What You Need to Know about J.M.W. Turner, Britain’s Great Painter of Tempestuous Seas

Ian Shank
Apr 27, 2018 7:15PM

By the time of his death in 1851, Joseph Mallord William Turner had been living under an alias in a Chelsea hovel in London for at least five years. Few knew his whereabouts, not even the housekeeper of his official residence at 47 Queen Anne Street. Local tradesmen knew him as Admiral Booth. The neighborhood street boys simply called him “Puggy.” Nursed in his final days by a mistress 20 years his junior, the ailing Turner went to the grave alone and nearly blind, having subsisted in his last few days on a diet of spoon-fed milk and brandy. Such was the extent of the artist’s isolation that when his passing finally did become public knowledge, Turner’s death and burial certificates listed him, respectively, as 81 and 79 years old. He was, in fact, 76.

Even by the standards of 19th-century London, the circumstances surrounding the man’s final days were peculiar. More so given the fact that Turner was, at the end of his life, Britain’s most accomplished and widely known artist. Even his staunchest critics could not deny the late painter’s enormous legacy. Beyond amassing a personal fortune from six decades of art sales, Turner would leave behind some 300 oil paintings and thousands of watercolors and drawings—a staggering testament to his lifelong compulsion to create. Nearly two centuries later, Turner’s fame has only continued to grow. In a 2005 poll conducted by the BBC, British voters resoundingly selected Turner’s Fighting Temeraire (1839) as the nation’s “greatest painting.” Most recently, in 2016, the Bank of England selected Turner as the first artist to grace the £20 note.

Turner chose to cultivate an eccentric life of obscurity toward the end of his days, but just as he relished solitude, so too would he have cherished these fresh accolades. For Turner, anonymity and acclaim were two sides of the same coin; dual ends to a life driven by the singular, solitary pursuit of artistic greatness. This was true at the end. And it was true at the beginning.

Who was J.M.W. Turner?


“He lived to paint. Nothing else mattered.” So begins Eric Shanes’s 552-page, 6.4-pound magnum opus on Turner’s first 40 years, parsing in seven words the underlying thesis of every chapter that follows. Born the son of a barber and a wig-maker in 1775, Turner received at most five years of conventional schooling before devoting himself entirely to the study of painting. At age 14, he secured admission to the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts, where he quickly established the skills and reputation of a prodigee in oil painting and watercolor. Within months, he was the youngest-ever painter to be featured in the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition. By 24, he was an associate member of the Academy. By 26, he had achieved the institution’s terminal rank of Royal Academician—again the youngest in its history.

These accomplishments were not without their sacrifices. “Things were only of any importance if they assisted his painting,” wrote Shanes. “We need to be aware of this from the very beginning. In what follows it is useless to look for much of a life beyond painting, for it barely existed.” As an artist singularly devoted to his craft, Turner had neither the patience nor the disposition for serious relationships. Though it is widely believed he fathered two illegitimate daughters, Turner referred to his paintings as his “children,” once commenting that he hated married men because “they never make any sacrifice to the arts but are always thinking of their duty to their wives and their families, or some rubbish of that sort.” Turner was no more partial to social gatherings than he was to family. The artist’s childhood acquaintances described him as introverted and “not fond of society.” These observations would remain just as salient throughout Turner’s life, as recalled by one guest who shared a dinner with the 70-year-old artist at the home of the author Charles Dickens. “Wrapped in huge red handkerchief that nothing would induce him to remove,” the observer wryly recorded, “[he] enjoyed himself in a quiet silent way, less perhaps at the speeches than at the changing lights on the river.”

What inspired him?

In the most basic sense, Turner was intensely motivated by the desire to perfect his craft, gripped always by a relentless hunger to secure his place in the pantheon of history’s greatest painters. But he was also driven by voracious curiosity. “He had a huge desire to understand the world,” Franny Moyle, author of The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner, told Artsy. “A huge desire to be the greatest painter of his day.” As a young artist, he was known to endlessly copy and recopy the most striking works he could get his hands on, particularly by the French and Dutch masters. He held himself to rigorous standards of excellence in his effort to emulate their various styles and techniques. Despite his prodigious talents, he could be extremely self-critical. Upon viewing Claude Lorrain’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648) for the first time, it is said that “Turner was awkward, agitated, and burst into tears.” When pressed for the source of his distress, Turner replied, “I shall never be able to paint anything like that picture.”

Then and now, most art critics would likely take issue with Turner’s self-pity, particularly when it came to his rare ability for rendering light, landscapes, and the sea. It is clear that Turner felt a deep reverence for the majesty of the natural world, an admiration that spurred his virtuosic handling of paint. In Turner’s words, “Every look upon nature is a refinement of art,” and the artist was constantly searching for new perspectives. While Turner’s British contemporaries rushed to Paris following the brief cessation of Franco-British hostilities in 1802, Turner made a beeline for a decidedly more rugged continental landmark: the Alps. En route, he scarcely raised a hand from his sketchbooks, drawing from a roiling boat at the port of Calais; a carriage window as he hurtled across the French countryside; and a sunny brothel in Bern, Switzerland. Still, if there was one setting that would forever capture Turner’s imagination, it was the ocean. As he later mused, gazing down upon a print of a surf-tossed vessel by the Dutch master Adriaen van de Velde, “This made me a painter.”

Why does his work matter?

In the latter half of his career, Turner developed a following for the distinctively luminous quality of his work. (He is particularly celebrated for this today.) In the words of Joseph Farington, a longtime leader at the Royal Academy, “Turner has no settled process but drives the colours about till he has expressed the ideas in his mind.” In doing so, Turner was unafraid to pursue the maximum luster and brilliance he could wring from his color palette, sometimes to the detriment of his peers. Hanging his work near Turner’s in 1807, the painter David Wilkie was bluntly appraised as “flung into eclipse by the unmitigated splendour of a neighboring picture.”

Even more radical than Turner’s sensitive color palette was his expressive handling of paint. Though Turner was capable of rendering a scene with exacting detail, his style became increasingly abstract over time, often eschewing definition in favor of radiant expression. At a time when classical values of balance, precision, and verisimilitude still dominated the art establishment, Turner’s insistence on pushing the limits of artistic truth was nothing short of groundbreaking. And as with any innovation, the backlash could be extreme. Bewildered observers often alleged the artist had lost his his mind. “Turner’s pictures always look as if painted by a man who was born without hands,” railed one incensed critic, “[who,] having contrived to tie a brush to the hook at the end of his wooden stump, [has] managed by smudging, bungling, scrawling, twisting, and splashing to convey to others a notion of his conceptions.” One Italian newspaper offered a less verbose but even more scathing indictment, simply depicting the painter, as Moyle describes it, “farting into a trumpet directed at St. Peter’s [Basilica].”

For all of this spirited disdain leveled at his practice, however, Turner is lauded for laying much of the groundwork for the Impressionists, and later, the Abstract Expressionists. During his time in London in the late 1800s, a young Claude Monet would assiduously study and internalize Turner’s craft. The American painter Mark Rothko, upon viewing a Turner exhibition in 1966, sardonically quipped: “This guy Turner, he learned a lot from me.” For both artists, Turner’s genius lay as much in his vision as his willingness to defy expectations. In this, even his detractors were forced to begrudge the artist a measure of respect. “His contemporaries recognized his graft and determination, and also his creative bravery,” Moyle told Artsy. “He was often prepared to make experiments that they were not. He led the way.”

Ian Shank