Turner – The Painter of Light

Joseph Mallord William Turner was baptized on May 14,1775, but his date of birth is unknown. It is generally believed he was born between late April and early May. Turner himself claimed he was born on April 23, but there is no proof. He was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, in London, England. His father, William Turner (1745–21 September 1829), was a barber and wig maker. His mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. A younger sister, Mary Ann, was born in September 1778 but died in August 1783.

<—Self-Portrait circa 1799

Drawing of St John’s Church, Margate by Turner from around 1786, when he would have been 11 or 12 years old. The ambitious but unsure drawing shows an early struggle with perspective, which can be contrasted with his later work

A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth – this watercolour was Turner’s first to be accepted for the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition in April 1790, the month he turned 15. The image is a technical presentation of Turner’s strong grasp of the elements of perspective with several buildings at sharp angles to each other, demonstrating Turner’s thorough mastery of Thomas Malton’s topographical style.

Fishermen at Sea exhibited in 1796 was the first oil painting exhibited by Turner at the Royal Academy.

Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino

 Bonneville, Savoy (1803)
Dallas Museum of Art

In 1785, due to his mother showing signs of the mental disturbance for which she was admitted first to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in Old Street in 1799 and then Bethlem Hospital in 1800, where she died in 1804, the young Turner was sent to stay with his maternal uncle, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford, then a small town on the banks of the River Thames west of London.

The earliest known artistic exercise by Turner is from this period—a series of simple colorings of engraved plates from Henry Boswell’s Picturesque View of the Antiquities of England and Wales. Around 1786, Turner was sent to Margate on the north-east Kent coast. Here he produced a series of drawings of the town and surrounding area foreshadowing his later work. Turner returned to Margate many times in later life. By this time, Turner’s drawings were being exhibited in his father’s shop window and sold for a few shillings. His father boasted to the artist Thomas Stothard that: “My son, sir, is going to be a painter.”

In 1789, Turner again stayed with his uncle who had retired to Sunningwell in Berkshire (now part of Oxfordshire). A whole sketchbook of work from this time in Berkshire survives as well as a watercolor of Oxford. The use of pencil sketches on location, as the foundation for later finished paintings, formed the basis of Turner’s essential working style for his whole career.

By the end of 1789, he had begun to study under the topographical draughtsman Thomas Malton, specialized in London views. Turner learned from him the basic tricks of the trade, copying and colouring outline prints of British castles and abbeys. He would later call Malton “My real master”. Topography was a thriving industry by which a young artist could pay for his studies. In the same year of 1789 he entered the Royal Academy of Art schools, when he was 14 years old, and was accepted into the academy a year later. Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, chaired the panel that admitted him. At first Turner showed a keen interest in architecture, but was advised by the architect Thomas Hardwick to continue painting. His first watercolor painting A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth was accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1790 when Turner was 15.

As a probationer in the academy, he was taught drawing from plaster casts of antique sculptures. From July 1790 to October 1793, his name appears in the registry of the academy over a hundred times. In June 1792, he was admitted to the life class to learn to draw the human body from nude models. Turner exhibited watercolours each year at the academy while painting in the winter and travelling in the summer widely throughout Britain, particularly to Wales, where he produced a wide range of sketches for working up into studies and watercolours. These particularly focused on architectural work, which utilised his skills as a draughtsman. In 1793, he showed the watercolour titled The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent’s Rock Bristol (now lost), which foreshadowed his later climatic effects.  Cunningham in his obituary of Turner wrote that it was: “recognised by the wiser few as a noble attempt at lifting landscape art out of the tame insipidities…[and] evinced for the first time that mastery of effect for which he is now justly celebrated.”

In 1796, Turner exhibited Fishermen at Sea, his first oil painting at the academy, of a nocturnal moonlit scene of the Needles off the Isle of Wight. The image of boats in peril contrasts the cold light of the moon with the firelight glow of the fishermen’s lantern. Wilton said that the image “Is a summary of all that had been said about the sea by the artists of the 18th century,” and shows strong influence by artists such as Claude Joseph Vernet, Philip James de Loutherbourg, Peter Monamy and Francis Swaine, who was admired for his moonlight marine paintings. This particular painting cannot be said to show any influence of Willem van de Velde the Younger, as not a single nocturnal scene is known by that painter. Some later work, however, was created to rival or complement the manner of the Dutch artist. The image was praised by contemporary critics and founded Turner’s reputation, as both an oil painter and a painter of maritime scenes.

Early career
Turner travelled widely in Europe, starting with France and Switzerland in 1802 and studying in the Louvre in Paris in the same year. He made many visits to Venice. On a visit to Lyme Regis, in Dorset, he painted a stormy scene (now in the Cincinnati Art Museum).

Important support for his work came from Walter Ramsden Fawkes, of Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire, who became a close friend of the artist. Turner first visited Otley in 1797, aged 22, when commissioned to paint watercolours of the area. He was so attracted to Otley and the surrounding area that he returned to it throughout his career. The stormy backdrop of Hannibal Crossing The Alps is reputed to have been inspired by a storm over the Chevin in Otley while he was staying at Farnley Hall.

In 1799, at the age of 24, Turner was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. Henceforward, surer of himself and his public, he looked beyond mere topographical details of landscape to a larger treatment of Nature: he seized all the poetry of sunshine, and the mists of morn and eve, with the grandeur of storm and the glow of sunset.

Turner was a frequent guest of George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, at Petworth Housein West Sussex and painted scenes that Egremont funded taken from the grounds of the house and of the Sussex countryside, including a view of the Chichester Canal. Petworth House still displays a number of paintings.

Personal life
As Turner grew older, he became more eccentric. He had few close friends except for his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as his studio assistant. His father’s death in 1829 had a profound effect on him, and thereafter he was subject to bouts of depression. He never married but had a relationship with an older widow, Sarah Danby. He is believed to have been the father of her two daughters born in 1801 and 1811.

Later, he had a relationship with Sophia Caroline Booth after her second husband died, living for about 18 years as ‘Mr Booth’ in her house in Chelsea.

Like many of the day, Turner was a habitual user of snuff; in 1838 the King of France, Louis-Philippe, presented a gold snuff box to him.  Of two other snuffboxes, an agate and silver example bears Turner’s name,  and another, made of wood, was collected along with his spectacles, magnifying glass and card case by an associate housekeeper.

Death
Turner died of cholera in the house of his lover Sophia Caroline Booth in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea on 19 December 1851, and is said to have uttered the last words “The Sun is God”. At his request he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedal, where he lies next to Sir Joshua Reynolds. His last exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1850.

Turner’s friend, architect Philip Hardwick (1792–1870), son of his tutor, Thomas Hardwick, was in charge of making the funeral arrangements and wrote to those who knew Turner to tell them at the time of his death that, “I must inform you, we have lost him.” Other executors were his cousin and chief mourner at the funeral, Henry Harpur IV (benefactor of Westminster – now Chelsea & Westminster – Hospital), Revd. Henry Scott Trimmer, George Jones RA and Charles Turner ARA.

References:
Wikipedia; The Outline of Art by Sir William Orpen;  Frisk Collection (New York):May 12, 2017 Turner Exhibition

Dover Castle from the Sea, 1822
Cologne, The Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening, 1826

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