JMW Turner


Joseph Mallord William TURNER

Outline Biography

Turner was born in London, England, on April 23, 1775. His father was a barber and it was him that taught him to read, because Turner had little formal schooling. Although his education was limited, his study of painting and drawing was extensive. By the age of 13 he was making drawings at home and exhibiting them for sale in his father’s shop. Turner was only 15 years old when his first painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy. By the time he was 18 he had his own studio, by 20 print sellers were desperate to buy his drawings for reproduction.

He was elected a Royal Academician in 1802, when he was only 27 and it was during this period that he began travelling widely in Europe. He visited Venice a number of times and it became the inspiration of some of his finest work, but it was the effects of sea and sky in every kind of weather that really inspired him. Although his early training had been as a topographic draughtsman, as the years went by he developed a painting technique that became uniquely his own. Instead of merely recording factually what he saw, Turner translated scenes into a dramatic light-filled expression of his own romantic feelings.

As he grew older he became increasingly eccentric, he had no close friends and lived with his father for 30 years. He allowed no one to watch while he painted and it was quite common for his acquaintances not to see him for months at a time. Turner travelled widely, but always alone and although he still held exhibitions, he often refused to sell his work and if he was persuaded to sell a painting, he would be dejected for days. In 1850 Turner exhibited for the last time. Shortly afterwards he disappeared, eventually he was found hiding in a house in Chelsea by his house keeper. He died the following day 19 December, 1851, after a long illness.

Turner left a large fortune that he hoped would be used to support what he called “decaying artists.” In his will he bequeathed his own paintings to the state, but it would be many decades before the Clore Gallery was built within the Tate Gallery to house his work. He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

His Legacy

Although known for his oils, Turner is regarded as one of the founders of English watercolour landscape painting. “Turner’s earliest works were watercolours in the eighteenth-century tradition of the topographical ‘tinted drawing’, in which a preliminary pencil outline determined the subsequent placing of the washes of colour. However, after a group of watercolours in which he surpassed all previous works in this style, he evolved, together with Thomas Girtin, a more flexible technique capable of conveying the most subtle impressions and dramatic force”.

His first oils were sombre in colour, but they soon revealed his preoccupation with the contrasting effects of light and atmospheric effects, such as storms and rainbows. His paintings would develop into almost abstract impressions of feelings, emotions and drama and explored ideas that Impressionism, Expressionism and Abstraction would owe a great debt.

Many of Turner’s most striking innovations appeared first in his watercolours, of which an impressive collection is on show at the Tate. In his late unfinished oil paintings the distinctions of medium disappeared, delicate films of oil paint would float transparently over the white ground like washes of watercolour on paper. Turner’s innovations and his dogged determination destroyed the artistic values of the eighteenth-century and paved the way to the dramatic changes in art at the end of the 19th century.

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