JMW Turner must be among the best known and best loved of all British artists. His paintings were hugely innovative, but their high quality and his prodigious talent were acknowledged even early on in the painter’s lifetime so that he was able to earn his living by painting from a young age. Since he had the freedom to develop his artistic interests without the need to please any particular patron.
Turner came from a background of skilled trades-people: his father was a barber and wig-maker, and his mother’s family made their living as butchers. Although the artist was not born to riches or to a particularly cultured family, it seems that his father must have appreciated the young boy’s gift as a painter. It is recorded that Turner senior exhibited drawings by the young man, then only 12 or so years old, in the window of his shop in Covent Garden, for sale at a price of a few shillings apiece.
JMW Turner’s training as a draftsman and painter initially focused on architectural drawings. He worked for various well-known architects, and when he was accepted into the Royal Academy, his apprentice works used similar subject matter. He thought about architecture as a career, but luckily for posterity, he followed the advice he was given to concentrate on fine art.
Turner’s earliest surviving works show a talented draftsman in the process of mastering perspective, with the sky featuring no more prominently than one might expect, as a backdrop to the main subject matter of the work. The first painting noted by contemporaries to embody the ethereal, elemental qualities which became familiar with Turner’s name was a watercolor entitling The Rising Squall, exhibited at the Academy in 1793. Sadly it is lost to us.
In 1796, Turner’s first oil painting, Fishermen at Sea was shown, and one can see in that work many of the themes which he was to make his own. There is the sea, the exceptional rendering of light itself, and the intense romanticism of his portal of men dwarfed by the elements.
From then on, Turners painting deals more and more with an attempt to portray the essence of light, through its manifestations as reflected on clouds and the sea. The effects he created had much in common with the later works of the impressionists, but he was not seeking as they did to create a faithful image of solid natural objects, but to approach the sublime directly. His paintings increasingly moved away from the portrait of objects illuminated by the sun, to attempts to capture the sublimity of light itself. In spite of the increasing abstraction and lack of distinct solid forms that this question led to, Turner remained a popular painter until he died, a rich man, in 1851.
There have been arguments about the way Turner’s legacy has been handled. He wanted to found a trust for the welfare of retired and impoverished artists, but the will was disputed and a large amount of the estate went to some cousins. He is honored in galleries in London, Margate and Overseas, but his works have not been kept together as he wished.
In spite of that, the massive admiration and awe inspired by his paintings, persisting even centuries after his death, could hardly be greater.