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J.M.W. Turner Biography And Visits

Maiden Lane as it looks today. Turner's house stood just past the tapas bar

When J.M.W. Turner was born in 1775 people travelled by stage coach. When he died in December 1851 the building of railways was well advanced. Turner's life spanned the Industrial Revolution, and in many ways his work reflects upon the changes of his time.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in Maiden Lane, London, on 23rd April 1775: or at least that is the traditional date. Turner was to be a patriotic creator of his own myth, and 23rd April, St Georges Day, was a birthday that he would have liked. Turner himself gave support to his traditional birth date in later life, but there is no evidence that he was actually born on this day. All we know for sure is that he was baptised on 14th May 1775.

Maiden Lane was a dark, narrow street, named after the prostitutes who used the area. Turner's father worked here as a barber. This seemingly unpromising setting had many hidden advantages. Covent Garden Market was only about a hundred yards away. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Theatre Royal Covent Garden were close by. When young William - he was never called Joseph during his lifetime - showed talent, William senior displayed his son's paintings in the shop. A barber's shop in Covent Garden made an excellent gallery, with thousands of people passing through, staying long enough to admire young Turner's pictures and talk to his proud father about them. While Turner's mother is a shadowy figure, who died neglected in Bethlehem psychiatric hospital, William senior was to be an early and lasting supporter of his son's work. As an obliging, hard working barber he built up a loyal clientele, which included people influential enough to help a talented boy. The energetic educator Sarah Trimmer came to hear of the young artist, and provided lessons at her house in Brentford, perhaps also for a while in Margate, Kent. Soon he was being hired as a colourist, and by the time he was twelve William was making money. Meanwhile the barber shop was still lending assistance. A grateful, and wealthy client left his hairdresser a bequest of £100. This money may well have been used to place William with an architectural draughtsman, Thomas Malton, who worked in nearby Long Acre. Then the Rev. Robert Nixon, a member of the Royal Academy came in to have his hair cut, and noticed the watercolours on display. He was so impressed that an introduction was arranged with the art school of the Royal Academy at Somerset House. William Turner was accepted at the school in 1790.



View from Richmond Hill

Turner seems to have been a respected student, and we can assume he was close to the soon-to-retire Academy president, Joshua Reynolds. This association is suggested by a small Turner watercolour painted around 1790. The painting shows a view from the back windows of Reynolds' house on Richmond Hill. This view of a graceful bend in the Thames at Richmond was to become a lasting image for Turner. Poignantly Reynolds himself could no longer see the view as he had gone blind. Perhaps this was part of the scene's power for Turner. The idea of looking and yet not seeing was to become a major theme in his painting.

Doing well with his studies, Turner's painting Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth, was to be his first work accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy in 1790. Turner often claimed that painting was his first love, and people came afterwards. Fittingly the couple in the Lambeth Palace painting walking merrily away from the old building could have been inspired by his own parents' marriage. His father went to Lambeth Palace in 1773 to apply for a marriage licence, and may have taken his mother with him. Parhaps this canvas of the carefree couple about to be married was Turner's own marriage licence, to painting. By 1793 Turner was settling into the pattern that would continue through his professional life, a habit of travelling in summer as research for painting in winter. There was a market for landscape painting, and the business-like Turner got on with finding landscapes. In the years 1790 to 1817 Turner came to know Britain better than almost anyone else of his time. In a newly mobile age, Turner set the pace.




Somerset House, home of the Royal Academy of Arts during Turner's lifetime

By the mid 1790s Turner had plenty of commissions. This was a time when Turner's painting changed. A style of clear precision was replaced by a more impressionistic style. It was as if he was more aware not so much of what he saw, but of seeing itself. He was interested in how different kinds of light obscured and presented subjects to him. A further change was the decision to start painting in oils, a medium he practiced with for four years before using on pictures for exhibition. Even though Turner did not follow any "school" of painting, his developing technique with oils shows the meticulous attention he paid to art's technical side. By the early 1800s Turner had hired an assistant, called Sebastian Grandi, to prepare his canvases. Grandi used a smelly, complicated process to produce an "absorbing ground" for a painting. "Take the bones of sheep's trotters, break them grossly and boil them in water until cleared from their grease, then put them into a crucible, calcine them and afterwards grind them to powder" (quoted in Turner A Life by James Hamilton).

