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J.M.W Turner: Painting Set Free

Light & Atmosphere

Throughout his career, Turner made no secret of his love of light. According to legend, his last words on his deathbed were “The sun is God.” For Turner, light produced colour, sculpted form, created mood and revealed the infinite beauties and horrors of nature. Capturing it in both watercolour and oil was a lifelong challenge for the artist. To bring intensity to his oil paintings, Turner pioneered the use of white undercoating, which lent new brilliance to his colours.

Turner was likewise drawn to infinite variations in weather. “Atmosphere,” he once commented, “is my style. Indistinctness is my forte.” Never before had the public confronted such memorable views “of nothing.” As his rival John Constable commented, “He seems to paint with tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy.”


Regulus, 1828, reworked 1837. Oil paint on canvas, 89.5 x 123.8 cm
Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Courtesy of Tate Photography

Marcus Atilius Regulus was a Roman consul captured by the Carthaginians during the First Punic War. He was tortured and killed after ignoring orders to negotiate a return of enemy prisoners. His eyelids were cut off, leaving him blinded by the sun. Turner first showed this picture in Rome in 1828. He repainted it in London in 1837, allegedly adding dazzling rays of sunlight in the days before the exhibition opened.

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London, 1841, Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Photography © Tate, London 2015

On October 30, 1841, a spectacular fire gutted the Grand Storehouse at the Tower of London. It burned for several days, destroying the collection of historic arms housed there. Turner’s request for direct admission to the fortress was refused by the Duke of Wellington, but he could have joined the huge crowds watching beyond the moat. This rapid study was one of nine that Turner probably made back at his studio.

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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