J. M. W. Turner is one of Britain’s favourite artists, known for his tranquil watercolours of rural life as much as his more vivid oil paintings of seascapes and industrial landscapes. Turner lived through a period of immense change: born in 1775, in his adult life he saw revolution, war, industrialisation, urbanisation, the abolition of slavery and imperial expansion.
The world had changed dramatically by the time he died in 1851, and his paintings chart and reflect the world as it evolved around him. Unafraid of making political comments, Turner’s work explores current affairs as well as being visually pleasing.
The Napoleonic Wars proved both bloody and all consuming. The new French government declared war on Britain in 1793, and Britain and France remained at war with each other almost solidly until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
War was often depicted as something glorious and noble, and indeed Turner often painted scenes suggesting just this, but as the wars dragged on and the casualties mounted, his work became more nuanced.
His watercolour of ‘The Field of Waterloo’ primarily depicts a heap of bodies, men slaughtered in the field, their sides only distinguishable by their uniforms and ciphers. Far from being a glorification, the tangled corpses remind the viewer of high price paid in war by the ordinary man.
Turner was also interested in the Greek War of Independence. There was widespread support for the Greek cause in Britain at the time, and large sums were donated to the freedom fighters. Beyond personal interest, Turner also completed several commissions for Lord Byron – a champion of Greek independence who died in its name.
Many associate Turner’s work with idyllic pastoral scenes: rolling countryside, gorgeous Mediterranean light and small farmers. In fact, a large body of his painting was devoted to ‘modern’ inventions – trains, mills, factories and canals to name but a few. Often his works juxtapose the new and old, placing them side by side.
The late 18th and early 19th centuries were a time of huge economic and social change in Britain and abroad. Historians consider the Industrial Revolution to be one of the biggest events in the history of humankind, and its impacts were enormous.
However, rapid change and technological advancement was not welcomed by all. Urban centres became increasingly crowded and polluted, and there was a movement towards rural nostalgia.
The Fighting Temeraire, one of Turner’s best known works, depicts the HMS Temeraire, a ship which saw action in the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed up the Thames to be broken up for scrap. Voted one of the nation’s favourite paintings time and time again, not only is it beautiful, it has a kind of poignancy as it seems to mark the end of an era.
Turner was primarily a Romantic painter, and much of his work features the idea of the ‘sublime’ – the overwhelming, awe inspiring power of nature. His use of colour and light serve to ‘wow’ the viewer, reminding them of their powerlessness in the face of much greater forces.
The concept of the sublime is one closely associated with Romanticism, and later the Gothic – a reaction to the urbanisation and industrialisation consuming the lives of many.
Turner’s version of the sublime often includes stormy seas or extremely dramatic skies. The sunsets and skies he painted were not just a figment of his imagination: they were probably a result of the 1815 eruption of the volcano Tambora in Indonesia.
Chemicals emitted during the eruption would have caused vivid reds and oranges in the sky in Europe for years after the event: the same phenomenon occurred after Krakatoa in 1881, for example.
Abolition was one of the major political movements in Britain at the start of the 19th century. Much of Britain’s wealth had been built on the slave trade, directly or indirectly.
Atrocities such as the Zong Massacre (1787), where 133 slaves were tossed overboard, alive, so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance money, helped turn the opinion of some, but it was primarily economic reasons that the British government finally brought the slave trade to an end within their colonies in 1833.
Turner’s The Slave Ship was painted several years after abolition in Britain: a call to arms, and a poignant reminder to the rest of the world that they too should outlaw slavery. The painting is based on the Zong Massacre, showing bodies being thrown overboard: contemporaries would not have missed the reference.
The addition of dramatic skies and a typhoon in the background heighten the sense of tension and emotional impact on the viewer.
Changing times these most certainly were, and Turner’s work is far from impartial. His paintings make tacit comments on the world as he saw it, and today they provide an fascinating insight into a rapidly shifting society.