This chalky powder was then combined with paint, and applied in a mosaic of colour patches over a rough sketch of the subject. These "dead colour" patches were organised to lie beneath surface colours applied by the artist, to make them appear more vivid.


In 1798 Turner bought a house in Harley Street, and began a ten year relationship with Sarah Danby. Sarah was the wife of a good friend of Turner's, John Danby, a musician who died tragically in May 1798. Characteristically Turner kept Sarah at a distance. Although Sarah was to have two children with Turner, he never lived with her. The house he bought in Harley Street was turned not into a home, but an art gallery. Turner was not about to settle down. In 1802 possibilities for travel widened dramatically. Following the French Revolution, the Peace of Amiens with France allowed, at least temporarily, travel in Europe. Turner immediately took advantage of this new freedom and set off for the continent. After seeing the Swiss Alps, Turner and his party made their way to Paris. Here a milestone in the history of art had been reached with the opening of the Louvre, the world's first free public art gallery. Napoleon had assembled art treasures looted from royal and aristocratic collections in France, Italy and Austria. Many members of the Royal Academy were at the Louvre that summer. The world was changing, and yet Turner, restless as always, seemed to feel that no matter how much the world changed, and no matter how far he travelled, he stayed where he was. Paintings that came out of this trip included Festival upon the opening of the vintage of Macon. In this painting the view of a continental river still recalls Reynolds' view of the Thames from Richmond Hill. There is the same gentle bend in the river with woods beyond. Turner enjoyed all the new sights his journeys revealed, but in a sense he also seemed to find what he had already seen.

Renewal of war with France the following year meant that Turner had to confine his travelling to Britain once again. But new horizons as Turner realised were deceptive. In 1810, Turner had written during a long tour of the south of England: "Hill after hill incessant cheats the eye." After more years of incessant travel and work, it was in Twickenham, down by that symbolic stretch of the Thames visible from Richmond Hill, that Turner decided to build himself a house. This house, known as Sandycombe Lodge, built to Turner's design, was finished by July 1813. It still survives in Sandycombe Road, Twickenham, under private ownership. To the east Turner could look up towards Reynold's house. Turner was to continue in his restless travelling, but Richmond Hill, one hill among many, is the hill where in many ways Turner decided to limit his view. On 10th August 1817 peace was finally achieved in Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. Turner left for the continent almost as soon as it was possible to travel. But before leaving he painted Richmond Hill on the Prince Regent's Birthday. Once again he came home to this special place on Richmond Hill before setting out on a journey which had been impossible for many years.




Turner's Old Star

Turner left for Europe, as he was now to do year after year. Many people travelled with him vicariously, his tours becoming a national institution. Readers would follow the artist's route in Turner's Annual Tour, a series of books first published in 1833. The 1830s, however, were a time of great upheaval for Turner. His father William, who had worked for his son into old age, finally died in September 1829. Turner made his will and started to make regular visits to Margate, then a fashionable holiday town. He would stay in a boarding house owned by Mrs Sophia Booth. When Mr Booth died in 1833, Turner's visits became more frequent, and Sophia became his companion. Sophia looked after Turner, as his father had done. He bought her a pub in Wapping to show his gratitude, called the Old Star. This pub survives as Turner's Old Star. See our page on London Docklands for more information.








The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 - this image is copyright free

So times were changing for Turner, and for Britain as a whole. In 1832 the Reform Act had finally been passed, which started the process of bringing wider democracy to Britain. In art there was a similar revolution. The 1830s saw Turner on the committee deciding where the new National Gallery would be placed. The location for this purpose built gallery in Trafalgar Square was chosen because it seemed convenient both for rich visitors coming from the West End, and poor visitors coming from the East End. A sense of change in these years seemed to culminate spectacularly on 16th October 1834 when the old Houses of Parliament burnt down. Turner was soon on the spot sketching the huge blaze, from a boat and from the opposite shore of the Thames. Turner's Parliament painting is a representation of the passing of the old world into which he had been born in 1775. This was made very clear in the extraordinary way in which the painting came into being. Turner took his sketches home and roughed out an outline for the picture. Then he framed his outline and sent it off to the British Institution in Pall Mall. For many years Turner had avoided the British Institution as a place to display his pictures, since it remained "the creature of aristocracy; it's directors represented the same body of peers and bishops who had delayed the passage of the Reform Bill for so long" (Turner A Life , James Hamilton P 265). Turner chose to return to the British Institution to send a message to the British establishment that the old order was finished. To make this point even more strongly Turner finished the painting on one of the "varnishing days," days set aside before an exhibition to allow artists to put finishing touches to paintings in the exhibition space where they will be viewed. Turner arrived at the British Institution with paint, a few brushes, a palette knife, a bottle or two, and his fingers. Then in front of a silent audience of admirers he painted his picture of the end of the old Parliament buildings, in one unbroken effort over a few hours. As soon as the painting was finished he packed up his gear and left. Point made. The painting is now a fascinating landmark in British history, a pictorial representation of a crucial watershed.



