The Art of Joseph Mallard William Turner


‘Self Portrait’ about 1799. Tate Gallery, London.

Joseph Mallard William Turner (1775-1851), who was one of the most original landscape painters was born and died in London. He was a painter in oils and watercolour – mainly of landscape and seascape, as well as historical subjects. The sin of a barber he was taught by Thomas Malton but his precocious talent took him to the Royal Academy Schools in 1789. There he made contact with Mr Monroe’s circle which led to the influence of Cozens, Wilson, and Girtin. Turner’s work thus gained greatly in imagination and technical expertise. The death of Girtin in 1820 left Turner the master of architectural and topographical painting but his interests had already broadened.

Admitted to Royal Academy Schools in 1789 aged 14 he started his career painting watercolours, producing mezzotints, and under the influence of Cozens. In 1796 he launched into oil paints and worked in the neoclassical manner of Richard Wilson and Nicolas Poussin with results which found acclaim. A prolific painter Turner travelled extensively in England, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as to France, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Germany. In 1802 he made studies in The Louvre and showed the influence of the Dutch marine artists and the venetian painters. He journeyed to Switzerland via Lyon, returning through Schaffhausen and Strasbourg. This resulted in 400 sketches many of which were later worked up into pictures.  In 1802 he visited Paris and studies Old Masters in The Louvre, especially Dutch landscapes and Claude Lorrain’s compositions. This was the culmination of earlier sketching tours to North Wales, Yorkshire, and Scotland. His tours produced drawings of picturesque views and architectural subjects. After 1802 he produced large numbers of historical works. The influence of Claude Lorrain is seen n several idyllic landscapes including Dido Building Carthage (1815), see Figure 1.


Figure 1.  Dido Building Carthage (1815).

Initially Turner painted only in watercolour but in 1796 he exhibited his first oil painting at the Royal Academy, the Fisherman at Sea, now in The Tate Gallery, see Figure 2. This work shows his admiration for 17th century Dutch maritime painting. By 1799 he was the youngest elected associate of the Royal Academy and his career flourished in terms of


Figure 2Fisherman at Sea (1796).

money and prestige. However, the Dutch influence soon gave way to that of Claude and Wilson. The early 1800’s saw him as recognised introducing a new and revolutionary approach to landscape. His painting became increasingly Romantic in its dramatic subject-matter and sense of movement. This is seen in his powerful The Shipwreck (1805), see Figure 3. During these years he continued to exhibit pictures in the conventional manner, still working for engravers.


Figure 3.  The Shipwreck (1805).

In 1804 he had his first private showing in his own house. During this period there is an increasing concentration on the atmospheric effects of light – his original style thus began to evolve. his process culminated during trips to Italy in 1819 and 1829. Like the works of Constable the pictures of Turner are seemingly effortless watercolours and oil sketches based on impressions of nature, for example, a series of landscapes painted from a boat on the Thames in 1807. However, his perception of the world differed vastly from Constable. The pictures of Turner “…transcend ordinary appearances, conveying a visionary sense of the forces at work in the universe.” (Wolf, 1999).

Between 1810 and 1835 is known as his middle period when he produced many large-scale works for rich aristocratic patrons. He also did engravings for books including Liber Studiorum (1807-1819), a series of landscapes intended to rival Claude’s Liber Veriatis. In 1819 he visited Italy and from then until 1845 made regular trips abroad – including here more to Italy. Turner was inspired to a great extent by what he saw on his travels – the mountains and lakes of Switzerland, and the haunting beauty of Venice. On journeys he made rapid pencil jottings used as reminders for imaginative compositions. Turner was inspired by history, especially ancient history, nature and literature.

From the 1830’s his painting became increasingly free with detail subordinated to the general effects of colour and light. His late period began in the 1830’s and was thus concerned with the painting of light to which ostensible subject matter was almost secondary. Forms and details were then suggested and painted on previously prepared broad areas of yellows, whites, pinks, reds, cool greys, and blues. The work was often the target by critics – one of his most celebrated pictures, Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour Mouth (1842), see Figure 4, was dismissed as “…soapsuds and whitewash…”.


Figure 4Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour Mouth (1842).

Turner had, however, many admirers. His most important patron was the Third Earl of Egremont (1751-1837) who bought contemporary art on a large scale. Turner also had a studio at Petworth House – Egremont’s house in Sussex. His other champion was the young John Ruskin. Petworth figures in may of Turner’s works, including Interior at Petworth, see Figure 5.


Figure 5Interior at Petworth House (c. 1837).

From 1843 Turner’s brushwork becomes breathtakingly free with some of his compositions almost abstract, forms dissolved in a haze of light. According to Constable he “…seems to paint with tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy. This helped towards the adage that Constable painted clouds whereas Turner painted steam. Turner’s originality lay not only in such handling of colour and light, in which he anticipated Impressionism, but also in his use of the power, beauty, and mystery of nature. He thus used this style to express deep human concerns, for example The Fighting Temeraire (1839) in the National Gallery, see Figure 6, a poignant elegy for a passing era.


Figure 6.  The Fighting Temeraire (1839).

Indeed, Turner’s atmospheric depictions of shipwrecks and national disasters were perhaps inspired by The Battle of Trafalgar by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, Figure 7, who lived in Turner’s neighbourhood. Turner’s own version of The Battle of Trafalgar is shown as Figure 8.


