1902 Encyclopedia > Joseph Mallord William Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner
(often known as: J. M. W. Turner)
English painter

JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER (1775-1851), one of the greatest painters of the English school, was born in London on 23d April 1775. His father, William Turner a native of Devonshire, kept a barber’s shop at 26 Maiden Lane, in the parish of St Paul’s Covent Garden ; he was "a cheerful, talkative little man, with small blue eyes, a parrot nose, projecting chin, and a fresh complexion indicative of health." Of the painter’s mother, Mary Marshall or Turner, little is known ; she is said to have been a person of ungovernable temper and towards the end of her life became insane. Apparently the home is which Turner spent his childhood was not a happy one, and this may account for much that was unsociable and eccentric in his character. The earliest known drawing by Turner, a view of Margate Church, dates from his ninth year. It was also about this time that he was sent to his first school at New Brentford. Of education, as the term is generally understood, he received but little His father taught him to read, and this and a few months at New Brentford and afterwards at Margate were all the schooling he ever had ; he never mastered his native tongue, nor was he able in after life to learn any foreign language. Notwithstanding this lack of scholarship, one of his strongest characteristics was a taste for associating his works with personages and places of legendary and historical interest, and certain stories of antiquity seem to have been root in his mind very strongly. By the time Turner had completed his thirteenth year his school days were over an his choice of an artist’s career settled. N 1788-89 he was receiving lessons from Palice, " a floral drawing master," from T. Malton, a perspective draughtsman, and from Hardwick, an architect. He also attended Paul Sandby’s drawing school in St Martin’s Lane. Part of his time was employed in making drawings at home, which he exhibited for sale in his father’s shop window, two or three shillings being the usual price. He coloured prints for engravers, washed in backgrounds for architects, went out sketching with Girtin, and made drawings in the evenings for Dr Munro "for half a crown and his supper." When pitied in after life for the miscellaneous character of his early work, his reply was "Well! And what could be better practice?" in 1789 Turner became a student of the Royal Academy. He also worked for a short time in the house of Sir Joshua Reynolds, with the idea, apparently, of becoming a portraits painterl but, the death of Reynolds occurring shortly afterwards, this intention was abandoned. In 1790 Turner’s name appears for the first time solitary contribution being "View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambert." About 1792 he received a commission from Walker, the engraver, to make drawings for his Copper-Plate Magazine, and this topographical work took him to many interesting places. The natural vigour of his constitution enabled him to cover much of the ground on foot. He could walk from 20 to 25 miles a day with ease, his baggage at the end of a stick, making notes and memoranda as he went. He rose early, worked hared all day, wasted no time over his simple meals, and his homely way of living made him easily contended with such rude accommodation as he chanced to find on the road. A year or two after he accepted a similar commission to make drawings for the Pocket Magazine, and before his twentieth year he had travelled over many parts of Englan and Wales. None of these magazine drawings are remarkable for originality of treatment or for artistic feeling.

Up to this time Turner has worked in the back room above his father’s shop. His love of secretiveness and solitude had already begun to show itself. An architect who often employed him to put in backgrounds to his drawings says, "he would never suffer me to see him draw, but concealed all that he did in his bed-room." On another ocassion, a visitor entering unannounced, Turner instantly covered up his drawings, and, in reply to the intimation, "I’ve come to drawings for——," the answer was, "You shan’t see’em, and mind that net time you come through the shop, and not up the back way." Probably the increase in the number of his engagements induced Turner about this time to set up a studio for himself in Hand Court, not far from his father’s shop, and there he continued to work till he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy (1799).

Until 1792 Turner’s practice had been almost exclusively confines to water colours, and his early works show how much he was indebted to some of his comtemporaries. There are few of any note whose style he did not copy or adopt. His first exhibited oil picture appeared in the Academy in 1793. In 1794-94 Canterbury Cathedral, Malvern Abbey, Tintern Abbey, Lincoln and Peterborough Cathedrals, Shrewsbury, and King’s Chapel, Cambridge, were among the subjects exhibited, and during the next four years he contributed no less than thirty-nine works to the Academy. In the catalogue of 1798 he first began to add poetic quotations to the titles of his pictures; one of the very first of these—a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost—is in some respects curiously prophetic of one of the future characteristics of his art.

"Ye mists and exhalations that not rise
From hill or steaming lake, dusky or grey Till the sun paints your fleecy skirts with gold,
In honour of the world’s great author rise."

