Stay indoors, folks. With dangerously high waves and yet more flood warnings in place across the UK, it’s a Turner vortex out there…

  • Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Rough Sea' circa 1840-5

    Joseph Mallord William Turner
    Rough Sea circa 1840-5
    Oil on canvas
    support: 914 x 1219 mm frame: 1068 x 1372 x 80 mm
    Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

    View the main page for this artwork

Today, as vast, battering grey waves threaten to obscure Britain’s coastline, we firmly advise you to stay safely indoors - but perhaps from the window, you can see a little of what had J.M.W. Turner so entranced.

Turner was born, it is thought, in Covent Garden, but held a fascination with the sea his whole life. A frequent visitor to the coast and a keen fisherman, Turner began his career by responding to the traditions of 17th-century artists, and in 1800, just before he was made a Royal Academician, Turner moved into a shared Harley Street studio with a senior marine painter, J.T. Serres.

In the current Turner and the Sea show at the National Maritime Museum, you can clearly see the transition Turner made from following the clean-cut conventions of that traditional maritime art to gradually ditching the rules in favour of his own hazy lashings, creating an almost abstract interpretation. In a challenge to his competitors and to the critics of the day, Turner chose the sea as a canvas to show off his endlessly evolving techniques.

This painting from 1840-45 - one of the many watercolours or oils Turner made from close observation of the sea and shore during the 1840s and 50s - is an example of those wild later works, which will be the subject of a Tate Britain show opening later this year.

Left unfinished, Rough Sea suggests a stormy scene of choppy waves beneath a blank sky. The dark shape in the centre could be a ship or a pier, and it has been suggested that two reddish-brown shapes on either side may be the sails of smaller boats. Turner’s brushstrokes at the corners of the painting might suggest that he had intended to create a whirling vortex of waves and clouds in the finished work, as he did in another painting around this time, Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth 1842.

Turner was so committed, in fact, to conjuring that feel of terrifying, stormy vortex that he is said to have strapped himself to the mast of a ship in a storm. We don’t advise that, readers, but perhaps even a glance at today’s news might give you some insight into what he saw.

We’ll be exploring more aspects of Turner’s work on the blog later this year, closer to the show’s opening in October.

Until then, stay dry people.

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