day, 23rd April 1775 in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden (mediaeval 'Convent Garden' north of The Strand, London WC2), to Mary Marshall, the daughter of a prosperous local butcher. His father was William Turner, barber and wig-maker. A younger sister, Mary Anne, born September, 1778 died aged four.
His earliest foray into the world of art comes around this time in a series of colourings of engraved plates from Henry Boswell's picturesque view of 'The Antiquaries of England and Wales'.
A series of early drawings of Margate and environs in 1786 showed real promise. By this time his father was displaying his work in his own shop window, selling the watercolours for a few shillings each.
Early Turner sketches were architectural studies, exercises in perspective. He began working for various architects such as Thomas Hardwick Jnr and Bonomi the Elder and by late 1789 he studied under the topographical draughtsman Thomas Malton, to whom Turner would later refer as his 'real master'. Turner entered the Royal Academy of Art schools (R A) in 1789 aged 14 years. He was accepted into the academy the year after by a panel chaired by R A president Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Originally Turner's sharp eye was focussed on architecture, but he was encouraged to paint by Thomas Hardwick Jnr. His first watercolour, 'A View of the Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth' was accepted for the Summer Exhibition of 1790, a very workmanlike, technically sound representation of the building, now close to the Albert Embankment much changed since the image was created. When a probationer in the R A he learned drawing from plaster casts of antique sculptures and later he was taught to draw the human form in Life Classes.
He exhibited watercolours annually at the R A, travelled during the summer months and painted in winter-time from his sketch studies. John Robert Cozens took Turner under his wing for a time, when the young artist painted watercolours and produced mezzotints. Travelling widely in Britain, to Wales in particular, he produced a broad range of of sketches and watercolours, often focussing on castles like Conway/Conwy and churches using draughtsman's skills learned from Thomas Malton. A watercolour titled 'The Rising Squall - Hot Wells from St Vincent's rock, Bristol' (since lost) was exhibited in 1793 hinting at skills acquired and used to dramatic effect in catching climatic extremes.
In 1796, 'Fishermen at Sea', a moonlit scene that contrasted a cold moon with the warm glow of the fishermen's lamp was exhibited at the R A.. The picture shows strong influences by artists such as Horace Vernet, praised by contemporary critics and served to build Turner's name both as an oil painter and as a master of maritime scenes.
European travel beginning in France and continuing through a wilder Switzerland in 1802 resulted in high and low vantage point sketches and paintings of central France, the Rhine Valley and the Swiss Alps. The Alpine region at this time had not yet been opened up by the railways and passage between cantons would have been hazardous to say the least. This period of Continental wayfaring was followed up by subsequent travel to Venice. Several of his works took the observer around the city including the Grand Canal with the Cathedral of St Mark at some point in the background. It was in 1819 with the Napoleonic threat well in the past that Turner first arrived in Venice. One of his most memorable images from his travels here was the church of San Giorgio Maggiore (St George the Great) sketched in the early morning one day during his first visit to the city. Almost a complete departure from his study of Lambeth Palace, the picture is moody and recognisable only as a well-known building if you already know it and its location.
Back in Britain, a stormy scene was captured in the harbour of Lyme Regis in Dorset (now at the Cincinatti Art Museum), reminiscent of a scene from the film, 'The French Lieutenant's Woman'. Support came from Walter Ramsden Fawkes (the same family as the infamous Guy, erstwhile of York) of Farnley Hall near Otley in the West Riding of Yorkshire, who became a close friend of the artist. Turner first visited Otley in 1797, having been commissioned for watercolours of the area. He was also drawn to Otley itself and its environs, returning frequently. The stormy background to his painting 'Hannibal Crossing the Alps' is thought to have been inspired by a storm over the Chevin, a rocky promontory behind Otley, whilst staying at Farnley Hall (on the western outskirts of the now burgeoning city of Leeds). During travels around the north, Turner also visited the Derbyshire Dales and the western Yorkshire Dales, a number of paintings and sketches featuring Malham Cove and Gordale Scar in the Craven district near Skipton. He played with the perspective in his paintings of these two landmarks and in front of Gordale Scar placed a very handsome bull. The height of the waterfall at the back of the scar was accentuated and the foreground foreshortened.
George O'Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont at Petworth House in West Sussex also played host to Turner, who painted views around the house, the Sussex countryside and coast. Petworth House still has several of his paintings on display. There was a controversy of the identity of a painting made from sketches along the coast, taking in a pair of lighthouses on a cliff. An art critic 'disowned' the painting as being by Turner, and changed his opinion in the light of scientific research analysing the paint used by the artist on a well-known picture acknowledged as being by Turner, and comparing it with pigment from the disputed picture.