This and several other quotations in the following years show that Turner’s mind was now occupied with something more than the merely topographical element of landscape, Miltons’ Paradise Lost and Thomson’s Seasons being laid under frequent contribution for descriptions of sunrise, sunset, twilight, or thunderstorm. Turner’s first visit to Yorkshire took place in 1797. It seems to have braced his powers and possibly helped to change the student into the painter. Until then his work had shown very little of the artist in the higher sense of the term ; he was little more than a painstaking and tolerably accurate topographer, but even under these conditions he had begun to attract the notice of his brother artists and of the critics. England was, at the time, at a low point both in literature and art. Among the artists De Loutherbourg and Morland were almost the only men of note left. Hogart, Wilson, Gainborough, and Reynolds had passed away. Beechey, Bourgeois, Garvey, Farington—names well-nigh-forgotten—now were the Academicians who painted landscape. The only formidable rivals Turner had to contend with were De Loutherboug and Girtin, and after the death of the latter in 1802 he was left undisputed master of the field.

It is not therefore, surprising that the exhibition of his works in 1798 was followed by his election to the associateship of the Royal Academy. That he should have attained to this position before completing his twenty-fourth years says much for the wisdom and discernment of that body, which further showed its recognition of his talent by electing him an Academician four years later. Tuner owed much to the Academy. Mr Ruskins says, "It taught him nothing." Possibly it had little to teach that he had not already been able to learn for himself ; at all events it was quick to see his genius and to confer its honours, and Turner, naturally generous and grateful, never forgot this. He enjoyed the dignity of Academician for nearly half a century, and during nearly the whole of that period he took an active share in the direction of the Academy’s affairs. His speeches are described as "confused, tedious, obscurer, and extremely difficult to follow"s ; but at council meetings he was ever anxious to ally anger and bitter controversy. His opinions on art were always listened to with respect ; but on matters of business it was often difficult to know what he meant. His friend Chantrey used to say, "He has great thoughts, if only he could express them." When appointed professor of perspective to the Royal Academy in 1808, this painful lack of expression stood greatly in the way of his usefulness ; he was often at a loss for words to express his ideas, and when he had recourse to his notes he found difficulty in reading them. Mr Ruskins says, "The zealous care with which Turner endeavoured to do his duty is proved by a series of large drawings, exquisitely tinted, and often completely coloured, all by his own hand, of the most difficult perspective subjects, illustrating not only directions of line, but effects of light, with a care and completion which would put the work of any ordinary teacher to utter shame." In teaching he would neither waste time nor spare it. "If a student would take a hint, Turner was delighted and would go on with him giving hint after hint ;if he could not follow, he left him. Explanations are wasted time ; a man who can see understands a touch; a man who cannot misunderstands an oration." With his election to the associateship of the Academy in 1799, Turner’s early struggles may be considered to have ended. He had emancipated himself from hack work, had given up making topographical drawings of castles and abbeys for the engravers—drawings in which mere local fidelity was the principal object—and had taken to composing as he drew. Local facts had become of secondary importance compared with effects of light and colour. He had reached manhood, and with it he abandoned topograhical fidelity and began to paint his dreams, the visionary faculty—the true foundation of his art—asserting itself, nature being used to supply suggestions and materials.

His pictures of 1797-99 had shown that he was a painter of no ordinary power, one having much of the poet in him, and able to give expression to the mystery, beauty, and inexhaustible fulness of nature. His work at this period is described by Mr Ruskins as "stern in manner, reserved, quiet, grave in colour, forceful in hand."

Turner’s visit to Yorkshire in 1797 was followed a year or two later by a second, and it was on this occasion that he made the acquaintance, which afterwards ripened into a long and staunch friendship, of Fawkes of Farnley Hall. From 1803 till 1820 Turner was a frequent visitor at Farnley. The large number of his drawings still preserved there—English, Swiss, German, and Italian, the studies of rooms, outhouse, porches, gateways, of birds shot while he was there, and of old places in the neighbourhood—prove the frequency of his visits and his affection for the place and for its hospitable master. A caricature, made by Fawkes, and "though by old friends to be very like," shows Turner as "a little Jewish-nosed man, in an ill-cut brown tail-coat, striped waistcoat, and enormous frilled shirt, with feet and hands notably small, sketching on a small piece of paper, held down almost level with his waist." It is evident from all the accounts given that Turner’s personal appearance was not of a kind to command much attention or respect. This may have pained his sensitive nature, and led him to seek refuge in the solitude of his painting room. Had he been inclined he had abundant opportunity for social and friendly intercourse with his fellow-men, but he gradually came to live more and more in state of mental isolation, keeping himself to himself, entirely absorbed in his art. "This man must be loved for his works, for his person is not striking nor his conversation brilliant," is the testimony of Dayes, the water-colour painter (and Girtins’ master), in 1804. Turner could never make up his mind to visit Farnley again after his old friend’s death, and his voice would falter when he spoke of the shores of the Wharfe.

