Tate Director Nicholas Serota considers his special relationship with the great painter

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'The Angel Standing in the Sun' exhibited 1846
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Angel Standing in the Sun exhibited 1846
Oil on canvas
support: 787 x 787 mm
frame: 942 x 942 x 73 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Every generation makes its own interpretation of an artist and the reputation of a great artist endures partly because their work can speak in different voices across decades and centuries.

In the mid-1960s, while I was still a student, the Turner collection at Tate was rehung in a radical new presentation. For someone like me, aged 20, it was breathtaking. I can remember it now in great detail. It was led by Lawrence Gowing who was a rather wonderful painter and probably even more brilliant art historian. He put light grey muslin on the walls of the galleries and hung white muslin across the ceilings of the lofty galleries at Tate Britain to turn them into proto-modernist spaces and he presented Turner as the first modern artist.

The curators took out works that had previously been in storage – often not framed and regarded as unfinished – and presented them to the public for the first time. The loosely painted washes of colour seemed to prefigure the works of the impressionists half a century later, or 20th century colour field painters like Mark Rothko, who were really excited by Turner’s work. Rothko decided to leave his Seagram Murals to Tate partly due to his reverence for Turner.

Two or three years later I was at the Courtauld in London, studying for an MA on British and French painting. It was suggested to me that I might do my MA thesis on the artist who did the engravings of Blake’s work. I thought Blake was wonderful, but I didn’t think George Cumberland was tremendously significant. So I decided I would rather write a minor essay on a major artist than a major essay on a minor artist. However, I decided not to do something about Turner’s late work, which was very much under discussion at that point, but to think about Turner as the quintessential Romantic artist, dealing with some of the quintessential romantic subjects.

Turner was born in London, the son of a Covent Garden barber. He grew up in London and spent most of the rest of his life here, living in Twickenham and Chelsea. He loved this city and painted it right up until his death. But he had a yearning for the mountains and the sea. In 1802, there was a short break in the British-French war and what did Turner do? He jumped on a boat, got himself to Calais and headed for Switzerland, just stopping at the Louvre to look at some old masters. I formed the idea that Switzerland was a really important destination for Turner at different moments in his career. And so I studied his trips there.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'The Blue Rigi, Sunrise' 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Blue Rigi, Sunrise 1842

I spent about six months working in the British Museum because that’s where the Turner watercolours were at that time (they are now in the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain). Many of them were still in the envelopes into which they had been put by the art critic John Ruskin when he sorted them after Turner’s death, and you could see Ruskin’s handwriting on them. I pieced together the original sketchbooks that had been broken up, to try and get an idea of the routes that Turner took through Switzerland.

Like most people, I’m incredibly moved emotionally by much of the unfinished work and much of the late work. And as people have done in the last 50 years, I have tended to associate that with very contemporary art. But through my study of Turner, I am very conscious of how much he was influenced by tradition and how he saw himself as a great craftsman and in the tradition of great painters.

One of the things that is very interesting about this exhibition is that it is trying to rebalance our understanding of Turner’s late work. In his last 15 years of his life he was still developing very fast and moving into new areas.

What the curators Sam Smiles, David Blayney Brown and Amy Concannon have done is oblige us to rethink that rather simple description of Turner as being a modern artist a hundred years before his time. Rather than losing himself in some kind of self-indulgent abstraction, Turner was still very attached to the world in which he lived.

JMW Turner Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842
JMW Turner
Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842

It’s always said that Turner couldn’t paint figures, and he didn’t like people. One of the things I’ve always felt is that if you look at the detail of his watercolours, there are often lots of figures in them and they are very movingly depicted. He actually had very strong sense of how the character of person is conveyed by the clothes they wear or the way they held themselves.

He was very interested in the politics of his time. Even in the sketchbooks that I was looking at, there are little annotations that refer to political arguments and debates he was encountering when he was travelling. He was also obviously fascinated by developments of the 19th century, as shown in his series of paintings of whaling ships. They are remarkable not just as sensational records of the elements but also as paintings of the contemporary work and industry.

There has been a lot of interest in the last 20 or 25 years into the late work of artists. There has been an increasing recognition that, often, late work is great work. Late work is free work. Late work is closer to the soul of the artist’s being, whether it’s Titian, Cézanne, Rothko or Matisse.

In a way young artists look around them, and they look at other artists. Artists late in their career often feel responsible to no one but themselves and they sometimes refer back and relate back to their own earlier work. And that was certainly true of Turner – he took some of his own motifs and subjects and reworked them. His late works can seem radical but they are as much a culmination of the concerns he had been dealing with throughout his career.

One of the striking things about Turner was that he had a long life – he was 76 when he died in 1851. Because of this he outlasted many of his contemporaries: Constable died in 1837, for example. So he was almost on his own. And when that happens you have no one to talk to, you’re thrown back on to yourself.

JMW Turner Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway 1844
JMW Turner
Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway 1844

In this show there are paintings Turner worked on in pairs: it is almost as if he is setting up conversation between one idea and another, and pushing them together and seeing how they talk to each other. He used unusual square canvases and the subjects are often hard to understand – even his admirer Ruskin struggled to explain them.

For example, one of my favourite paintings at the time when I was working on Turner was The Angel Standing in the Sun exhibited 1846. No one really knows what it’s about. It’s an absolutely compelling image because this figure standing with this burning heat. It’s apocalyptic but it’s also very, very beautiful.

I think that this is one of the reasons why Turner is still such a compelling artist. In the end he is so mysterious. These are some of the most famous paintings of the 19th century, but none of us still understand quite what they are. Turner is incredibly difficult to pin down, but his work is amazingly moving. They just hit you in the stomach.

This article originally appeared in The Evening Standard