Room 5: Turner fires a gun – competing with contemporaries

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace’ exhibited 1832
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace exhibited 1832

The late Georgian art world was a fiercely competitive arena, with the heat of battle at its most intense in the summer exhibitions at the Royal Academy. It was here that Turner staged his most audacious attempts to outshine his contemporaries. In a space crowded with a noisy multitude, with hundreds of pictures vying for attention on the walls, painters had to exploit their talent and materials to the limit, if they were to succeed in catching the spectator’s eye.

Key to commanding attention were high colouring and dynamic compositions, both of which Turner exploited to great success. He was also an adept showman, and would take full advantage of the Academy’s ‘varnishing days’ – a short period before the exhibition was publicly open, when artists were allowed to make last-minute adjustments to their pictures – to perform acts of outright confrontation. In so doing, Turner was not only drawing attention to his work, but asking that it be seen as a response and challenge to those around it.  If Turner’s engagement with the Old Masters demonstrates the height of his ambition, his rivalry with the moderns proves his determination to dominate his own era.