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J.M.W Turner: Painting Set Free

About the Artist

Turner was short and stout, and he had a sturdy, sailor – like walk. There was in fact nothing elegant in his appearance…

– C. R. Leslie, friend of Turner

Charles Martin (1820-1906), Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (1755-1851), 1849, Pencil and watercolour heightened with gum arabic on paper, 33.5 x 22.9 cm, Private Collection, Photo © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images

J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851)

Joseph Mallord William Turner is widely regarded as Britain’s most original artist and perhaps the greatest watercolourist of all time. A likeable eccentric, he had an insatiable curiosity, a powerful imagination, and boundless energy and ambition. In the last 15 years of his career – the focus of this exhibition – Turner continued to search for innovative ways to paint landscapes, experimenting with new techniques, colours, formats and even subjects. “An astonishing magician” is how one contemporary described him. Inspired by travels abroad and encounters with nature – mountains, the sea, extreme weather – Turner injected a newfound emotional power into landscape. He truly set 19th-century painting free.

Turner’s father was a wigmaker in central London. He lived with his son and the two were very close, perhaps as a result of the mental instability and institutionalization of Mary Marshall, the artist’s mother. William Turner performed the duties of an artist’s assistant, grinding pigments and preparing and varnishing canvases. J.M. W. Turner was motivated by the knowledge that his work gave his father pleasure and pride. He was never the same after his father’s death.

Although Turner never married, he wasn’t without companionship. In 1799, he begins an affair with Sarah Danby, the mother of his two daughters. And in 1833, Turner met Sophia Booth, a financially independent widow, when he stayed at her boarding house in a picturesque port on the Thames River. Turner was inspired by the view of sky, water and boats from her property, and his time there proved highly productive. Together for the rest of his life, Sophia Booth and Turner kept their relationship a secret for 18 years. No known portrait of Booth survives.

The man was uncouth, but with a wonderful range of mind.

– John Constable

Turner was both a financially and critically successful painter in his own lifetime. An avid fisherman and heavy drinker, reputedly consuming eight pints of rum and milk every day, Turner’s health declined after 1845, making it impossible for him to travel abroad. Various illnesses slowed his productivity, but he continued to socialize in artistic circles. In 1846, Turner relocated to a cottage on the Chelsea riverfront that he shared with his companion, Sophia Booth. Turner died on December 19, 1851, and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Turner left an estate valued at £140,000 – an enormous sum equivalent to 10 million dollars in today’s currency – with instructions to establish a charity for poor artists. Members of his family contested his will, however, and this wish was never realized. In the final settlement, the British nation received the entire contents of the artist’s studio, including 100 finished oils, 182 unfinished oils and oil sketches, 300 sketchbooks and 30,000 drawings and watercolours. They are now housed at Tate Britain in London. The AGO has 4 watercolours and a selection of prints by Turner in its permanent collection.

[Turner was] the finest creator of mystery in the whole of art.

– Claude Debussy

Organised by Tate Britain in association with the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the J. Paul Getty Museum

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