The life and legacy of J.M.W. Turner

Regarded as a national treasure, Joseph Mallord William Turner was denounced as much as he was lauded during his lifetime. Ahead of the sale of four Turner watercolours at Christie's in New York, we chart the highs and lows in the career of a genius


Joseph Mallord William Turner, Self-Portrait, circa 1799 (detail). Photo © Tate, London 2017

The son of a wig-maker

Joseph Mallord William Turner’s father, William Gay Turner, was a barber and wig-maker in London’s Covent Garden. Recognising his son’s talent early on, William proudly displayed his son’s drawings around his shop, where they were seen by visiting gentlemen and dandies. As his success grew, the younger Turner eventually began to move in upper-class circles. But he remained proud of his roots, never dropping his Cockney accent or hiding his past.

Painting scenery for London playhouses

Turner was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in 1789, aged just 14. His progression was swift: Turner copied casts of ancient sculptures before moving on to life drawing and reproducing the Old Masters — firm foundations for his later, revolutionary work. To fund his education, Turner worked as an architectural draughtsman and painted scenery for London playhouses, activities which led him to develop both exceptional technical skill and a taste for landscapes.

Summers on the road, winters in the studio

Turner maintained a strict artistic routine for most of his adult life. He toured the British countryside each summer, making plein air  sketches and watercolours of dramatic views — such as his rendering of Norham Castle in Northumberland (above), which sold at Christie's in 2017 for £581,000. He spent the winter months in his studio, producing oil paintings based on these preparatory works. This practice freed him from London and the academic traditions he found stifling.

Wealthy patrons and travels abroad

Fishermen at Sea, Turner’s first oil work to be exhibited at the Royal Academy, in 1796, signalled the breadth of the artist’s ambitions as well as his technical virtuosity. Now in the permanent collection of the Tate Britain, the work — a forceful allegory of nature’s power — touched off a vogue for nocturnal scenes.

It also generated a flurry of commissions from wealthy patrons such as Richard Colt Hoare, who owned the Stourhead Estate in Wiltshire, England, and William Beckford, who requested landscape paintings of his Gothic palace, Fonthill, also in Wiltshire. Beckford also purchased Turner’s first history scene, The Fifth Plague of Egypt

Soon after, a consortium of businessmen provided the artist with a coach and guide, enabling him to travel to Paris to study paintings in the Louvre and to sketch landscapes throughout the Alps. The mountainous landscape had a lasting impact on his career, inspiring a lifetime of visits and works such as The Domleschg Valley Looking North, Switzerland  (above), and The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer (below).

‘Turner visited the lake many times,’ explains Furio Rinaldi, Christie’s Old Master Drawings specialist in New York, ‘but it was only between 1841 and 1844 that his knowledge of it was greatly improved because of the introduction of a steamboat [the Stadt Luzern] that could transport passengers from one side of the lake to the other in less than three hours.’

A talent for self-promotion

By 1804, when he was just 29 years old, Turner had opened his own gallery in London’s Harley Street, where he displayed both his early ambitious atmospheric landscapes and smaller, more intimate English pastoral scenes. This unorthodox, self-promoting approach proved a hit with important collectors, who offered Turner the run of their stately homes. Upon visiting the Harley Street gallery, the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova declared Turner a genius.

Later in life, Turner published volumes of his works that became popular with a newly minted bourgeoisie, capitalising on a mass market that was changing the nature of collecting and exhibiting. In time Turner became preoccupied with his own artistic legacy, attempting to buy back works and arranging for his personal collection to be housed at London’s newly opened National Gallery.

Critics be damned

Senior Academicians, important tastemakers and even the Prince Regent often found Turner to be hostile and pushy, and snubbed his work for debasing the Old Master tradition. Notes scrawled in his sketchbooks at the time reflect the bitterness provoked by these remarks. Ultimately, however, they pushed Turner to explore new artistic frontiers.

