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Joseph Mallord William Turner
Dates: British, 1775 - 1851
Biographical Account:

JMW Turner is thought to have been born on 23rd April 1775 in Covent Gardens. Whilst his mother suffered with mental health and was in and out of institutions until her death in 1804, his father was supportive of his artistic flair and Turner joined Royal Academy Schools in 1789. His diverse approach during these years is reflected by work experience in architecture, theatre scenery painting, and topography. Topography provided Turner’s first real income, where he toured the country producing depictions of landscapes to sell, exhibit and print in books. 

Turner began exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1790 with watercolours. This prompted his first important commissions that were initially architectural/topographical, such as the view of Salisbury and its Cathedral ordered by Sir Richard Colt Hoare in 1795. Following an array of other commissions and after attracting recognition, Turner was sponsored during the pause in conflict between France and UK brought by the Treaty of Amiens 1802 to travel to Paris and study the Old Masters at the Louvre. 

On the back of the Royal Academy and increasing recognition, Turner opened his own gallery in 1804. He also began lecturing at the Royal Academy in 1811 as Professor of Perspective, but his passion remained elsewhere meaning he also spent these years classifying the history of landscape art, which he then backed up with his own series of original prints Liber Studorium

History remembers Turner as a reclusive and private individual. In 1807 he built his own villa where he lived with his father. For several years he was linked to widow Sarah Danby, and is thought to have fathered her two children, although a recent theory suggests this may have actually been Turner’s father. 

Turner continued to tour, for example he visited Devon in 1813 where he produced Crossing the Brook. This trip supplied material for the first substantial series to be based on Turner’s watercolours’, Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England, which brought his work to the wider public’s attention as well as bolstering his income. 

Later, in 1817, Turner visited Belgium and Holland to see the battlefield of Waterloo, and the Rhineland. Here he produced The Field of Waterloo, which was accompanied with an epigraph by Byron. Turner would later continue to tour Italy, France, and Scotland, at times pairing with luminaries of the literary sphere. By this point, several collectors had begun focussing on Turner’s work, e.g. Walter Fawkes exhibited his collection of Turner’s in 1819 and 1820, as did Sir John Leicester. Here, Turner started to redefine exhibition culture of the time by mingling in with crowds of visitors. In terms of his own exhibition space, Turner set to re-open this in museum format in 1822, in preparation for his own legacy. In 1823, Turner was finally granted a royal commission for The Battle of Trafalgar

In later years, Turner’s position in the public sphere is reflected by his production of works signifying historical shifts towards modernity. Some examples include the Burning of the Houses of Parliament following the Reform Bill of 1832, his depictions of post-Romantic Venice, or the warship Temeraire which symbolised the decline of sail in favour of steam. 

When Turner received criticism during this period a new generation of artists, clinched by his take on modernity, jumped to elevate him. This began with Ruskin placing Turner at the head of his book Modern Painters 1843, in part because of his approach to nature. 

Turner’s final years saw his work cross the Atlantic and reach America, a stint as Acting President of the Royal Academy, and The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa became his first piece to be hung at the National Gallery in 1847. In 1846 he moved in with his landlady, widower and companion, Mrs Booth, who looked after him in his closing years. Here he produced the Turner Bequest to help the legacy of his finished pieces. Turner died in December 1851 after contracting cholera. By 1862, a marble statue had been erected of Turner, and the first biography was written.



Turner, Joseph Mallord William


Written by Luke Herrmann, oxford dictionary of National biograpy


Turner, Joseph Mallord William (1775–1851), landscape and history painter, was born in 1775 (according to his own reminiscence on 23 April), the son of William Turner (1745–1829), barber and wig-maker, of 21 Maiden Lane, in the parish of St Paul's, Covent Garden, London, and his wife, Mary Marshall (1739–1804), whom he had married at St Paul's on 29 August 1773. The baby was baptized at St Paul's on 14 May (in the register Mallord was spelt Mallad). William Turner was of a Devonshire family, and was born in South Molton, where his father was a saddler, on 29 June 1745. Mary Marshall was six years older than her husband and came from a family of artisans and tradesmen living in the outskirts of London. She named her son after one of her brothers, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, who was a butcher in Brentford, Middlesex, and with whom Turner was sent to stay in 1785. Turner was known in his early years as William Turner. An elder sister married a curate at Islington, Henry Harpur, whose grandson, another Henry, was one of Turner's executors. Another Marshall relative, perhaps also a brother, was a fishmonger at Margate, Kent, with whom Turner was sent to stay in 1786. These absences from home were probably because of the ill health and instability of his mother, who became insane at the end of her life and died in an asylum on 15 April 1804. Turner's only surviving sibling, Mary Ann, was baptized at St Paul's, Covent Garden, on 6 September 1778, and was buried there on 8 August 1783.