Turner visited Scotland in 1800, and in 1801, and in 1802 he made his first tour on the Continent. In the following year, of the seven pictures he exhibited six were of foreign subjects, among them Bonneville, the Festival upon the Opening of the Vintage of Mâcon, and the well-known Calais Pier in the National Gallery. The last-named picture, although heavily painted and somewhat opaque in colour, is magnificently composed and full of energy. A better idea of its masterly composition can be formed from Mr Seymour Haden’s vigorous etching than from the picture itself, which is now greatly darkened by time.

In 1802, the year in which Turner became a Royal Academician, he took his old father, who still carried on the barber business in Maiden Lane, to live with him. The powder tax, imposed in 1795, drove out wigs and spoiled the old man’s trade. "It is precisely," says Mr Hamerton, "when the painter wins the full honours of the Academy—honours which give a recognized and envied position in London society—that he takes his father home ; a meaner nature would have tried to keep the old man at a safe distance." Turner’s relations with his father were of the most dutiful and filial kind to the last._

In 1804 Turner made a second tour on the Continent, and in the following year painted the Shipwreck and Fishing Boats in a Squall (in the Ellesmere collection), seemingly in direct rivalry of Vandervelde, in 1806 the Goddess of Discord in the Garden of the Hesperides (in rivalry of Poussin), and in 1807 the Sun rising through Vapour (in rivalry of Claude)._ The last two are notable works, especially the Sun. In after years it was one of the works he left to the nation, on the special condition of its being hung beside the Claudes in the National Gallery. In this same year (1807) Turner commenced his most serious rivalry. Possibly it arose out of a desire to break down Claude worship, the then prevailing fashion, and to show the public that there was a living artist not unworthy of taking rank beside him. That the Liber Studi-orum was suggested by the Liber Veritatis of Claude, and was intended as a direct challenge to that master, is beyond doubt. There is, however, a certain degree of unfairness to Claude in the way in which the challenge was given. Claude made drawings in brown of his pictures as they left the easel, not for publication, but merely to serve as private memoranda. Turner’s Liber drawings had no such purpose, but were intended as a direct appeal to the public to judge between the two artists. The first of the Liber drawings were made in the autumn of 1806, the others at intervals till about 1815. They are of the same size as the plates and carefully finished in sepia. About fifty of them are now to be seen in the Turner rooms of the National Gallery. The issue of the Liber began in 1807 and contiuned irregular intervals till 1819, when it stopped at the fourteenth number. Turner had resolved to manage the publishing business himself, but in this he was not very successful. He soon quarrelled with his engraver, F. C. Lewis, on the ground that he had raised his charges from five guineas a plate to eight. He then employed Charles Turner, who agreed to do fifty plates at the latter sum, after finishing twenty, he too wished to raise his price, and, as matter of course, this led to another quarrel. Reynolds, Dunkarton, Lupton, Say, Dawe, and other engravers were afterwards employed—Turner himself etching and mezzotinting some of the plates. Each part of the Liber contained five plates, the subjects, divided into "historical," "pastoral," "marine," &c., embracing the whole range of landscape art. Seventy one plates in all were published (including one as a gift of the artist to his subcribers) ; ten other plates—more or less completed—intended for the fifteenth and sixteenth numbers were never published, the work being stopped for want for encouragement. Absence of method and business habits may account for this. Turner is said to have got up the numbers in his own house with the help of a female servant. The plates, which cost the subscribers only five shillings apiece, were so little esteemed that in the early quarter of the 19th century they were sometimes used for lighting fires. So much has fashion, or public taste, changed since then that a fine proof of a single plate has sold for £210. The merit of the plates is unequal; some—for example, Solway Moss, Inverary Pier, Hind Head Hill, Ben Arthur, Rizpah, Junction of the Severn and Wye, and Peat Bog—are of great beauty, while a few are comparatively tame and uninteresting. Among the unpublished plates Stonehenge at Daybreak and Sheep Washing, Windsor Castle take a high place. The Liber shows strong traces of the influence of Cozens and Girtin, and, as a matter of course, of Claude. In most of the designs the predominant feeling is serious ; in not a few, gloomy or even tragic. A good deal has been written about Turner’s intention, and the "lessons" of the Liber Studiorum. Probably his only intention in the beginning was to show what he could do, to display his art, to rival Claude, perhaps to educate public taste, and at the same time make money. If lessons were intended they might have been better conveyed by words. "Silent always with a bitter silence, disdaining to tell his meaning,"—such is Mar Ruskin’s explanation; but surely Turner had little reason for either silence or contempt because the public failed to see in landscape art the means of teaching it great moral lessons. The seventy plates of the Liber contain an almost complete epitome of Turner’s art. Already in this work are seen strong indications of one of his most remarkable characteristics—a knowledge of the principles of structure in natural object : mountains and rocks are drawn, not with topographical accuracy, but with what appears like an intuitive feeling for geological formation ; and trees have also the same expression of life and growth in the drawing of stems and branches. This instinctive feeling in Turner for the principles of organic structure is treated of at considerable length in the fourth volume of Modern Painters, and Turner is there contrasted with Claude, Poussin, and some of the Dutch mastes, greatly to their disadvantage.

