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Artists Biography

Joseph Mallord William Turner RA

British 1775 - 1851
Turner13532 Final and best
Joseph Mallord William Turner, RA was an English Romanticist landscape painter. Turner was considered a controversial figure in his day, but is now regarded as the artist who elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivalling history painting. Although renowned for his oil paintings, Turner is also one of the greatest masters of British watercolour landscape painting. He is commonly known as "the painter of light" and his work is regarded as a Romantic preface to Impressionism.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was baptised on 14 May 1775, but his date of birth is unknown. Turner himself claimed he was born on 23 April, but there is no proof. He was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, in London, England. His father, William Turner was a barber and wig maker. His mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. A younger sister, Mary Ann, was born in September 1778 but died in August 1783.

In 1785 the young Turner was sent to stay with his maternal uncle, Joseph Mallord William Marshall. The earliest known artistic exercise by Turner is from this period - a series of simple colourings of engraved plates from Henry Boswell's Picturesque View of the Antiquities of England and Wales. Around 1786, Turner was sent to Margate on the north-east Kent coast. Here he produced a series of drawings of the town and surrounding area foreshadowing his later work. By this time, Turner's drawings were being exhibited in his father's shop window and sold for a few shillings. In 1789, Turner again stayed with his uncle who had retired to Sunningwell in Berkshire. A whole sketchbook of work from this time in Berkshire survives as well as a watercolour of Oxford.

Many early sketches by Turner were architectural studies and/or exercises in perspective, and it is known that, as a young man, he worked for several architects including Thomas Hardwick, James Wyatt and Joseph Bonomi the Elder. By the end of 1789, he had also begun to study under the topographical draughtsman Thomas Malton whom Turner would later call "My real master." He entered the Royal Academy of Art schools in 1789, when he was 14 years old, and was accepted into the academy a year later. At first Turner showed a keen interest in architecture, but was advised by the architect Thomas Hardwick to continue painting. His first watercolour painting, ‘A View of the Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth’ was accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1790 when Turner was 15.
From July 1790 to October 1793, his name appears in the registry of the academy over a hundred times. Turner exhibited watercolours each year at the academy while painting in the winter and travelling in the summer widely throughout Britain, particularly to Wales, where he produced a wide range of sketches for working up into studies and watercolours. Turner travelled widely in Europe, starting with France and Switzerland in 1802 and studying in the Louvre in Paris in the same year. He made many visits to Venice.
Important support for his work came from Walter Ramsden Fawkes, of Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire, who became a close friend of the artist. Turner first visited Otley in 1797, aged 22, when commissioned to paint watercolours of the area. He was so attracted to Otley and the surrounding area that he returned to it throughout his career. The stormy backdrop of ‘Hannibal Crossing The Alps’ is reputed to have been inspired by a storm over the Chevin in Otley while he was staying at Farnley Hall.
Turner was a frequent guest of George O'Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, at Petworth House in West Sussex and painted scenes that Egremont funded taken from the grounds of the house and of the Sussex countryside, including a view of the Chichester Canal. Petworth House still displays a number of paintings.
As Turner grew older, he became more eccentric. He had few close friends except for his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as his studio assistant. His father's death in 1829 had a profound effect on him, and thereafter he was subject to bouts of depression. He never married but had a relationship with an older widow, Sarah Danby. He is believed to have been the father of her two daughters born in 1801 and 1811. Later he had a relationship with Sophia Caroline Booth, after her second husband died, living for about 18 years as 'Mr Booth' in her house in Chelsea.
Turner died in the house of his lover Sophia Caroline Booth in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea on 19 December 1851, and is said to have uttered the last words "The Sun is God". At his request he was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, where he lies next to Sir Joshua Reynolds. His last exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1850.
Turner's talent was recognised early in his life. Financial independence allowed Turner to innovate freely; his mature work is characterised by a chromatic palette and broadly applied atmospheric washes of paint. According to David Piper's ‘The Illustrated History of Art’, his later pictures were called "fantastic puzzles." Turner was recognised as an artistic genius: influential English art critic John Ruskin described him as the artist who could most "stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature."
Turner left a small fortune which he hoped would be used to support what he called "decayed artists". He planned and designed an almshouse for them at Twickenham with a gallery for some of his works. His will was contested and in 1856, after a court battle, his first cousins received part of his fortune. Another portion went to the Royal Academy of Arts, which occasionally awards students the Turner Medal. His collection of finished paintings was bequeathed to the British nation, and he intended that a special gallery would be built to house them. This did not happen because of a failure to agree on a site, and the parsimony of British governments. Twenty-two years after his death, the British Parliament passed an act allowing his paintings to be lent to museums outside London, and so began the process of scattering the pictures which Turner had wanted to be kept together.
The Tate created the prestigious annual Turner Prize art award in 1984, named in Turner's honour, and 20 years later the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours founded the Winsor & Newton Turner Watercolour Award.
A major exhibition, "Turner's Britain", with material (including The Fighting Temeraire) on loan from around the globe, was held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from 7 November 2003 to 8 February 2004. In 2005, Turner's The Fighting Temeraire was voted Britain's "greatest painting" in a public poll organised by the BBC.
In April 2006, Christie's New York auctioned Giudecca, La Donna Della Salute and San Giorgio, a view of Venice exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841, for US$35.8 million, setting a new record for a Turner work. The New York Times stated that according to two sources who requested anonymity the buyer was casino magnate Stephen Wynn.
Between 1 October 2007 and 21 September 2008, the first major exhibition of Turner's work in the United States in more than 40 years came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Dallas Museum of Art.
In 2011, Margate opened The Turner Contemporary gallery to celebrate the association of the artist with the town.
On 7 July 2010, the J. Paul Getty Museum purchased Turner's final painting of Rome completed in 1839, Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, at a Sotheby's auction in London for $44.9 million.

Works by this artist…

  • Study of the Head of a Moorhen
    Study of the Head of a Moorhen
    ( ref : 13532 )
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