Education and training

There is little firm information about Turner's education and training. When staying at Brentford in 1785 he attended John White's school, and while in Margate in the following year he was at the school of Thomas Coleman, an active Methodist preacher. At Brentford the ten- or eleven-year-old Turner is said to have coloured some of the engravings in a copy of Henry Boswell's Antiquities of England and Wales for John Lees, foreman of a distillery, who paid him 2d. for each plate. Turner's earliest surviving watercolour drawings are of subjects in and near Margate (W 1–4, all priv. coll.) and were probably made during the 1786 visit. The earliest drawings in the Turner Bequest in Tate Britain are copies from engravings dated 1787 (W 5–6). Tradition has it that Turner's father encouraged his son's artistic talents, and displayed some of his drawings for sale in his shop window and doorway—the family had by now moved to 26 Maiden Lane—at prices ranging from 1 to 3s. Another long-standing tradition is that he was employed to hand-colour prints by the leading mezzotint engraver John Raphael Smith, one of the many printmakers working in the Covent Garden area.

There are also claims that the young Turner was apprenticed to or employed as a draughtsman by a number of architects, among them Thomas HardwickWilliam Porden, and Joseph Bonomi; the strongest evidence for such employment is with Thomas Hardwick, who was from 1787 to 1790 in charge of rebuilding the church of St Mary in Wanstead, Essex, of which there is a drawing by Turner in the Turner Bequest (TB IV A). In the summer of 1789 the young artist stayed at Sunningwell, near Oxford, with his maternal uncle Joseph Marshall, and he filled a sketchbook (TB II) with pencil drawings of buildings and views in and around Oxford, from some of which he completed finished watercolours. By the end of 1789 Turner was definitely working with the architectural draughtsman Thomas Malton the younger, and on 11 December he was admitted as a student at the Royal Academy Schools, which he attended for several years. In the Turner Bequest there is a group of drawings from the antique (TB V), most of which were probably the result of his early studies in the plaster academy at the Royal Academy Schools. He began to work in the life academy in June 1792, and last signed its register in November 1799.

However, landscape and topographical drawing and painting were not taught at the Royal Academy, and in this vital area Turner was in many ways his own teacher, except for the encouragement and help provided by Dr Thomas Monro and his so-called academy. Monro, a physician who specialized in mental disorders, was a collector and amateur artist who from about 1794 assembled young artists at his house in the Adelphi to copy from drawings in his collection, many of them by J. R. Cozens, who spent the last years of his life in the doctor's care. Turner's close contemporary and friend Thomas Girtin was among his fellow students at the Adelphi, and it is often difficult to be certain which of them was responsible for specific ‘Monro school’ drawings. Our most detailed information about the Monro academy comes from the diary of Joseph Farington, who first mentioned it in December 1794 and then recorded on 12 November 1798 that:

Turner & Girtin told us that they had been employed by Dr. Monro 3 years to draw at his house in the evenings. They went at 6 and staid till Ten. Girtin drew in outlines and Turner washed in the effects. Turner afterwards told me that Dr. Munro had been a material friend to him, as well as to Girtin.

Farington, Diary, 3.1090

First tours and exhibits, 1790–1798

Turner's first exhibit at a Royal Academy summer exhibition was no. 644 in 1790, a watercolour of the archbishop's palace, Lambeth (W 10; Indianapolis Museum of Art), an exercise in perspective drawing in which the influences of Malton and of Paul Sandby can be seen. The drawing was not sold, and after the exhibition Turner gave it to his father's friend John Narraway of Bristol, with whose family he stayed for several weeks in 1791 during his second sketching tour, which resulted in the 'Bristol and Malmesbury sketchbook' (TB VI), which contains several drawings of the Avon Gorge and of Malmesbury Abbey, some of which he again developed into exhibition and other finished watercolours. These annual sketching tours, during which he gathered material for his finished work, became a regular feature of Turner's working life, as they were for most British topographical artists of this period. Turner can rarely have been without a sketchbook and pencil to hand, and must have been drawing continuously during his travels, as the close on 300 sketchbooks in the Turner Bequest reveal. These sketchbooks, which he himself labelled carefully, became the artist's reference library, the contents of which were regularly used as the basis of finished drawings, including those for engraving, and paintings. As well as providing evidence of ,

J M W Turner was best known for creating atmospheric effects with his distinctive style of painting. He was born in 1775 in Covent Garden, London and became a student at the Royal Academy of Art School in June 1789. After only one year of study, Turner’s watercolour was accepted at the Royal Academy for the Summer Exhibition of 179. He exhibited at the academy almost every year for the rest of his life.


Turner’s talent was recognised early in his life, his pencil sketches and watercolours of the British landscape showed much attention to architectural detail. He would use low-toned and subdued colours such as blues, greys, browns and greens.


Turner took regular trips across Europe, visiting France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. He would spend most of his time making drawings, sketches and watercolours of scenes in Venice, Switzerland and Paris. He would make quick on-the-spot watercolour studies, where he responded to the different light and weather effects.


During his first trip to Italy he encountered the Mediterranean lighting, which was much warmer and brighter than that of England. This was a turning point for his work. The colours inspired him to use dramatic lighting, warmer tones and tranquil washes, a contrast from the paintings of Britain.


As Turner travelled across Europe he would experiment with different types of paper, newly-developed colours and paints. He liked to see how they affected the way he painted. He would use white papers to enhance the transparency of the watercolour washes or use a type of blue paper that would have a rougher texture for the sketches of the Loire and Seine Rivers in France.


Turner is one of the most celebrated British artists and his unique style of painting was a huge influence for the French impressionists, particularly Claude Monet.


Turner’s last exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1850. He died on the 19th December 1851.

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