After 1797 Turner was little concerned with mere topographical facts: his pictures might be like the places represented or not ; much depended on the mental impression produced by the scene. He preferred to deal with the spirit, rather than with the local details of places. A curious example of the reasonableness accompanying his exercise of the imaginative faculty is to be found in his creations of creatures he had see, as, for example, the dragon_ in the Garden of the Hesperides and the python, in the Apollo, exhibited in 1811. Both these monster are imagined with such vividness and reality, and the sense of power and movement is so completely expressed, that the spectator never once thinks of them as otherwise than representations of actual facts in natural history. It needs but a little comparison to discover how far "Turner surpassed all his contemporaries, as well as all who preceded him, in these respects. The imaginative faculty he possessed was of the highest order, and it was further aided by a memory of the most retentive and unerring kind. A good illustration of this may be seen at Farnley Hall in a drawing of a Man-of-War taking in Stores Some one, who had never seen a first –rate, expressed a wish to know what it looked like. Turner took a blank sheet of paper one morning after breakfast, outlined the ship, and finished the drawing in their hours, Fawkes sitting beside him from the first stroke to the last. The size of this drawing is about 16 in. by 11 in. Mr Ruskin thus describes it:

"The hull of a first-rate occupies nearly one half of the picture to the right, her bows towards the spectator, seen in sharp perspective stem to stern, with all her port-holes, guns, anchors and lower rigging elaborately detailed, two other ships of the line is the middle distance drawn with equal precision, a noble breezy sea, full of delicate drawing in its waves, a store ship beneath the hull of the larger vessel and several other boats, and a complicated cloudy sky , all drawn from memory, down to the smallest rope, in a drawing-room of a mansion in the middle of Yorkshire."

About the year 1811 Turner paid his first visit to Devonshire, the county to Devonshire, the county to which his family belonged, and a curious glimpse of his simple manner of life is given by Redding, who accompanied him on some of his excursions. On one occasion they spent a night together in a small road-site inn, Turner having a great desire to see the country around at sunrisbe.

"Turner was content with bread and cheese and beer, tolerably good, for dinner and supper in one. In the little sanded room we conversed by the light of an attenuated candle and some aid from the moon until nearly midnight, when Turner laid his head upon the table and was soon fast asleep. Three or four hours rest was thus obtained, and we went out as soon as the sun was up to explore the surrounding neigbourhood. It was in that early morning Turner made a sketch of the picture Crossing the Brook." In another excursion to Borough Island, "the morning was squally and the see rolled boisterously into the Sound. Off Shakes Point it became stormy ; our Dutch boat rode bravely over the furrows. Two of the party were ill. Turner was all the while quiet, watching the troubled scene. Bolt Head, to seaward, against which the waves broke with fury, seemed to absorb his entire notice, and he scarcely spoke a syllable. While the fish were getting ready Turner mounted nearly to the highest point of the island island rock, and seemed writing rather than drawing. The wind was almost too violent for either purpose.

