History JMW Turner

Great Artists: J. M. W. Turner – Britain’s ‘Painter of Light’ Who Chronicled a Changing Nation

J. M. W. Turner was a prolific and brilliant artist often called the ‘painter of light’, who revolutionized landscape painting and set the stage for Impressionism and the development of abstract art. He became very wealthy from his work and increasingly eccentric. He never married but had two daughters from one lover and lived for many years with another woman.

Key Facts about Turner

  • Born 1775, died 1851
  • A prolific artist, leaving 550 oils and 2,000 watercolours
  • Became wealthy because or in spite of creating revolutionary art
  • Considered Britain’s greatest artist
  • Presaged the Impressionists and even abstract art

A Short Biography of Turner

Fisherman At Sea

There is a strong belief that revolutionary artists are ‘outsiders’, battling the Establishment and dying in poverty, only to have their work finally appreciated by future generations. So the life of Joseph Mallord William Turner may seem a little abnormal since he was revolutionary and generations ahead of his times, while a favourite of the Establishment, enjoying the patronage of the rich and accumulating a large personal fortune.

Turner was probably born the 23rd of April, 1775, he always claimed so but there are no official records until his baptism on the 14th of May. His father was a wigmaker and barber in the modern sense – the traditional right to also be a doctor had been lost to barbers in 1745 in the UK. His mother came from a family of butchers. His only sibling died in infancy, leaving the young Joseph an only child. His mother suffered from mental illness, so Turner was sent to live with the family of an uncle, in Brentford, a small town west of London, and from there to Margate, in coastal Kent. His uncle then moved to Sunningwell, just south of Oxford.

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway
Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway

As a child, he was already drawing and painting and his father was proudly selling his work in his shop. His works from this time were primarily drawings of buildings and his father took him to Thomas Malton the younger, an eminent architectural draftsman, to learn perspective. Turner always referred to Malton as his “real master”. He was also taught and encouraged by Dr Thomas Monro, the head doctor of Bethlem Royal Hospital (‘Bedlam’) and also a gifted amateur water-colourist and pupil of the landscape painter John Laporte. Monro supported several artists in his ‘Monro circle’, who gathered at his home every Tuesday evening. Turner’s mother was to later become of a resident of Bedlam.

When he was 14 he went to study at the Royal Academy of Art and a year later he was accepted as a probationary member. He studied in the manner of the time by drawing first from plaster casts of famous pieces of sculpture and then from life-models. He continued to work for architects and was interested in continuing in architecture. The eminent architect Thomas Hardwick was an early employer and it was Hardwick who advised him to focus on painting and made the point by purchasing some of his early works.

The Fighting Téméraire
The Fighting Téméraire

In 1790, still only 15, Turner had his first piece exhibited – a watercolor at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, an event that continues today. During his student years he developed a working pattern that would continue for his life. In summer he would travel, chiefly on foot and at that time mostly to Wales, doing pencil sketches for works he would then do in the studio during the winter. His watercolor The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent’s Rock, Bristol, from 1793, shows the first inkling of the dramatic use of light that was to characterize his future work. His early work caused a sensation and by the age of 26 he was elected a full member of the Royal Academy.

He travelled in Europe, painting and received patronage, which generally consisted of a combination of commissions and status as a semi-permanent house-guest, from wealthy families across the country. His work sold well and he became wealthy enough to purchase several homes, his chief one on Harley Street in London, with a special top-floor studio added and another for his mistress, Sophia Caroline Booth, on Chenye Walk, Chelsea. He had met the widow Sophia in 1820 while staying at her boarding house in Margate, Kent.

The Battle of Trafalgar

Turner had few friends or intimates and his only other relationship besides Sophia had been an earlier one with Hannah Danby, his housekeeper and the daughter of a widow called Sarah Danby, who was for many years assumed to be the mother of Turner’s two daughters. It seems more likely that the children, born in 1801 and 1811, were in fact Hannah’s.

As he became older he became more depressed, eccentric and isolated, living mostly at Sophia’s house in Chelsea, where he died on the 19th of December, 1851.

His Legacy

From an early time Turner had fallen under the philosophical influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder of the Royal Academy. Reynolds taught that art was akin to poetry and should attempt to transcend form and capture the essence of things, in the tradition of Plato’s Theory of Forms as revived during the Renaissance. Turner’s concentration on light at the expense of form was not simply abstraction but an attempt to capture on canvas the metaphysical, supported by his dying words that “the Sun is God”. He freely altered scenes to capture the essence of his vision and many of his pictures have little resemblance to the places they are named after.

His work presaged the Impressionists by decades and he is still today considered to be the greatest British artist ever. The important art prize – the Turner Prize, has been organized by the Tate Gallery since 1984.

Sites to Visit

There is a plaque at his birthplace, 21 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden.

His house on 64 Harley Street was destroyed during the Blitz, but Sophia’s house and the place of his death, now 118 and 119, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, can still be seen.

Statues of Turner can be seen at St Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Further Research

Biographies of J.M.W. Turner include:

  • Standing in the Sun: A Life of J.M.W. Turner, by Anthony Bailey (2014)
  • Turner in His Time, Revised and Updated Edition, by Andrew Wilton 2007
  • J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free, by David Blayney Brown and Amy Concannon 2014
  • J.M.W. Turner: A Biography, by Howard Brinkley (2014)

There was a biographic play, The Painter, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, performed in London in 2011.

There is a film, Mr. Turner, released in 2014, depicting his later life.

When Turner died he left his works to the Nation, to be displayed in one place, but that wish was never carried out. Today the bulk of his work is split between the Tate Gallery and the National Gallery, both in London.

Turner works in the US can be seen at the Frick Collection, The New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the National Gallery in Washington and the Yale Centre for British Art.

The vast majority of his works can also be seen on-line in high-definition images.

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