Turner had few close friends in old age, aside from his father who lived with him and who later helped in his studio. William turner's death in 1829 affected him deeply, leading to depression. Never having married, he had a long-term relationship with widow Sarah Danby by whom he had two daughters. He died, however, in the house of a mistress, Sophia Caroline Booth in riverside Chelsea a week before Christmas, 1851. By his own request he was interred at St Paul's Cathedral, London, close to Sir Joshua Reynolds. Philip Hardwick, son of Thomas made arrangements for his funeral. Other executors were cousin Henry Harpur IV, Rev. Henry Scott-Trimmer, George jones, R A and Charles Turner, R A.
Queen Victoria considered Turner uncouth, she said of him that he was 'quite mad'. He was a Cockney (born within the sound of the bells at St Mary le Bow, Cheapside) who spoke his mind (my wife's like that as well, also a Cockney), He did not fit into the accepted role of the artist of the time, usually effete and affected with a roving eye - although he did have a long-term relationship as well as a mistress, as I have already pointed out. Society saw him as a misfit, albeit a successful misfit, shocking, controversial. Yet despite the low opinion society had of him, as we know he had influential connections and had been seen by sir Joshua Reynolds as a promising artist who fulfilled his potential. He was not a wastrel, and his hard-working lifetyle endeared him to a creative elite. Turner was a visionary, the father of modern painting who left a vast treasure of art work to a nation that possibly did not deserve its heritage.
Turner's style was, fortunately for him, acknowledged early in his lifetime. A great degree of financial independence allowed him the freedom of travel many artists craved and never enjoyed. Ruskin told of Turner as being the artist who could most stirringly and genuinely gauge nature's moods. His themes ranged from shipwrecks, fires (he hastened to sketch the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834 when they accidentally caught fire), natural disasters and phenomena. He was much taken by the awesome power of the sea as seen in 'Dawn After the Wreck' (1840) and 'The Slave Ship' (also 1840) showing the effect of the full fury of waves churned up by the wind onto rocks close under the surface.
Turner's noted venture in printmaking was his 'Liber Studiorum' (Book of Studies), a set of seventy prints the artist worked on from 1806-19. Printmaking became a large part of his output. The Turner Museum in Sarasota, Fa, founded in 1974 by Douglas Montrose-Graem to house his collection of Turner prints shows a fair cross-section of his work during this decade.
Turner set people in many of his paintings, to show perhaps firstly his feelings for his fellow man and secondly the scale of man against nature. The vulnerability of people set against the grandeur of nature was a theme portrayed as much in poetry as much as in late 18th-early 19th Century art and Turner used light and dark to show 'The power of God' as he saw it.
Early works such as 'Tintern Abbey' (1795) stayed true to English landscape painting in the Constable tradition. He was a latter-day Rembrandt, who used light and a linear fluency to create atmospheric effects. There is a story that Turner had himself tied to the mast of a ship to experience the drama of the elements during a sea storm.
In later life his use of oil paints mixed with non-paint media gave the effect of light brilliance and of glowing colour.He was historically linked with railway painting in the late Regency and early Victorian era A fair example of this time in his later career is 'Rain, Steam and Speed - the Great Western Railway', in which there are no finite shapes. The painting shows movement, a locomotive of Brunel's railway hauling an early train, hurtling over a viaduct in a cloud of smoke blown all about in a strong wind. To recognise this as a railway picture takes a certain amount of knowledge and insight... and a viewing position some feet away from the painting itself.
His work influenced not only English painters but also showed in the work of the Impressionists such as Claude Monet, who created his own version of light, air and movement. High levels of ash in the atmosphere from the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora in 1816 brought about what was regarded in North America and Europe as the 'Year Without Summer'. The visual effects created by this natural phenomenon were recorded by Turner amongst others. Spectacular sunsets and amazing colours for artists brought about by abnormal weather conditions, a disaster for everyone else.
On one of his tours of Europe in around 1820 Turner met Robert James Graves. Travelling by carriage in the Alps, a man who looked for all the world like a master mariner climbed in, sat beside him, took a notebook from one pocket and began furiously noting the shapes of clouds as they travelled. Graves wondered if he had been beset by a madman. Thus Graves met Turner, who for days might do nothing, then would suddenly seize his colours and set down effects he had been waiting for to set down in his sketchbook.
