A Luminary of British Romanticism: Who Was J. M. W. Turner?

Alice Roberts

5 mins

24 Oct 2019

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born on Maiden Lane in Covent Garden in 1775. His father, William Turner, was a barber and wig-maker.

Throughout his life he would remain true to these roots – unlike many other artists who bent to societal refinement, Turner retainined a thick cockney accent even at the pinnacle of his professional career .

A capacity for artistic skill was evident at an early age. At 14, in December 1789, he entered the Royal Academy Schools, where he began drawing casts of ancient sculptures in the Plaister Academy.

He was accepted to the Academy by Sir Joshua Reynolds the following year, where he progressed to life classes and work experience with architects and architectural draughtsmen.

Turner’s self-portrait from around 1799.

Unlike young men of culture before him, Turner was unable to travel on a Grand Tour of Europe due to the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars – although he did visit Italy later in his life.

Not to be disheartened, he toured the Midlands in 1794, the North in 1797, Wales on several occasions and Scotland in 1801. This exploration of the British Isles is sure to have contributed to his deviation from the styles of Old Masters, who were heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance.

Recognition at the Royal Academy

He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790, and initial commissions were architectural and topographical watercolours – views of Salisbury, the estate at Stourhead and Fonthill Castle. However, he soon explored themes in history, literature and myth.

A study from 1793 of Royal Academicians discussing the work of the students.

His work was received with great acclaim and he was soon labelled a prodigy. It was no surprise when he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1799 and Academician in 1802, at which time he moved to a smarter address at 64 Harley Street.

In 1808 he was appointed as Professor of Perspective, meaning he added ‘P.P.’ to the ‘R.A.’ after his signature.

Whilst teaching at the Academy, Turner produced a prolific amount of work. At his death he left behind more than 550 oil paintings and 2,000 watercolours.

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A pioneer of Romanticism

A key figure in Romanticism, alongside artists like John Constable, Turner chose to unearth the extreme drama in natural scenes.

Nature, once considered pastoral and benign, could be seen as beautiful, powerful, unpredictable or destructive. His imagination was sparked by shipwrecks, fires and wild natural phenomena such as sunlight, rain, storm and fog.

He was celebrated by the art critic John Ruskin who described his ability to:

‘stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature’

‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’ was painted in 1812. It depicts the vulnerability of Hannibal’s soldiers who sought to cross the Maritime Alps in 218 BC.

As well as a curving black storm cloud filling the sky, a white avalanche crashes down the mountain. In the foreground Salassian tribesmen attack Hannibal’s rear-guard.

‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’

He painted many events of his own time, including the burning of Parliament in 1834, which he witnessed first-hand.

Turner watched the fire of 1834 and painted several scenes, including ‘The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons’ (1835).

‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up’ was painted in 1838. The 98-gun HMS Temeraire played a decisive role at the Battle of Trafalgar. Here, the hero of a glorious epoch of the Royal Navy is sombrely towed by a paddle-wheel steam tug towards south-east London, to be broken up for scrap.

The old ship maintains a stately splendour, her ghostly colouring contrasting to the blackened tugboat and smokestack – the symbol of the new age of industrialism.

‘The Fighting Temeraire’ is hung in The National Gallery.

In 1781, the captain of a slave ship ‘Zong’ had ordered 133 slaves to be thrown overboard in order to collect insurance payments. Turner depicted this in ‘The Slave Ship’.

It was an event which shocked the British public, and propelled campaigns for abolition. Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, it remained legal in other parts of the world, and was still a topic of debate at the time of Turner’s painting in 1840.

This painting was officially captioned ‘Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon coming on’.

Turner wrote a poem to accompany the work

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?

Ruskin, the first owner of ‘The Slave Ship’, wrote about the work:

‘If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this’

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In 1844, Turner’s interest in industry and technology drew him towards the steam revolution championed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

In ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway’, a steam engine hurtles towards us as it crosses the Maidenhead Railway Bridge, completed in 1838. The two arches of the bridge were the widest and flattest ever built anywhere in the world at the time.

The Board of the GWR were so sure the bridge might collapse that they insisted the scaffolding was kept up, even once it was completed. Brunel duly obeyed, but secretly lowered the scaffolding so it washed away at the next flood, and proved the strength of his design.

‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ captured the thrill of Brunel’s engineering.

Turner took great interest in these events. Like many Victorians, he was thrilled by the potential of modern technology. In his painting, the speed of the locomotive bursting through the rain is accentuated by visual trickery, as the viaduct has exaggeratedly abrupt foreshortening.

Turner’s intensity of light placed him in the vanguard of English painting, and had a profound effect on French Impressionists – Monet carefully studied his work. However, it had not always been appreciated.

In earlier years, The Royal Academy President, Benjamin West, denounced it as ‘crude blotches’, and he was tarnished as a ‘white painter’ because of the use of luminous, pale tones.

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A troubled artist

Throughout his life, Turner was an introspective and troubled character. As a young adult he was briefly admitted to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunaticks in Old Street in 1799 and then Bethlem Hospital in 1800.

At the Royal Academy, he seemed to be a mixed blessing, as he was often reported to be pushy and aggressively rude. Joseph Farrington, who supported Turner’s election as an Academician, described him as ‘confident, presumptuous – with talent’, but later regarded him to be troubled by ‘puzzled incomprehension’.

A portrait of Turner in 1840.

As he grew older, he became increasingly reclusive, eccentric and pessimistic – and his art grew wilder and more intense. His father’s death provoked bouts of depression and poor health, and his gallery fell into disrepair.

He never married, although he bore two daughters by his housekeeper: Eveline and Georgiana.

He died of cholera in 1851 and is buried near Sir Joshua Reynolds in St Paul’s Cathedral.