The Fighting Temeraire - this image is copyright free

The passing of the old world was clearly on Turner's mind in these years. In September 1838 Turner was making his usual trip by steamer along the Thames to and from Margate. At this time an old battleship, the Temeraire, which had fought at Trafalgar was moored at Rotherhithe. She was being slowly broken up. This event inspired Turner's best known and best loved painting, The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up. In this picture the old battleship Temeraire is towed by a small steam tug to its last resting place. William Thackery said of the picture in Frazer's Magazine: "The old Temeraire is dragged to her last home by a little, spiteful, diabolical steamer. A mighty red sun amidst a host of flaring clouds, sinks to rest on one side of the picture, and illumines a river that seems interminable, and a countless navy that fades away into such wonderful distance as never was painted before." (Quoted in Turner by Luke Herrmann P47)

Masts in the picture follow a rising curve from the far distance up to a great peak with the Temeraire, before dropping down to the stubby black funnel of the steamer, and ending at the dark lump of the mooring post, where presumably the Temeraire will end her journey. The world does not simply move on in a rising curve. Even though the steam tug is the future, there is also a sense in which the future is a regression. This picture depicts neither an end nor a beginning. Instead there is a sense of a circle of life in an age when life, apparently, would never be the same again. In the words of James Hamilton this painting "brings and balances facts together: sail and steam, air and water, past and present, setting sun and new moon: it balances qualities; old age and the new, dignity and presumption, silence and noise, steadiness and urgency, the temporal and the eternal" (P283). It is both a dark and hopeful painting. When I saw The Fighting Temeraire at the National Gallery, a group of school children were sitting cross legged in front of the painting, being told about it by a rather elderly member of the National Gallery staff. Turner would have liked that meeting of youth and age I think.



Turner lived on, still producing masterpieces. In these final years Turner was the grand old man of the Royal Academy. He'd walk about the galleries on varnishing days offering advice. Sophia did her best to look after him and keep him looking presentable, but she couldn't prevent a slide into some dishevelment. C.H. Lear in his diary for May 1847 described "a little man dressed in a long tail coat, thread gloves, big shoes and a hat of most miserable description made doubly melancholy by the addition of a piece of broad shabby dingy crepe encircling two thirds at least" (quoted in Turner A Life by James Hamilton P 306). In 1847, despite Sophia's best efforts to protect him, Turner caught cholera. This was a disease that could kill within hours, but amazingly, nursed by Sophia, and Dr David Price of Margate, the old man survived, and began painting again. Trips to Deal and Margate followed in the summer of 1850 when Turner painted his last watercolours. From May 1850 Turner was an invalid, with steadily worsening heart disease. He spent his last months in the house in Chelsea he shared with Sophia. This house stood beside the Thames which had run through Turner's entire career. He died there on 19th December 1851. Turner is buried in St Paul's Cathedral. In the end it is surprising how compact Turner's world was. He was born in Maiden Lane, studied and worked at the Royal Academy at Somerset House, about five minutes walk away, helped set up the National Gallery, once again about five minutes from his birth place. And only a street or two away runs the Thames which flows through so much of Turner's work. Turner was a great traveller, but he knew that over the next hill was just another hill. Alongside his restlessness was the ability to accept just one hill.

In 1856, Turner's estate was settled by a decree in which all works found in his studio were given to the nation as the "Turner Bequest". The 300 oil paintings and 30,000 sketches which make up the Bequest are now housed at the Tate Britain. The National Gallery has a group of about nine paintings to show Turner in the context of the history of art as a whole.