Return to Featured Artists

Joseph Mallord William Turner RA

1775 - 1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner was one of the greatest of all British artists. He worked extremely quickly, but the brilliance and originality of his painting is unrivalled. By the age of 30 he was a successful artist, yet he remained a gruff, reclusive and intensely secretive character, remowned for his unkept dress and meaness with money.

Turner was the foremost English romantic painter and the most original of English landscape artists. He received almost no general education but at 14 was already a student at the Royal Academy of Arts and three years later was making topographical drawings for magazines. In 1791 for the first time he exhibited two watercolors at the Royal Academy.

In the following 10 years he exhibited regularly, was elected a member (1802), and was made professor of perspective (1807). By 1799 the sale of his work had freed him from drudgery and he devoted himself to the visionary interpretations of landscape for which he became famous. In 1802 he made a trip to the Continent, where he painted his famous Calais Pier. From then on he traveled constantly in England or abroad, making innumerable direct sketches from which he drew material for his studio paintings in oil and watercolor.

Turner showed a remarkable ability to distill the best from the tradition of landscape painting. Influence of the Dutch masters is apparent in his Sun Rising through Vapor. In the vein of the French classical landscape painter, Claude Lorrain, he produced the Liber Studiorum (1807–19), 70 drawings that were later reproduced by engraving under Turner's supervision. Among the paintings evocative of Claude's style are his Dido Building and Crossing the Brook.

Despite his early and continued success Turner lived the life of a recluse. As his fame grew he maintained a large gallery in London for exhibition of his work, but continued to live an obscure existence with his old father. His painting became increasingly abstract as he strove to portray light, space, and the elemental forces of nature. Characteristic of his later period are his paintings The Fighting Téméraire and Rain, Steam, and Speed. His late Venetian works, which describe atmospheric effects with brighter colors, include The Grand Canal and Approach to Venice. Turner encountered violent criticism as his style became increasingly free, but he was passionately defended by Sir Thomas Lawrence and the youthful Ruskin. His will, which was under litigation for many years, left more than 19,000 watercolors, drawings, and oils to the nation. Most of these works are in the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, London. Many of Turner's oils have deteriorated badly. In watercolor he is unsurpassed.


Fishmarket on the sands, Hastings
- Click image to view -