Symphonies in landscapes

February 22, 2015

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The fighting ‘Téméraire’ tugged to her last berth to be broken up (1838)
The fighting ‘Téméraire’ tugged to her last berth to be broken up (1838)

London-born Joseph Mallord William Turner was the most multitalented, glorious and controversial landscape painter of the 19th century England. The artist was a man of many talents; a brilliant painter, an astute businessman and, in particular, a genius. He had an extensive career that spanned periods of immense societal change. His early passion was for landscape painting in watercolour, a predominantly English tradition, but Turner’s interest in painting was no straitlaced pastime. He was essentially a proto-Modernist and his art is characteristically English.

He painted what he felt and it is for this reason he has been pronounced as an early Impressionist painter. However, he was independent of the traditional art movements and his unique style of painting earned him the title ‘Painter of light’. Although he had many critics and was always regarded as notorious, nowadays he has been acknowledged as the painter who brought landscape painting into eminence. His interest in brilliant colours as the main constituent in his landscapes and seascapes gave his paintings life and soul. Renowned for his oils, he was also a surpassing figure in the art of watercolour painting.

Turner began his career as a topographical artist, but after seeing the paintings of Claude Lorrain (1600-82) and visiting Italy, he became a painter of light. He embraced Romanticism (an artistic and intellectual movement that originated in the late 18th century stressing strong emotion, imagination and freedom from classical notions of form in art).


Joseph Mallord William Turner was a romantic landscape artist whose paintings captured the power and poetic grandeur of nature


He was christened on May 14, 1775 at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, London. The exact date and record of his birth are less certain but the believed record is April 23, 1775 at Maiden Lane close to the River Thames. From being a child prodigy to influential Royal Academician Turner became a staunch artist who remained passionate about his work.

His parents were William Turner, a wig-maker and barber from Devon and Mary who was from London. Due to his mother’s mental illness, Turner spent some of his early life with his uncle Joseph, a successful butcher. His early drawings were topographical views of London that proved him to be exceedingly proficient at architectural detail and perspective. These brought him to the attention of a number of architects such as Thomas Hardwick who began using his services as a draughtsman. After Turner was apprenticed to Thomas Malton Jr, a leading topographer, he mastered the ‘Malton style’ and referred to Malton as his real master. Later the artist was accepted as a pupil at the Royal Academy Schools in London.

Self-portrait, (1799)
Self-portrait, (1799)

Turner developed his painting style by exploring a number of different approaches. Apart from his architectural studies at Malton’s studio and at the Academy, he was devotedly copying the landscape styles of Gainsborough, Richard Wilson and the Dutch landscape artists. Along with this he was also learning the arts of engraving and etching.

The artist was prosperous from an early age, finding a group of wealthy patrons who bought and commissioned work from him and funded his trips aboard. By the time he was in his early 20s, Turner had established a pattern of work. It was during the summer when he would travel, sketch and seek inspiration and would then return home in the winter to develop his paintings. Ten years after being accepted as a student at the Royal Academy, he was elected to Associate membership at the earliest acceptable age.

The self-portrait appears to date from around 1799 when Turner was about 24 years. It was possibly intended to mark an important moment in his career — his election as an Associate of the Royal Academy. Despite his relative youth, he had already made a name for himself as an original, accomplished painter with the technical abilities of someone more established. He had been described in the newspapers as an artist who ‘seems to thoroughly understand the mode of adjusting and applying his various materials’ and ‘their effect in oil or on paper is equally sublime’. It was Turner’s ambition at the time to mix in important social circles in order to attract patrons.

St Erasmus In Bishop Islips Chapel, Westminster Abbey (1796)
St Erasmus In Bishop Islips Chapel, Westminster Abbey (1796)

Although Turner’s paintings before 1800 were mainly topographical in nature and used watercolours, he had embraced the picturesque aesthetic in his paintings. Later on he mastered this aesthetic and was already experimenting with alternative notions of Romantic painting using oil. In ‘St Erasmus’ in Bishop Islip’s Chapel’ (1796, watercolour and pencil) the Tudor chapel is situated in the apse of Westminster Abbey. In the painting, Turner inscribed his own name on the burial tablet in the floor, an early indication of the awareness of his future celebration as a great Englishman. The light coming in from the south transept adds to the dramatic effect of the scene.

Turner’s exposure to the Italian light (1831-1840) encouraged him to experiment with his palette, creating paintings that appeared strange and even controversial to English sensibilities. He also began to remove the excessive detail of a motif to create many of his most ethereal landscapes. These were highly charged with atmosphere and emotion. The painting ‘Morning after the wreck’ (1835-40, oil on canvas) depicts a group of people who are either victims or wreckers. Turner has also included a ghostly presence of the ship that had foundered.

The most famous of Turner’s paintings ‘The fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up’ (1838, oil on canvas) was unsold at the Royal Academy exhibition and remained in the artist’s possession until he died. Despite her French name, the Temeraire was a British man-o’-war that saw distinguished service at Trafalgar.

In 1840, Turner met the critic John Ruskin. By this time, Turner’s work was out of favour, but Ruskin became his great champion. By the end of his life Turner’s paintings had become almost abstract.

Turner was a fiercely private and often eccentric man. He never married, but he had a long-standing relationship with Mrs Booth, the landlady of the seaside house he often stayed in at Margate. Turner died at his home in Chelsea on December 19, 1851 and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. He bequeathed much of his work to the nation.

The writer acknowledges the contribution of the following for this piece,

www.bbc.co.uk, www.turnersociety.org.uk

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 22nd, 2015

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