Born Joseph Mallord William Turner in Covent Gardens, London, the man who would become Britain’s foremost landscape artist, is known just as “Turner.” A Romantic artist (one who emphasized emotion in art), Turner painted with a wide range of colors; some of his paintings are dark and subdued while others are bright with lively pastels. He is also known as “the painter of light” and, because his subjects (whether they were buildings or ships) were often on fire, he has also been called “the great pyrotechnist.” Turner’s style changed as he matured. For many years he depicted quite accurately what he saw and then evolved (much to the chagrin of his devotees) to putting his own feelings on canvas – making the subject secondary to great eruptions of color.
Caption: “Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1835”
Turner’s parents were William, a barber and wig-maker, and Mary who was a housewife. They discovered early on that their son had artistic talents and were proud of him. Turner senior would hang some of the paintings that his son drew in his shop window, and even sold a number of them. Mary was rather emotionally unstable and was eventually committed to an asylum where she died in 1804. Turner was mainly self-taught and at the age of 14, when he had the opportunity to visit an uncle in the country, began a life-long practice of carrying a sketchpad with him, recording everything that caught his eye. At the tender age of 15, he joined the Royal Academy Art School, while at the same time he earned money producing sketches for architects.
Turner was fortunate that his talents were recognized early in his life (certainly he couldn’t rely on charm to promote himself). By seventeen, he was being given awards by his art school and his paintings were put on exhibition. He was given a full membership of the Royal Academy when he was in his twenties, and was appointed a professor in his early thirties. By his mid-thirties he had his own gallery and was a sought after artist. None of this put Turner in good humor – he remained taciturn, never showing particular appreciation to the Academy for the honors it bestowed on him. Traveling and drawing was a big part of his life, and almost every year he ventured away from home either locally, in England, Scotland or Wales or abroad in places such as France, Italy or Switzerland. Perhaps because of his volatile nature, Turner never married. However he did father several children with a woman named Sarah Danby. He supported his offspring financially, but did not have much to do with his children nor show them any affection. However Turner’s relationship with his own father became closer as time went on, to the point that Turner senior eventually came to live with him, taking care of a variety of duties for his artist son – from preparing canvases to looking after Turner’s business. When his father died at age 85, Turner, who was then in his mid-fifties, said it was like losing an only child.
Turner painted for sixty years and was astonishingly prolific. He produced over 20 000 paintings, the majority of which were watercolors. In his will he left his money and property to struggling artists, but because of a loophole his family managed to inherit it. However his bequest of thousands of paintings to the Tate Gallery was successful.
Towards the end, Turner’s volatility and misery increased and he turned to alcohol. He drank in taverns, where he was known only as “Admiral Booth” and he drank in private, reportedly consuming two quarts of rum and milk a day, which was often his only diet. Few were admitted to his gallery, which fell into a state of disrepair. His work at the time reflected his state of mind. Now, over a century later, it does not matter that Turner had what some psychiatrists would say was a personality disorder, what matters is his legacy – the genius that was his art.
Caption: “Swiss Girl in Bed, 1802”
Turner by Michael Bockemuhl. 1993, Benedikt Taschen, Germany