This and similar incidents show how careless of comfort Turner was, and how devoted to his art. The tumult and discomfort by which he was surrounded could not distract his powers of observation ; and some thirty years later there is still evidence of the same kind. In the catalogue of the exhibition of 1842 one of his pictures bears the following title, "Snow-Storn: steam-boat off a harbour’s mouth making signals in shallow water, and going by the lead. The author was in that storm the night the ‘Ariel’ left Harwich."

From 1813 till 1826, in addition to his Harley Street residence, Turner had a country house at Twickenham. He kept a boat on the river, also a pony and gig, in which he used to drive about the neighbouring country on sketching expeditions. The pony, for which Turner had a great love, appears in his well-known Frosty Morning in the National Gallery. He appears to have had a great affection for animals, and one instance of his tenderness of heart is given by one who often joined him in the amusement of fishing, of which Turner was a very fond. "I was often with him when fishing at Petworth, and also on the banks of the Thames. His success as an angler was great, although with the worst tackle in the world. Every fish he cought he showed to me, and appealed to me to decide whether the size justified him to keep it for the table or to return it to the river ; his hesitation was often almost touching, and he always gave the prisoner at the bar the benefit of the doubt."

In 1813 Turner commenced the series of drawings, forty in number, for Cooke’s Southern Coast. This work was not completed till 1826. The price he at first received for these drawings was £7, 10s, each, afterwards raised to £13, 2s. 6d.

Crossing the Brook appeared in the Academy of 1815. It may be regarded as a typical example of Turner’s art at this period, and marks the transition from his earlier style to that of his maturity. It represents a piece of Devonshire scenery, a view on the river Tamar. On the left is a group of tall pine-trees, beautifully designed and drawn with great skill and knowledge of structure, in the foreground a couple of children, with a dog carrying a bundle in its mouth across the brook, and beyond, a vast expanse of richly-wooded country, with glimpses of a winding river, an old bridge, a mill, and other buildings, and, in the distance, the sea. Both in design and execution this work is founded upon Claude. Some critics consider it one of Turner’s greatest works; but this is open to question._ It can hardly be called a work in full colour : it is limited to greys and quiet greens for earth and pale blues for the sky. It is a sober but very admirable picture, full of diffused daylight, and in the painting of its distance better than any master who had preceded him. The fascination of the remote, afterwards so distinctive an element in Turner’s pictures, shows itself here. Perhaps nothing tests the powers or tries the skill of the landscape-painter more severely than the representation of distant effects. They come and go so rapidly, are often in a high key of light and colour, and so full of mystery and delicacy, that anything approaching to real imitation is impossible. Only the most retentive memory and the most sensitive and tender feeling will avail. These qualities Turner possessed to a remarkable degree, and as his powers matured there was an ever-increasing tendency in his art to desert the foreground, where things wee definite and clear, in order to dream in the infinite suggestiveness and space of distance. Dido Building Carthage also belongs to this period. It hangs beside the Claudes in the National Gallery. It pertains to the old erroneous school of historical painting. Towering masses of Claudesque architecture piled up on either side, porticoes, vestibules, and stone pines, with the sun in a yellow sky, represent the Carthage of Turner’s imagination. With all its faults it is still the finest work of the class he ever painted. Carthage and its fate had a strange fascination for him. It is said that he regarded it as a moral example to England in its agricultural decline, its increase of luxury, and its blindness to the insatiable ambition of a powerful rival. He returned again to this theme in 1817, when he exhibited his Decline of the Carthaginian Empire : Hostages Leaving Carthage for Rome,—a picture which Mr Ruskin describes as "little more than an accumulation of academy student’s outlines coloured brown."

In 1818 Turner was in Scotland making drawings for the Provincial Antiquities for which Sir Walter Scott supplied the letterpress, and in 1819 he visited Italy for the first time. One of the results of this visit was a great change in his style, and from this time his works became remakable for their colour. Hitherto he had painted in brown, greys, and blues, using red and yellow sparingly. He had gradually been advancing from the sober grey colouring of Vandervelde and Ruysdael to the mellow and richer tones of Claude. His works now begin to show a heightened scale of colour, gradually increasing in richness and splendour and reaching its culminating point in such works as the Ulysses, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the Golden Bough, and the Fighting Téméraire. All these works belong to the middle period of Turner’s art (1829-39), when his powers were entirely developed and entirely unabated. Much of his most beautiful works at this period is to be found in his water-colour drawings : those executed for Whitaker’s History of Richmondshire (1819- 21), for Cooke’s Southern Coast (1814-26), for The Rivers of England (1824), for England and Wales (18929-38), Provincial Antiquities (1826), Roger’s Italy (1830), Scott’s Work (1834), and The Rivers of France (1833-35) are in many instances of the greatest beauty. Of the Richmondshire drawings Mr Ruskin says, "The foliage is rich and marvellous in composition, the rock and hill drawing insuperable the skies exquisite in complex form."

