Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
N00458), rather flattering his looks and attire to signal that he had arrived. Already prosperous in 1800, he moved to a smarter address at 64 Harley Street, sharing a studio with the marine painter J.T. Serres, some years his senior. He took over the garden and outbuildings in 1802 and the sole tenancy in 1803, and in 1804 opened a gallery on the corner of Harley Street and Queen Anne Street (from 1810, his address was 47 Queen Anne Street West). Turner’s Gallery could accommodate up to about thirty works in more sympathetic conditions than in the crowded Academy. Among early exhibits were spectacular watercolours based on drawings made during his tour in 1802. One enthusiastic buyer of these, Walter Fawkes, became an avid collector of Turner’s work. Also seen at the gallery were English landscapes, smaller and more intimate than the pictures Turner sent to the Academy. These attracted another collector, the 3rd Earl of Egremont. Fawkes and (mainly in later years) Egremont became friends as well as patrons, their seats at Farnley, Yorkshire and Petworth, Sussex becoming homes from home for Turner. He stayed at Farnley almost annually from 1808 and the following year visited Petworth and Egremont’s Cumbrian seat, Cockermouth Castle, to paint them (fig.6). His watercolours of shoots on the moors around Farnley and the sparkling but bohemian gatherings at Petworth vividly recall country house life and the higher social milieus in which he sometimes moved. The more formal country house ‘portrait’, presenting a mansion in its parkland, became a staple of his work, treated with exceptional freedom and atmosphere.
N00497, fig.11), exhibited in 1815, weaves together the strands of private and public, natural and classical in his life and art at this period. The Tamar Valley and distant Dartmoor are cast in Italianate, Claudean terms but in Turner’s distinctive colouring that his detractor Beaumont called ‘peagreen insipidity’.5 Two girls at the riverside might be Evelina and Georgiana. With tours including visits to Sussex and Kent in 1810 and another to the West Country in 1811, the 1813 trip supplied material for Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England. Produced 1814–26 by the engravers George and William Bernard Cooke and the publishers John Murray and John and Arthur Arch, this was the first substantial series of topographical subjects based on Turner’s watercolours. It was followed by surveys of rivers, ports and harbours and the magisterial (but unfinished) Picturesque Views in England Wales for Charles Heath(published 1827–38). Although the last had to be abandoned as a commercial failure, for many years these projects made significant contributions to his income and brought his work to a wider public. As rich in memory and association as in depictions of contemporary life, industry and leisure, the prints reflected the nation to it itself and ensured that even today, early nineteenth-century Britain is seen though Turner’s eyes.
The loss was followed by that of Thomas Lawrence, West’s successor as President of the Royal Academy, in January 1830. Lawrence had judged Turner ‘indisputably the first landscape painter in Europe’7 and not long before the President’s death, in his first will made in 1829, Turner had endowed a chair and gold medal for landscape painting at the Academy. In Lawrence’s memory, Turner exhibited a watercolour of his funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral (Tate D25467). Later, in 1842, he commemorated, from imagination, the burial of Wilkie (to whom he had long been reconciled) at sea off Gibraltar (Tate N00528). By such gestures Turner assumed the mantle of a leader of his profession, acting on behalf of his colleagues. In 1832, he joined a committee to investigate the provision of space for the Academy alongside the National Gallery, and in 1836 proposed a farewell dinner in its old premises in Somerset House. One reason for extensive European tours in 1833 and 1835 may have been to investigate newly-built cultural institutions such as those designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in Berlin (figs.18 and 19).
8 No other artist was attempting such definitive renderings of the emergent modern world, its moral preoccupations of slavery or machine labour, and inventions of steamships and railways, nor doing so with such panache and sense of theatre. In famous performances at the Academy Varnishing Days he took mysterious sketches into the rooms and brought order from chaos in front of his colleagues (fig.20). Looking at the many watercolour studies and trials (as well as studio oils) from these years, there can be little doubt that such staged, public displays were fuelled by a compulsive private exploration of the power and potential of paint.
11 The statue is an imposing retrospect of a squat, awkward figure that in life had usually resisted depiction. Between his early self-portrait and a death mask showing his face in extreme decay, toothless and hollow-cheeked (fig.26), images of Turner were often made surreptitiously, veering from affectionate to caricature. Along with countless contemporary anecdotes of varying reliability, they convey the enigma of a man whose genius could hardly be denied but who looked like a sailor, a farmer or, in one particularly snobbish description, no more like an artist than a ‘ganger’ or labourer. His art, however, must be the key to a life of which many details remain elusive and, arguably, no completely convincing account has yet appeared.12 A measured obituary in The Times acknowledged both the criticism and admiration he had received, but concluded that the best of his peers had ‘ever admitted to his superiority in poetry, feeling, fancy and genius’ and treated him with ‘that reverential respect and estimation which is given to other artists by posterity alone’.13 Knowingly or not, this echoed the reviewer who, in 1815, had placed Turner among ‘the masters whose day is not so much of to-day, as of “all time”’.14
How to cite
David Blayney Brown, ‘Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851’, artist biography, December 2012, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www