At Large  February 23, 2023  Josh Coyne

J.M.W. Turner: Britain's Greatest Maritime Painter

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

J.M.W Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844). Oil on canvas, 91 × 121.8 cm (36 × 48.0 in). National Gallery, London

J.M.W Turner is known for his unique form and prodigious talent; he is known as one of the greatest British painters of all time. 

James Mallord William Turner was born on April 23, 1775, in London to a lower-middle-class family. Raised on Maiden Lane, Turner’s father, William Turner, was a barber and wig-maker. His mother, Mary Marshall, was the daughter of a family of butchers. When Turner was a young boy, his mother began to display signs of mental illness, and soon after she was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. She died five years later. 

From a very young age, it was clear that Turner had a prodigious talent for drawing. In 1786, he went to Margate, Kent for school, where he produced a series of drawings of the town and surrounding area that his father  sold in his store for a couple of shillings apiece. Three years later a young Turner traveled to Oxfordshire to live with his uncle, where he produce a sketchbook of the area as well as a couple of watercolor paintings. Here, Turner developed a process for producing landscapes that he went on to use his entire career, sketching out a foundation in pencil and then painting over it to create a finished product.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

J.M.W Turner, Self Portrait (c. 1798-98), Tate Galley, London

At the age of 14, Turner was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art in London, where his artistic genius was immediately recognized. Just a year later, his first watercolor A View of the Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth (1790) was accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the first of many of his watercolor paintings to be exhibited over the next several years. In 1796, he sent in his first oil painting Fisherman at Sea (1796), a painting that was highly praised and demonstrated his ability to depict maritime scenes

As Turner progressed through his career, his eccentric personality often got him into trouble with his contemporaries as well as veterans of the British art community. He was famously criticized by Benjamin West, president of the Academy, and Sir George Beaumont, a fellow landscape painter in the Academy, who described his expressive style of blending watercolor technique with oil paints as “crude blotches.” Despite these criticisms, he was widely recognized as an artistic prodigy that would define his generation. In 1799, Turner was elected as an associate of the Academy, where he eventually earned the prestigious title of Academician in 1802.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

J.M.W Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, c. 1835, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Fascinated with shipwrecks, fire, and natural phenomena such as sunlight and fog, Turner developed a distinct style that emphasized a bright chromatic palette and ephemeral atmospheric effects. Many of his most notable works employed these painting techniques, for instance, his 1835 work The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, which depicts an event that he actually bore witness to, and The Slave Ship (1840). Both pieces are emblematic of his striking vision. The soft blending of bright colors hauntingly portray the chaos and violence of these scenes, creating a vividly expressive style that separated him from his contemporaries. 

Later in his career, Turner leaned into this distinct style of oil painting more, evoking a sense of pure light pouring out from the canvas itself. One of his most recognizable works Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) gives the impression of great speed and movement in a static picture, the objects in the painting being barely discernible.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

J.M.W Turner, Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon coming on ("The Slave Ship") (1840). Oil on canvas, 91 × 123 cm (36 × 48 in). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Turner’s technique had a considerable influence on later generations of French artists, namely the Impressionist school. Claude Monet himself spent considerable time studying his work. Some even say that Turner’s expressive style could be attributed as a precursor to modern and abstract art.

Turner would even leave a small fortune to help support what he termed “decayed artists”, as well as leaving money to the Royal Academy of Arts to dole out to students awarded the Turner medal for their outstanding work.

About the Author

Josh Coyne

Josh Coyne is a North Carolina native that has lived in Chapel Hill for most of his life. He is a rising junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is planning on double majoring in History and English. Josh wrote for Art & Object as an intern for the Summer of 2021.

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