All great artists need great subjects. Joseph Mallord William Turner was no exception. Although extremely talented, he was especially fortunate to have lived through stirring times.
A recently-opened exhibition at Tate Britain brings together over 160 of his works to explore how he captured ‘his world’, an era of unprecedented upheaval brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
Born in 1775, Turner was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art at just 14, supplementing his studies by tutoring and painting for architects. The hard work paid off: in 1804, he opened a personal gallery near his Harley Street home.
Success also allowed him to travel: first to Britain, and later to continental Europe. The many trips he made were essential to the development of his own style, which was increasingly luminous and atmospheric.
It is recognisable in two haunting paintings of Trafalgar and Waterloo, which were chaotic and violent rather than glorious. Still, Turner had become something of the nation’s chronicler, thanks largely to his skill and prodigious output.
Turner never married, although he did father two children. In later years he grew famously erratic and anti-social, reluctant even to sell his own work.
Just over a decade before his death in 1851, he witnessed a once-mighty warship being towed up the Thames to meet its fate at a breaker’s yard, and immortalised the experience in a painting called The Fighting Temeraire. It was his masterpiece.
Somnolent and whimsical, it reflects the extraordinary events of recent times, but also the certainty of those events soon passing into history. As Turner intimately understood, nothing in the world stayed modern for long.
A FIRST RATE TAKING IN STORES (1818)
Turner here depicts first rates, the most powerful ships the Royal Navy then possessed. HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, was a first rate. It is the only one of its kind to survive to this day.
PEACE – BURIAL AT SEA (1842)
Here, Turner imagines the burial at sea of his friend, fellow artist David Wilkie, who died during an 1841 visit to the Middle East. Compared with its pair, War, it evokes the calm and dignity of Wilkie’s passing.
WAR – THE EXILE AND THE ROCK LIMPET (1842)
In contrast, this painting shows Napoleon standing in front of a fiery red sunset during his exile on St Helena. Intended by Turner to represent a ‘sea of blood’, it was a reminder of the violent wars Napoleon had launched.
THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR, AS SEEN FROM THE MIZEN STARBOARD SHROUDS OF THE VICTORY (1806-1808)
In painting one of Britain’s great naval triumphs – and tragedies – of the era, Turner did his research, working from both reportage and his personal observations of the ships involved. His style well suited the chaos and tragedy of the scene.
THE FIELD OF WATERLOO (1817)
Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo brought nearly 25 years of war in Europe to an end. Turner took advantage of the new freedom of movement that came with peace, visiting the battlefield near the site of a small Belgian village.
THE FIGHTING TEMERAIRE (1838)
The Temeraire was a second-rate battleship first launched in 1798, which saw action at Trafalgar. But when steam replaced sail, she became obsolete. A 2005 opinion poll found this to be Britain’s favourite painting.
The exhibition Turner’s Modern World runs at Tate Britain until 7 March 2021.
Tate Britain, Millbank, Westminster,
London, SW1P 4RG
+44 (0) 20 7887 8888
All visitors are required to book a timed ticket, which costs £22 (members go free). This ticket includes access to the British art collections routes. Visitors must adhere to the latest safety guidelines, including the wearing of a face covering and maintaining social distancing. For more information, visit www.tate.org.uk.