The three central rooms show works Turner painted for exhibitions or other displays. Many were first seen at the Royal Academy, where from 1790 to 1850 he exhibited almost every year, presenting a wide variety of subjects and constantly evolving his style. While collectors and critics flocked to the Academy, on Varnishing Days, when pictures were finished before the exhibition opened, he upstaged artist colleagues with his technical virtuosity.
In the 1790s the Academy promoted the Grand Style, epitomised by classical or biblical narratives by painters like Titian, Poussin, Rembrandt or Claude Lorrain. Turner’s early exhibits were often homages to the Old Masters. Some were even commissioned as pendants to them. Over time, their influence yielded to his own unique creative imagination, expressive handling and mastery of light and colour. Outstripping contemporary taste, his later exhibited pictures mystified conservative critics.
As well as the Academy, Turner sometimes showed at the rival British Institution. From 1804, Turner’s Gallery displayed more personal or experimental work as well as pictures unsold or reserved for his bequest.His paintings and watercolours could also be seen in the private houses and galleries of patrons and collectors. Occasionally, he exhibited abroad.