But perhaps one of the greatest services Turner rendered to the art of England was the education of a whole school of engravers. His best qualities of a teacher came from he union of strength and delicacy in his work ; subtle and delicate tonality was almost a new element for the engraver to deal with, but with Turner’s teaching and careful supervision his engravers by degrees mastered it more or less successfully, and something like a new development of the art of engraving was the result. No better proof can be found of the immense advance made than by comparing the work of the landscape engravers of the pre-Turnerian period with the work of Miller, Goodall, Willmore, Cooke, Wallis, Lupton, C. Turner, Brandard, Cousen, and others who worked under his guidance. The art of steel engraving reached its highest development in England at this time. Rogers’s Italy (1830) and his Poems (1834) contain perhaps the most beautiful and delicate of the many engravings executed after Turner’s drawings. They are vignettes,_ a form of art which Turner understood better than any artists ever did before,—perhaps, we might add, since. The Alps at Daybreak, Columbus Discovering Land, and Datur Hora Quieti may be given as examples of the finest.

In 1828 Turner paid a second visit to Italy, this time of considerable duration, on the way visiting Nîmes Avignon, Marseilles, Genoa, Spezzia, and Siena, and in the following year he exhibited the Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, now in the National Gallery. It marks the beginning of the central and best period of Turner’s power. This work is so well known that description is hardly needed. The galley of Ulysses occupies the centre of the picture ; the oars are being thrust out and the sailors flocking up the masts to unfurl sail, while Ulysses waves the blazing olive tree in defiance of the giant, whose huge form is seen high on the cliffs above ; and the shadowy horses of Phoebus are traced in the slanting rays of the rising sun. The impression this picture leaves is one of great power and splendour. The painting throughout is magnificent especially in the sky. Leslie speaks of it "a poem of matches splendour and beauty." From his period onward till about 1840 Turner’s life was one of unceasing activity. Nothing is more astonishing than his prodigious fertility ; he rose early, worked from morning till night, entirely absorbed in his art, and gradually became more and more solitary and isolated. Between 1829 and 1839 he sent fifty-five pictures to the Royal Academy, painted many others on private commission, made over four hundred drawings for engravers, besides thousands of studies and sketches from nature. His industry accounts for the immense quantity of work he left behind him. There is not the slightest evidence to show that it arose from a desire to make money, which he never cared for in comparison with his art. He has been accused, perhaps not without some cause, of avarice and meanness in his business dealings, and many stories are told to his discredit. But in private he often did generous things, although owing to his reserved disposition his virtues were known only to a few. His faults on the other hand—thanks to the malice, or jealousy, of one or two individuals—were freely talked about and, as a matter of course, greatly exaggerated. "Keep it, and send your children to school and to church," were the words with which he declined repayment of a considerable loan to a poor drawing-master’s widow. On another occasion, when interrupted in his work, he roughly chid and dismissed the applicant, a poor woman ; but she had hardly left his door before he followed her and slipped a £5 note into her hand. His tenants in Harley Street were in arrears for years, but he would never allow his lawyer to distrain ; and if further proof of his generosity were needed his great scheme for bettering the condition of the unfortunate in his own profession should suffice. On one occasion he is known to have taken down a picture of his own from the walls of the Academy to make room for that of an unknown artist.

The first of Turner’s Venetian pictures (Bridge of Sighs, Ducal, Palace and Custom House, Venice, Canaletti Painting) appeared in the Academy in 1833. Compared with the sober, prosaic work of Canaletti, Turner’s pictures of Venice appear like poetic dreams. Splendour of colour and carelessness of form generally characterize them. Venice appeared to him "a city of rose and white, rising out of an emerald sea against a sky of sapphire blue," Many of these Venetian pictures belong to his later manner, and some of them, the Sun of Venice Going to Sea (1843), Approach to Venice (1844), and Venice, Evening, Going to the Ball (1845), to his latest. As Turner grew older his love of brilliant colour and light became more and more a characteristic. In trying to obtain these qualities he gradually fell into an unsound method of work, treating oil as if it had been water had been water-colour, using both indiscriminately on the same canvas, utterly regardless of the result. Many of his finest pictures are already in a ruined state, mere wrecks of what they once were.

