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One of the curators of the world’s largest collections of works by J.M.W. Turner, Matthew Imms, tells us about the artist’s continued popularity and why if you can’t visit Tate Britain to see them yourself it’s worth a visit to www.tate.org.uk, exclusively sponsored by BT.
The Fighting Temeraire
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A recent BBC Radio 4 poll to find the nation’s favourite painting chose Turner’s Fighting Temeraire. In fact it transpired the shortlist had been tweaked by the judges because the public had chosen too many Turners and the judges wanted the list to be more varied. In a country often considered to be more literary than visual, this sort of popularity is quite an achievement.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in London in April 1775, the son of a barber from a Devon family. His proud father hung up the boy’s youthful copies of prints in his shop; soon he was studying at the Royal Academy (then near his Covent Garden home) and from 1790 exhibited regularly at the Summer exhibitions – still held today. He died late in 1851 at his small Chelsea house looking over the Thames, having been born near the river and rarely living far from it.
Despite his magnanimous claim that he would have starved if it were not for the early death of his friend the watercolourist Thomas Girtin, Turner rapidly achieved fame, with aristocratic patrons buying and commissioning oil paintings, and election to full membership of the Royal Academy at the age of twenty-six. His watercolours were also eagerly sought, with a new generation of industrialists continuing to support him, while his work was popularised through series of prints such as the Picturesque Views in England and Wales, illustrations to books by poets of the day including Byron, and travel books for the ever-expanding tourist market. The landmarks of his life can all be seen at Tate Online, developed in association with BT: Tate Online: Turner Timeline.
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His personal life was a mystery to many of his contemporaries, and though he had a number of warm friendships, his preference for privacy and economy was sometimes interpreted as meanness. He had been deeply affected by his mother’s troubled mental state and death in the years when he was first achieving success; happily, he remained close to his father, who later acted as his studio assistant and handyman. He never married, but is generally thought to have had two daughters from a long-term relationship, and later found contentment with a Margate landlady, Mrs Booth, who moved in with him at Chelsea – where he let locals assume he was a seafaring man, “Admiral Booth”. Turner’s full biography can be found at Tate Online: Turner’s Biography.
As well as exhibiting at the Royal Academy, Turner designed and opened his own gallery at his house off Harley Street in the West End of London, at first holding regular public exhibitions. Later, as he became more reclusive, a visit to the decaying room stacked with neglected pictures became a rare trophy for art lovers, who left vivid accounts of the Dickensian experience, with paintings blocking up broken windows, and Manx cats leaving their paw prints on stray drawings. A recreation in virtual reality, developed in conjunction with BT, with pictures now in the Tate Collection, can be seen at Tate Online: Turner Gallery.
Another rich area to explore online is built around Turner’s many travels. Turner began a lifetime of travelling with short tours in the south of England , soon extending his range to Wales, Northumbria and the Lake District , and visited Scotland a year before his first trip to the Continent in 1802, during a brief lull in the wars with Napoleon. His sketches in the Alps, and studies of the Old Master paintings in the Louvre, had to suffice until the peace of 1815. He drew the battlefield of Waterloo in 1817, on a round trip of Belgium, the Rhine and the Netherlands. A key moment in his life was his brief stay in Venice on the way to Rome and Naples in 1819; the Italian light immediately affected his style, and his colours became brighter and airier.
Meanwhile he alternated his visits abroad with regular visits to friends and patrons such as Walter Fawkes at Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, and the Earl of Egremont at Petworth House in Sussex. Later visits to the Continent took in further stays in Venice, where he remained entranced by the magical light, and new explorations of France and Germany. Wherever he went, he was constantly sketching in pencil or watercolour, gathering information and ideas for the paintings he would complete in his studio ready for the next exhibition or publication. His imagination took his work even further – sometimes, with the guidance of sketches by other artists – to Greece, Egypt, India and the Americas. Online you can explore maps of Europe and Britain to see exactly where he travelled and link through to sketches and finished works: Turner Collection by geographic location.
The Turner Bequest
With the settlement of Turner’s will in 1856, most of the works in his studio came to the nation. Today, almost all of these three hundred oil paintings, and thirty thousand watercolours and drawings (the majority contained in about three hundred sketchbooks), are housed in the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain
(Tate Online: Turner Bequest).
For those who wish to plan a visit or simply explore the works at home, the Tate website aided by BT technology illustrates them all, and cross-references them and works by other artists through a subject index and other search facilities
(Tate Online: Tate Collection). You can also spend time online “flicking” page by page through the hundreds of sketchbooks
(Turner Collection: Sketchbooks).
Admirers and influence
The later paintings became increasingly personal and, with their perceived lack of detail and complex ideas, difficult for some contemporaries to interpret other than as symptoms of madness. Turner’s contemporary John Constable praised his “wonderful range of mind”, but attacks by uninformed writers led to the young John Ruskin embarking on his book Modern Painters, his famous defence of Turner, leading to renewed appreciation of his work in the twilight of his career and for many years to come.
The Impressionists Monet and Pissarro admired it when they visited London , as have many artists since – when the American abstract painter Mark Rothko donated a major group of paintings to the Tate Gallery, a key factor was the thought of them being in the same collection as so many Turners. His work continues to influence contemporary artists such as semi-abstract British landscape painter John Virtue, who has called Turner “the greatest, the most miraculous, the most convincing” British artist, and the American James Turrell, who works with installations of pure light, and thinks of Turner’s late, atmospheric works as “looking into the universe”.
His popularity is still very evident today. His immense range – from picturesque studies of castles and abbeys, sparkling rivers and idyllic pastures, stormy seascapes and precipitous mountains, the bustling towns and villages of Britain and Europe through the Industrial Revolution and years of war and peace to the age of steam, along with visionary accounts of the myths and histories of ancient Greece and Rome, to the ethereal beauty of the watercolour studies and late, unfinished paintings – means that there is surely something for everyone to appreciate. When Tate asked people to contribute thoughts on Turner, responses came from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Jane Asher and Michael Palin to name a few; historic and contemporary comments can be found online at Tate Online: Talking Turner.
One of the recent developments online is the integration of records and images for more than two thousand paintings, watercolours and drawings from other collections in Britain and around the world – from Europe, America and Canada to South Africa, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Known as Turner Worldwide, it is the first online catalogue of its type and a valuable resource for all Turner enthusiasts as it aims eventually to bring all of his works together in one place. With such a prolific artist this would have been much more difficult in print and the flexibility of the website means that information can be regularly updated and added as we discover more.
In fact the website has proved vital in providing a platform to collate research on Turner and in opening up access to a vast collection of works, many of which are too fragile to be regularly on display. Many of the website initiatives are groundbreaking, and along with the accompanying technology have been made possible by our long-term sponsors BT who have worked closely with us to develop these different areas.