He began experimenting with unusual compositions, eschewing his brush in favour of a palette knife or even his thumb to scrape and smudge the surface of his works. The record-breaking Giudecca La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio (above), which sold at Christie’s for $35.8 million in 2006, was painted almost entirely with a knife.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (1775-1851), The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise, 1842. Watercolour, bodycolour, pen and brown ink, heightened with white chalk and with scratching out. 11¾ x 17¾ in (29.7 x 45 cm). Sold for £5,832,000 on 5 June 2006 at Christie’s London

Solitary and aloof

Famously solitary, Turner began spending more time at the lodge he had built in Twickenham, painting views of the Thames inspired by the landscapes of 17th-century French artist Claude. He shared his home with his devoted father — now a widower — who cooked, cleaned, gardened and prepared his oil paints and other materials. 

Turner, who once wrote that ‘Woman is doubtful love’, publicly denied being the father of two daughters born to his secret lover, Sarah Danby. His aloofness was reflected in paintings notably devoid of human figures, such as The Blue Rigi (above), a view of Lake Lucerne painted in 1842 that sold for £5.8 million at Christie’s in 2006.

The Blue Rigi was purchased for the nation in 2007 after £4.95 million was raised to prevent its export. Over £500,000 was contributed towards the fund by inviting members of the public to each purchase a pixel of the painting online for £5. It now hangs in the Tate Britain in London.

Existential anxiety and The Fighting Temeraire 

Beginning in the 1830s, Turner’s works took a darker turn. His scenes of Venice now presented La Serenissima as a decaying tourist trap. He painted the Houses of Parliament in flames, a scene he witnessed from a boat on the Thames. 

In 1839 he created perhaps his best-known work, The Fighting Temeraire, in which the grand gunship that played such a decisive role in the Battle of Trafalgar is drawn by tugboat to its final resting place, a scrapyard at London’s Rotherhithe Docks. 

Painted at the pinnacle of Turner’s career, the work highlighted his anxiety at the dawn of a new, industrial era. The crumbling majesty of the once-great ship represented human uncertainty in the face of modernity; a theme that prefigured the existentialist art movements of the 20th century. In 2005 the painting, which now hangs in the National Gallery, was voted the nation’s favourite in a BBC Radio 4 poll.

Dishevelment, disguise and death

In 1845 Turner was elected Acting President of the Royal Academy, but was forced to retire a year later due to ill health. His public appearances became rarer; when in London, he often donned a disguise and used a pseudonym. His dishevelled appearance and increasing paranoia permeated his later works, such as Sisteron from the North West, with a Low Sun, whose rough brushwork and muted palette would inspire the French Impressionists several decades later.

In search of healthy sea air and solace — which he found in the company of a widow who became his mistress, Mrs Sophia Booth — Turner began regularly returning to the coastal town of Margate in Kent. There he completed some of his final works, drawing fishermen, sailors and tourists, including the below work, Figures by the Shore at Margate

By 1851 Turner was bed-bound; he died on 19 December that year. Fittingly for the master painter of natural light, Turner was said to have been bathed in a flash of sunlight at the moment of his death. His body was interred at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he had arranged to be buried alongside his ‘Brothers in Art’, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence.

In 1862 a statue of Turner was erected in the cathedral, paid for with £1,000 earmarked in his will. The sculpture portrays him as a virile and proud hero of painting — a far cry from his bald, toothless and hollow-cheeked death mask.

Posthumous praise, galleries and prizes

The leading Victorian critic John Ruskin described Turner as the artist who could most ‘stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of nature’. By 1910 a wing of the National Gallery of British Art (now Tate Britain) housed his national bequest (in 1987 the collection was moved to the dedicated Clore Gallery in the same building).

In 1984 the annual Turner Prize was named in his honour, and in 2011 the Turner Contemporary gallery opened in Margate, celebrating the association between the artist and the seaside town. In 2016, Turner’s image was chosen by the Bank of England to appear on the new £20 note, honouring his profound contribution to British art.

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