The Fighting Téméraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken up (see vol. xxi. p. 441, fig. 43) was exhibited in the Academy of 1839. By many it is considered one of his finest works. Turner had all his life been half a sailor at heart : he loved the sea, and shipping, and sailors and their ways ; many of his best pictures are sea pieces ; and the old ships of Collingwood and Nelson were clear to him. Hence the pathetic feeling he throws around the fighting Téméraire. The old three-decker, looking ghostly and wan in the evening light, is slowly towed along by a black, fiery little steam tug,—a contrast suggesting the passing away of the old order of things and the advent of the new ; and behind the sun sets red in a thick bank of smoke or mist. The Slave Ship, another importance sea picture, was exhibited in the following year, and in 1842 Peace : Burial at Sea, commemorative of Wilkie.

Turner had now reached his sixty-seventh year, but no very marked traces of declining power are to be seen in his work. Many of the water-colour drawings, belonging to this period are of great beauty, and, although a year or two later his other powers began to fail, his faculty for colour remained unimpaired almost to the end, He paid his last visit to the Continent in 1843, wandering about from one place to another, and avoiding his own countrymen, an old solitary man. At his house in Queen Anne Street they were often ignorant of his whereabouts for months, as he seldom took the trouble to write to any one. Two years later (1845) his health gave way and with it both mind and sight began to fail. The works of his declining period exercised the wit of the critics. Turner felt these attacks keenly. He was naturally kindhearted and acutely sensitive to censure. "A man may be weak in his age," he once remarked, "but you should not tell him so."

After 1845 all the pictures shown by Turner belong the period of decay,—mere ghosts and shadows of what once had been. In 1850 he exhibited for the last time. He had given up attending the meetings of the Academicians ; none of his friends had seen him for months ; and even his old housekeeper had no idea of his whereabouts. Turner’s mind had evidently given way for some time, an with that love of secrecy which in later years had grown into a passion he had gone away to hide himself in a corner of London. He had settled as a lodger in a small house in Chelsea, overlooking the river, kept by his old Margate landlady, Mrs Booth. To the children in the neighbourhood he was known as "Admiral Booth." His short, sailor-like figure many account for the idea that he was an improverished old naval officer. He had been ill for some weeks, and when his Queen Anne Street housekeeper at last discovered his hiding-place she found him sinking, and on the following day, the 19th December 1851, he died. He was buried in St Paul’s cathedral, in deference to a wish to had himself expressed.

He left the large fortune he had amassed (about £140,000) to found a charity for the "maintenance and support of male decayed artists, being born in England, and of English parents only, and of lawful issue." His pictures he bequeathed to the nation, on condition that they were to be exhibited in rooms of their own, and that these rooms were to be called "Turner’s Gallery." The will and its codicils were so confused that after years of litigation, during which a large part of the money was wasted in legal expenses, it was found impossible to decide what Turner really wanted. A compromise was effected in which the wishes of everybody, save those of the testator, were consulted, his next-of-kin, whom he did not mean to get a single farthing, inheriting the bulk of his property. The nation got all the pictures and drawings, and the Royal Academy £20,000.

It is unnecessary here to do more than allude to the charges which have been brought against Turner’s moral character. Like most men of note he had his enemies and detractors, and it is to be regretted that so many of the stories they set in circulation should have been repeated by one of his biographers, who candidly admits having ‘spared none of his faults," and excuses himself for so doing by "what he hopes" is his "undeviating love of truth." The immense quantity of work accomplished by Turner during his lifetime, work full of the utmost delicacy and refinement, proves the singularly fine condition of his nervous system, and is perhaps the best answer that can be given to the charge of being excessively addicted to sensual gratification. In his declining years he possibly had recourse to stimulants to help his failing powers, but it by no means follows that he went habitually to excess in their use. He never lost an opportunity of doing a kindness, and under a rough and cold exterior there was more good and worth hidden than the world imagined. "During the ten years I knew him," says Mr Ruskin, "years in which he was suffering most from the evil speaking of the world, I never heard him say one depreciating word of any living man or man’s work ; I never say him look an unkind or blameful look ; I never knew him let pass, without sorrowful remonstrance, or endeavour at mitigation, a blameful word spoken by another. Of no man but Turner, whom I have ever known, could I say this." Twice during his earlier days there are circumstance leading to the belief that he had thoughts of marriage, but on both occasions it ended in disappointment, and his home after his father died was cheerless and solitary, without solace or comfort of nay kind.

