Frontline volume 2, issue 1.

J M W Turner: painter of Light.

Kenny McEwan looks at the life of the painter J M W Turner, whose work both broke new ground and expressed his radical and democratic sympathies.

Last year the Turner Prize for art was won by a man who dismantled a shed sailed it down a river and then reassembled it again. Unsurprisingly, the latest winner of this prize named after one of Britain’s most revolutionary artists joined a long list of controversial winners continuing the long standing debate surrounding this prize.*

The truth is that the Turner Prize has no real connection with J M W Turner other than he had left a bequest along with his painting that his money should help British artistic talent. This bequest was challenged in court, however, and so no money was in fact left.

So what then of the man whose name caused as much controversy in his time as the prize named after him does now?

Born in London in 1775 to a barber father and a mother, who would end her days in an asylum, Joseph Mallord William Turner showed from an early age a precocious talent. Strangely for the time his father to whom he was very attached encouraged his talent. Turner as a youth would spend hours walking and filling his scrap book with drawing of everything he saw on his walks. At aged just fourteen he enrolled in the Royal Academy School and by 1790 had his first watercolour exhibited there. His early love of walking and sketching what he saw turned into a serious life long habit taking him round Britain and the rest of Europe visiting and copying the works of the great masters of the past.

Turner’s real love, however, was nature. Whether mountains, valleys, rivers, or the sea, he painted them all. Landscape painting, for which he and his contemporary Constable were most famous for, was a relatively new artistic phenomenon developed mostly in Northern Europe. Prior to this landscapes only really existed, as a background for paintings. The main subject was a person or situation with the landscape framing the picture. Now, however, the landscape became the subject and though sometimes people were depicted in the painting they were just part of the landscape.

Whilst both Turner and Constable were contemporary, and ultimately became very influential on future artists, the two were completely different in terms of both style and context. While Constable had a more realist style he harked towards a more idealist view of the country side as is shown in his most famous painting ‘The Hay Wain’ (1821), depicting an almost idyllic view of both the country and those who worked in it. Turner on the other hand developed an almost impressionist style that sometimes bordered on the abstract so intent was he to depict the light and its effects on the environment. Alongside this he also grasped the fact that the relationship that man had to his environment was becoming altered by the advent of the industrial era.

It was this development by Turner that was to cause so much controversy. Constable himself stated that it was as if he painted with tinted steam so light and luminous was some of his work. Examples of this include ‘Venice: Moonrise’ (1840) or ‘Northam Castle, Sunrise’ (1835-40). Both depict the hazy, translucent almost unfinished quality that made his work so influential in later years.

This was only one side of his style, however, and the dreamlike quality of these paintings often give way to dark and violent storms and gales pitching ships around in stormy seas or howling round mountains.

Once in an attempt to capture the rage of a storm Turner aged around 67 lashed himself to the mast of a ship in a storm for several hours to get the full effect. The idea of the sublime was coined to describe this type of painting. Usually concerning nature the sublime moves away from just the beautiful to the realm of awe and wonderment in its depictions. A painting such as ‘Calais pier: an English Packet Arriving’ (1803) is an example of this.

Turner was able to make a living out of his painting, often making engravings of them and selling them that way, however he also had several patrons. These patrons and the times he lived in had an effect on Turner. People like the Earl of Egremont, who was seen as a progressive and Walter Fawkes a radical Whig (Liberal) had a large impact on Turner’s thinking. Whilst not a political painter like say David or Courbet, he nevertheless made comments about the times he lived in in his paintings. Often these were very subtle, and to modern eyes the message is sometimes lost, however, they were understood at the time.

Turner lived in interesting times, the Napoleonic wars had not long ended, the industrial revolution was in full swing, agriculture was also undergoing a transformation and on the political front there was disquiet over parliamentary reforms. All of which ended up in his paintings.

Traditional countryside paintings tended to be idealistic, for example Gainsborough’s ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’ (1750) showing a well healed landlord and his wife in front of an idyllic country backdrop. Even when portraying farm workers they tended to be salt of the earth types happy with their toil. Turner’s ‘Ploughing up Turnips near Slough’ (1808),+ however, showed a very different countryside, one that was coming to terms with the affects of land enclosures. For around 40 years prior to this painting, new agricultural reforms, including enclosing the land, had caused great suffering among poor rural workers who lost their common land and were now no more than farm labourers. This of course suited the rich landlords as they now had a ready supply of labourers that they could employ at low rates. Not only that but that could now sow different crops such as turnips as part of a crop rotation system. In this painting Turner’s sympathies lie with the poor farm labourer, working for someone else, in a muddy field for little pay. In the background can be seen Windsor Castle home of George III, known as farmer George and a great supporter of agricultural improvements.

In another painting ‘Salisbury from Old Sarum’ (1828) he depicts a family of shepherds, watching over a heard of sheep with Salisbury Cathedral in the far distance. On the face of it just another country landscape, except that Old Sarum was one of the worst of the ‘Rotten Boroughs’ it returned two MP’s although no one lived there. This was just one of the rotten boroughs at the centre of the reform movement. Other paintings like ‘Sidmouth, Devon’, (1825-27), ‘Northampton, Northamptonshire’ (1830-31) and ‘Wycliffe, near Rokeby’ (1861-20) all have similar symbolic/political meaning connected with reform.

In 1834 the Houses of Parliament accidentally burned down and Turner did two paintings of the inferno. He later took one of the paintings to be finished at the British Institution. This was a rival institution to the Royal Academy, however, its patrons were Tory peers, Bishops and the landed gentry…all those who opposed reform. Turner would not normally go there to finish a painting, however, on this occasion he did and worked on his painting for hours never looking at his audience. When he finished he packed his tools away and left with out a word. The completed painting was ‘The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834’ (1834) although the reform bill had been passed several years prior the message was clear enough!

Turner also turned his attention to the industrial changes that were occurring, in particular how steam was creating a new age. In ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ (1844) he depicts a train hurtling into view crossing a bridge. Below a small group of farm workers are gathering at the shore of a river, their traditional way of life soon to be altered forever with the construction of railways and the introduction of steam powered machinery.

This passing of one age and the heralding of another is perhaps best illustrated in one his most famous painting ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ (1838). Often described as a patriotic painting I think that it is more that that. The Temeraire had fought in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and was famous as the ship that sank the French ship that shot at and killed Nelson. Now in 1838 it was being towed up the Thames to be broken up. The Temeraire looking more like some kind of ghost ship is being towed by a steam ship whilst the sun sets in a blaze of glory and a new moon rising high in the sky. Clearly to me, despite its nationalistic overtones, this painting is a commentary on the passing of one age for another, sail giving way to steam.

Despite this painting Turner met with much derision in his final years, his paintings became more like abstracts than the traditional paintings of his time. Ruskin the Christian socialist who admired him greatly, however, defended him in his book ‘Modern Painters’ and later the French group of painters called the Impressionists looked to him for inspiration.

Near the end of his life he became a recluse taking the name of his mistress, who he later married, Booth as his own. When he died he left 20,000 paintings including 300 oil paintings to the nation. He also left £140,000 to help needy British artists. Unfortunately, his relatives disputed the will and were awarded the money, so some 150 years later a prize was set up in his name that he had nothing to do with. Indeed some of the Turner prize detractors stated that if Turner were alive today he would not win the prize named after him, as he is a painter.


. Top