Figure 7.  The Battle of Trafalgar by Philip Loutherbourg

The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory 1806-8 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Figure 8.  The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the Mizzen Shrouds of the Victory (1808-1810).

Turner, by abandoning form or merely adumbrating it, lent colour autonomy and endowed it with a puissance of its own, thus “…reality and fantasy merge…” and “…colour is used to metaphorically evoke the power of natural phenomena.” This achievement was to prove especially influential on 20th century art. Successful by 1801 Turner’s painting of light influenced the Impressionists, especially Monet and Pissarro, who saw his work in London in 1870.

Turner presents us with one of the many paradoxes of English Romantic art. Essentially self-taught but also a fervent supporter of the Royal Academy, but also instinctively drawn to classical antiquity. And yet “…the colouristic basis of his art tended to subvert the neoclassical aesthetic of his day.” (Bindman, 1998). Turner led an essentially solitary, misanthropic and even squalid life, and yet he was ambitious for social recognition and royal patronage. In some ways he was a rough hewn cockney humourist in the tradition of English satirical art. In other ways he “…also brought to English painting its most sustained sense of the tragedy landscape.” (Bindman, 1998). Turner passed his adolescence, the son of a barber, as a humble assistant to print-sellers and architectural draughtsmen. After his Royal Academy studies he quickly established himself in a prominent position in the art life of the capital. He became Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy between 1807 and 1837, but only lectured between 1811 and 1828. After this academic period this period he painted Wreckers Coast of Northumberland (1834), see Figure 9, and now in the Yale University Art Gallery.


Figure 9. Wreckers Coast of Northumberland (1834).

In the late 1820’s, perhaps through the stimulus of his friend Sir John Soane, he conceived a plan to leave the contents of his studio and gallery to the nation, together with the alms-houses for aged landscape artists. Turner was dependent upon the warm sponsorship of private patrons who often profoundly affected the direction his art would take. In 1800 Turner also met Walter Fawkes of Farnley. Fawkes’s interest in radical politics and modern history encouraged Turner to “…interpret ancient civilisations in terms of contemporary events.” (Bindman, 1998). About this time he also met the 3rd Earl of Egremont. Towards the end of his life Turner became a mentor to the young critic Ruskin, and their mutual friend the dealer Thomas Griffith – was to act as intermediary for many later watercolours commissions. Notably the Swiss and Rhineland series of the 1840’s. Ruskin acquired many of these. See Figure 10 for an early example of one of Turner’s Swiss watercolours.


Figure 10The Lake of Thun, Switzerland (1806).

Turner never lacked for patronage. However, from the 1820’s he began to seriously assemble a comprehensive collection of his major works himself. Sometimes buying them up in the sale room, they were for the preservation of his projected Turner Gallery. This applied to oil paintings. Watercolours he took far less seriously. Many of his works bequested to the nation were never finished and these include Yacht Approaching Coast (1840), see Figure 11, and now in the Tate Gallery, London, and also Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845) and also in the Tate Gallery, see Figure 12.


Figure 11.  Yacht Approaching Coast (1840)


Figure 12.  Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845).

Turner’s reputation was, and is, based on his extraordinary capacity to evoke “…the nuances of natural and artificial light…” (Bindman, 1998). Yet, his ambitions led him constantly into the study of history, mythology, and natural philosophy. This astonishing range of themes and his peculiar intensity he brought to the subjects of sublime nature.

Turner’s early mature work had a limited influence on a number of younger painters such as Cotman, Callcott, Stanfiels, Palmer, and Bonnington. His later style had a limited effect in England, despite the vigorous advocacy of Ruskin. It is in France around 1900, that we must look for his successors. Among his later painting is A Fire at Sea (1835), see Figure 13.


Figure 13Fire at Sea (1835).

Later came Rockets and Blue Lights (1840), see Figure 14, and then his Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), see Figure 15.

Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water exhibited 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Figure 14.  Rockets and Blue Lights (1840).


Figure 15.  Rain, Steam and Speed (1844).

Critics were troubled by his technique. His work was even described as abominable. Turner’s almost brutal handling of pigment, much use of palette knife, was condemned as vicious practice, referred to as scribbling of painting. However, his Fall of and Avalanche in the Gisons (1810), see Figure 16, was praised as his “…overwhelming feeling for the senseless violence of nature and the helplessness of man in the face of the chaotic and cataclysmic…” (Honour, 1991).


Figure 16The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons (1810).

In addition his “…the futility of heroism in the face of history as well as nature…” (Honour, 1991), expressed in reference to Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812), see Figure 17. Thus Turner had an early tragic vision of the world. Turner used subtle means to express this vision. He used preternaturally bright and fleeting colours,


Figure 17.  Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812)

used forms which merge and change, or were shrouded in the blackness of despair. Thus Turner’s “…extraordinary and constantly developing technique was an expression of his meaning.” Turner, therefore, abhorred the delicacy of matiere and sweetness of colouring in rococo painting and the deceitfulness of trompe l’oeil.



Filed under History Of Art

2 responses to “The Art of Joseph Mallard William Turner

  1. This is a brilliant collected works by ‘The Painter of Light’ I am so pleased I have links to the old master and he is featured in my family history book called TURNER TREES, if your readers are interested the link is below:

  2. Gordon Emery

    Try Mallord not Mallard, I don’t know if Turner would appreciate being named after a duck

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