If Turner had died early his reputation as an artist would have been very different from what it ultimately became. He would not have been recognized as a colourist. It was only after the year 1820 that colour began to assert itself strongly in his work. He painted for many a year in greys and greens and browns, went steadily through " the subdued golden chord," and painted yellow mists and suns rising through vapour ;but as time went on that was no longer enough, and he tried to paint the sun in his strength and the full glories of sunshine. The means at the painter’s disposal are, however, limited, and turner, in his efforts after brilliancy, began to indulge in reckless experiments in colour. He could not endure even the slightest restraints which technical limitations impose, but went on trying to paint the unpaintable. As a water-colour painter Turner stands pre-eminent ; he is unquestionably the greatest master in that branch of art that ever lived. If his work is compared with that of Barrett, or Varley, or Cozens, or Sandby, or any of the earlier masters, so great is Turner’s superiority that the art in his hands seems to be lifted altogether into a higher region.

In 1843 a champion, in the person of Mr Ruskin, arose to defend Turner against the unjust and ignorant attacks of the press, and what at first was intended as a "short pamphlet, reprobating the manner and style of these critics," grew into the five volumes known as Modern Painters. The writer employs all his eloquence and his great critical faculty to prove how immeasurably superior Turner was to all who had ever gone before, hardly restricting his supremacy to landscape art, and placing him among the "seven supreme colourists of the world." Two lives of Turner have been written, one by Mr Thornbury, the other by Mr Hamerton. The work of the latter deserves the highest commendation ; it gives a clear and consistent history of the great artist, and is characterized by refined thought and critical insight. An excellent little book by Mr. W. C Monkhouse should also be noticed. (G. RE.)


FOOTNOTE (p. 664)

(1) Turner’s father died in 1830, and the loss of "poor old Dad," as he used to call him, left a terrible void. He had lived in his son’s house for nearly thirty years, looking after the frugal affairs of his household, and making himself useful in various ways. It is said that he used to prepare and strain his son’s oanvases and varnish them when finished, which may explain a saying of Turner’s that "his father used to begin and fished pictures for him." He also attended to the gallery in Queen Anne Street, showed in visiters, and took care of the dinner, if he did not himself cook it. Turner was never the same man after his father’s death, living a life of almost complete isolation.

(2) This spirit of rivalry showed itself early in his career. He began by pitting himself against his contemporaries, and afterwards, when his powers were more fully developed, against some of the old masters, notably Vandervelde and Claude. During these years, while he kept up a unresting and untiring study of nature, and, while seemingly a mere follower of the ancients, was accumulating that immense store of knowledge which in after years, when his true genius asserted itself, he was to use to such purpose.

FOOTNOTE (p. 665)

1 "The strange unity of vertebrated action and of a true bony contour, infinitely varied in every vertebra, with this glacial outline, together with the adoption of the head of the Ganges crocodile, the fish-eater, to show his sea descent (and this in the year 1806, when hardly a single fossil saurian skeleton existed within Turner’s reach), renders the whole conception one of the most curious exertions of the imaginative intellect with which I am acquainted in the arts" (Ruskin, Mod. Painters, vol. v. p. 313).

FOOTNOTE (p. 666)

1 Crossing the Brook was a great favourite with Turner. It was painted for a patron, who, dissatisfied with it, left it on the painter’s hands. The price asked (£500) seems to have been part of the objection. Turner subsequently refused an offer of £1600 for it.

2 "Of all the artists who ever lived I think it is Turner who treated the vignette most exquisitely, and, if it were necessary to find some particular reason for this, I should say that it may have because there was nothing harsh or rigid in his genius, that forms and colours melted into each other tenderly in his dream-world, and that his sense of gradation was the most delicate ever possessed by man" (Hamerton).

The above article was written by Sir George Reid, LL.D.; President, Royal Scottish Academy.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries