J.M.W. Turner: A Biography
In 2005 the British Broadcasting Corporation sponsored a program to find the greatest painting in Britain. Any painting hanging in a British art gallery was eligible to become The Greatest Painting in Britain, whether it was created by an Englishman or not.
After every work of art in the country was evaluated a short list of finalists by British, Italian, Dutch, Belgian and French artists was announced. There were heavy hitters like Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh. Also on the list was one of the most original works in the Western World's art canon - The Arnolfini Portrait by Netherlands painter Jan van Eyck in 1434, perpetrated with oils on three panels of oak boards.
In the end the vote was not all that close. The winner was The Fighting Téméraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to Be Broken Up, 1838 painted by a contemporary and bitter rival of Constable, Joseph William Mallord Turner.
Turner was secretive and prolific in his paintings and did more than any other artist to elevate landscape painting to the lofty status of historical painting that was universally held to be the highest form of Western painting. Turner knew his rightful place among the Old Masters; 150 years after his death the people of England agreed with him.
This book tells his incredible story.
Chapter 1: Early Life The last time the sheep and cattle market town of South Molton in the Shire of Devon blazed prominently on English radar was in 1655. John Penruddock, who was a member of the Sealed Knot, a secret society of Royalists agitating for the Restoration of the Monarchy, selected South Molton as the place for him to lead the association's largest revolt. The Penruddock Uprising was easily put down in a few hours by Oliver Cromwell's troops, and for his troubles, the 36-year old Colonel's head was severed from the rest of his body. This is where Joseph Mallord William Turner's people lived.
His grandfather began shearing human heads as well as sheep's fleece, but there were not enough heads in South Molton for two barbers to prosper, so his son William set out from southwestern England to practice his trade in the big city of London in 1770. William Turner settled in the heart of London at 26 Maiden Lane in the working class district of Covent Garden, opening his barbering business and wig-making shop just a few blocks from the River Thames.
William, spare and muscular, had an engaging manner and great reserves of energy. He was gregarious and flashed an ever-present smile and quickly established an amiable presence for his business on Maiden Lane. Here the young haircutter met Mary Marshall, said to be a member of Shelford manor in Nottinghamshire with roots going back to King Henry II in the 12th century. By the 18th century, however, what privileges may have once accrued to her family had eroded. Mary had a brother who was a fishmonger on the docks of the North Sea at Margate, and another working as a butcher in Brentford west of London. On August 29, 1773 William Turner, aged 28, and Mary Marshall, who was a rare maiden to wed for the first time at age 34, were married at St. Paul's Cathedral, the masterwork of architect Sir Christopher Wren.
William and Mary's first child arrived on April 23, 1775, four days after the first shots were fired in the American colonies at Lexington and Concord. He was given the name of his mother's oldest brother, Joseph. A little sister was born in 1778 and named after her mother, but Mary Anne would die just days before her fifth birthday. Joseph Mallord William Turner would thereafter grow up as an only child.
It became apparent early on that young Joseph would not be following his relatives behind a counter in an English shop. Even before he entered school, he was demonstrating a talent for art by sketching out a coat-of-arms for a local jeweler from a set of castors, and at the age of nine he completed a detailed drawing of the church in his uncle's seaside town of Margate that was kept and treasured by a resident named John White. William told anyone who listened about his boy, "the artist."
Chapter 2: Education At the age of ten, following an illness, Joseph went away from the city to school in Brentford, where he lived with his uncle the butcher. He was kept busy coloring engravings from Henry Boswell's recently released Antiquities of England and Wales for a local distiller who paid him a fourpence, a silver coin worth four pennies, per engraving. Copies of the engravings were sent to his father who put them for sale in his shop, where many of his customers were literary figures, actors, architects and painters who required their powdered wigs teased. The copied engravings and young Turner's own drawings sold well, enough so that William reluctantly gave up his dream of his son continuing in the family tradition of barbering and wig-making.
In 1786, young Turner was sent to a school on Soho Square to receive his first art instruction with a floral drawing master named Palice. He already seemed to be well beyond that point, being busily employed copying watercolors, coloring prints and making his own sketches. John Raphael Smith, a respected engraver and print seller, sent regular work to both Turner and a fellow fledgling artist two months his senior, Thomas Girtin. Turner and Girtin became friends who would in short time become flag bearers for the establishment of watercolor as a fine art form.
Sickly again at the age of 13 in 1788, Turner was sent back to the seacoast at Margate where he enrolled in school for about six months, the longest sustained formal education he would ever receive. The following year, back in London, he attended a school headmastered by Thomas Malton. Unable to keep up in math and geometry, Joseph was sent home as being "stupid and unteachable." Turner held no grudges but recognized his deficiencies with regards to practical learning; he would in later writings revel in his time as an architectural draftsman under Malton and refer to him as "my real master." Away from the classroom, Turner painted scenery for London theaters, where he picked up a lasting affection for opera and stage music.
All the while, Turner was doing work for local architects washing in skies and backgrounds to their drawings. Thomas Hardwick was so impressed with the young man's improvements to his architectural work that he advised Joseph to pursue a course as a landscape painter, and urged William to send his son to the Royal Academy Schools.
The Royal Academy of Arts had been founded by King George III in 1768, and rapidly became the country's leading society of artists. Classes were held in the sprawling Somerset House, that had been designed in a Neoclassical style by Sir William Chambers, overlooking the River Thames in central London. Turner was assigned to the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, a signal to all in the Academy that this was a lad of true talent.
Reynolds had been elected first President of the Royal Academy, and was acclaimed as the greatest English portraitist of the 18th century. Part of Turner's training was to copy some of Reynolds' famous portraits, including one of the great figure-painter himself. Turner's time under the influence of Sir Joshua was brief, as the master talent passed away at the age of 69 in 1792. Although he was kept busy with his portrait work, Reynolds always believed that history painting was the highest calling to which a painter could aspire, a conviction that was not lost on his young pupil.
By 1790, Turner was actively pursuing his craft as a landscape painter. He regularly set out on rambles of twenty and more miles in the countryside, hauling his sketchbook and pencils in a bundle slung over his shoulder on a stick. Having inherited his father's healthy constitution, Joseph was well-suited for such adventures. When he saw something that interested him, he stopped and started sketching. That same year he exhibited his first drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts, culled from his wanderings: A View of the Archbishop's Palace at Lambeth. In the next 60 years, exactly 267 paintings by J.M.W. Turner would hang on the Academy’s walls.
In 1792, Turner received a commission from John Walker, an engraver and print seller, who began publishing The Copper Plate Magazine and the Monthly Cabinet of Picturesque Prints that year. The Pocket Magazine was another publication to which Turner was able to sell illustrations during his malleable teenage years. His touring became more extensive at this time, ranging into South Wales as he made pictures during his travels of cathedrals, bridges and townscapes. He was also beginning to feel the pull of the sea during his travels.
Turner also picked up a job making copies of works by the influential landscape painter John Robert Cozens. Cozens was the son of Russian-born watercolor and drawing master, Alexander Cozens, who had emigrated from St. Petersburg to London via Italy when in his thirties during the 1740s. After studying with his father, the young Cozens began to have his drawings exhibited in the Royal Academy while still in his teens. He made two trips to the European continent of several years’ duration in his twenties that greatly influenced his work, as he imbued his landscapes with imaginative atmospheric effects that divided critical review of his work. Regardless of which side one fell on concerning Cozens' art, one of his renderings of Italy's Lake Albano from 1777 sold at auction in 2010 for more than two million dollars, more than any 18th century British watercolor has ever fetched.
In 1794, Cozens suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 42 and was sent to Bethlem Royal Hospital for the insane. He was never to recover and was cared for by the asylum's chief physician and one-time consulting doctor to King George III, Thomas Munro, for the remaining three years of his life. Turner was called on to finish many of the unfinished landscapes Cozens left behind.
In addition to his doctoring, Munro was an amateur draftsman and patron of British artists. Both Turner and Thomas Girtin became members of "the Munro Circle," artists who gathered at the famed collector's country house near Leatherhead. Turner's exposure to the country's most celebrated watercolorists constituted one of the most formative episodes of his art education.