The first American to buy a Turner painting was James Lenox of New York City. A private collector, Lenox wished to own a Turner and in 1845 bought unseen for £500 an 1832 seascape 'Staffa, Fingal's Cave'. Worried Lenox would not appreciate the picture the agent C R Leslie wrote that the image would become apparent within a short time. Lenox was taken aback by the painting's 'indistinctiveness', thus Leslie had to relay Lenox's disappointment and poor opinion. Turner answered, 'you should tell Mr Lenox that indistinctiveness is my forte'. The painting is now owned by the Yale Center for British Art and shows a paddle steamer struggling against the elements of a turbulent Irish Sea off the Isle of Mull. You need to stand away from it, looking at the picture for some time before you see it, thereafter your eyes cannot do but go straight to it (it works like one of those colour eye tests, except the image is made up of strokes of colour, not dots).
Turner's supporters included Thomas Lawrence, John Ruskin and the Earl of Egremont, who had a large collection of his paintings at Petworth in Sussex - now owned by the National Trust.
Turner left a tidy sum he hoped would be of use to help struggling artists. He planned and designed an almshouse for them at Twickenham, complete with a gallery for some of his own work to be displayed (perhaps as inspiration after his passing).. The will was contested and in 1856, after a bitter court battle part of his fortune was awarded to his first cousins including Thomas Price Turner. Another part went to the R A, which regularly awards the Turner Medal to promising art students. His collection of completed paintings was left to the nation, and he had meant a special gallery to be built to house them but this did not come about owing to the tight-fistedness of successive governments (perfidious Albion struck again). Over two decades after his death the government of the day passed an Act allowing his work to be loaned out to galleries outside London and his paintings were scattered to the four winds, so to speak. In 1910 the main part of the Turner Bequest work was rehoused in the Duveen Turner Wing of the Tate Gallery (the gallery was established in 1897 as the National Gallery of British Art, renamed after the sugar refiner Henry Tate who had laid the foundation of the collection). In 1987 a new wing of the Tate was opened just to show Turner's work, the Clore Gallery, funded by Sir Charles Clore. The Turner content was reduced in the Clore Gallery in 2000. By 2012 only two of the nine rooms on the main floor were dedicated to Turner's work. The claim that the Tate fulfilled Turner's wishes was dropped in 1995 when the Charities Commission admitted that the Turner Bequest had been freed of Turner's conditions. The Turner Society was founded by Selby Whittingham in London and Manchester in 1975. After the dispute with the Clore Gallery Whittingham resigned and founded the Independent Turner Society.
A prestigious yearly award, The Turner Prize was created in 1984. Twenty years later the art supplies firm Winsor & Newton created the Newton Turner Watercolour Award.
On 7th July, 2010 Turner's last painting of Rome, 'Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino' (cattle, or bull field) of 1839 was bought by the J Paul Getty Museum at a Sotheby's auction for a cool $44.9 Million.
In January 2011 'The Painter', a biographical play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz premiered at the Arcola Theatre's new premises in Ashwin Street, London.E8 (Hackney is not the usual location for a theatre, but there are other successful theatres in the borough, like the Hackney Empire)
Famous works...Broadening his range from architectural, through maritime and seascape to the early days of rail transport
A change of style manifests itself over the years, from watercolour and line drawing to daubed oils
Turner didn't restrict himself to painting what he saw, he painted how he saw. His range covered landscapes and seascapes, commissons taking up much of his work. He sketched profusely and he exploited the techniques he learned. He was the 'father' of Impressionism
A new film, a biopic of JMWT, premiered for the Palme d'Or this year (2014) at Cannes.
Titled 'Mister Turner', it stars a fine character actor, Timothy Spall in the title role. Timothy Spall has featured more often in films recently, launched originally on the small screen in the series 'Auf Wiedersehen Pet' alongside Kevin Whately (now 'Lewis', previously with John Thaw in 'Morse') and a small company of actors who have since have featured elsewhere: Tim Healey, Christopher Fairbank, Pat Roach, Gary Holton, Jimmy Nail and Noel Clarke).
Tim has since featured in several TV films and series such as in Dickens' 'Our Mutual Friend', 'Frank Stubbs Promotes', 'The Street' and 'Outside Edge', as well as feature films 'The Damned United' and 'Sweeney Todd'
The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, SE
Tate Gallery, Millbank, SW1
The Tate Gallery, shown in the location diagram below as 'Tate Britain' was opened as a bequest to the nation by the sugar magnate Henry Tate. There are rooms here, the Clore Gallery, given over to the Turner Bequest although there are paintings in the National Gallery and the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich - see above..
A fitting backdrop...
© 2012 Alan R Lancaster