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Joseph Mallord William (J.M.W.) Turner managed to thrash, scrape, fling and in every other physical and visceral way raise landscape painting to the same level of respect as history paintings. 

The Rise of an Artist

No one knows exactly when Turner was born but he himself cites the date as April 23, 1775, possibly chosen because it is shared with a little known writer named Shakespeare. This early act of self-aggrandizement was not coincidental and matches his reputation for being ambitious and sometimes egotistical. So… he’s like every other successful artist? His enduring popularity would suggest otherwise. Despite being known, criticized, and eventually applauded for a mature style which often contained barely discernable ships, trains, and land amidst an unfocused haze of oils (and sometimes watercolors), Turner actually began his artistic life studying architecture with topographers. At one point he wanted to be an architect which to me is the equivalent of Bjork stating she ghost writes for Taylor Swift. Despite ability and talent, the styles just don’t match.  Thankfully for us, although being very good with more structured subject matter, Turner turned (feel free to guffaw) to nature which he said, “address[ed] itself to the imagination.”

Turner began painting as a child, was selected to study at the Royal Academy at 15 by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and managed to get his first painting exhibited in the Royal Academy at the wide-eyed age of 21. He was given full-fledged membership by 27, an honor towards which Academy members apparently thought he didn’t show enough appreciation. He probably felt he didn’t need to kiss the rings of a bunch of rich guys when he had worked his ass off against all odds in order to get into their club. I must say, I agree.

The Man and the Madness, or Turner: Artist or Phoenix?

Young Turner did not have an easy life. He was born on the wrong side of the Thames in an area called Maiden Lane (known for the type of maidens who hang out in lanes). His father was a barber, his younger sister Helen died at the age of 4, and, likely as a result, his mother Mary went insane. Mary was put in Bedlam in 1799 and died there in 1804. This may have been where Turner met one of his earliest patrons Dr. Thomas Monro. A man who was just mad about the arts, Monro was the Principal Physician at Bethlem Royal Hospital, a physician to King George III, and an amateur artist who promoted a young group of artists called the “Monro Circle.” He was also known (and eventually fired) for horribly mistreating the mentally ill. Too bad he couldn’t have worked through that aggression in his art.

A Reputation in Decline or Money, Money, Money, It’s a Rich Man’s World

Early on, amidst some family drama, Turner was sent to live with his uncle in the seaside town of Margate. It was here that he began displaying a serious interest in art and seascapes. Between his uncle’s prompting and his father’s beaming pride (he had begun selling young Turner’s work from his shop window) Turner started supporting himself and his family with his art and enrolled in the afformentioned Academy classes. It is perhaps this early pressure to produce art not for pleasure like many of the dandies in the art world, but for profit that made him so ambitious, and by outsider’s perspectives, greedy. One account by Sir Walter Scott who’d hired him to create etchings to accompany a work on Scottish scenery said, “Turner’s palm is as itchy as his fingers are ingenious, and he will … do nothing without cash and anything for it.” Apparently giving a person a commission quote and then charging them for extras like the frame was not done in 19th C England where gentleman were expected to take people at their word when it came to financial matters.

As he leaned more and more towards expressing what he saw and felt in a landscape rather than what was actually there he became less and less respected and understood by his public. In fact, in 1845 James Lenox (American art and book collector who founded the Lenox Library that later merged to become part of the New York Public Library) ordered a piece by Turner based solely on his great reputation. When the work arrived he openly expressed his disappointment with its “indistinctness” to which Turner replied, “Tell Mr Lenox that indistinctness is my forte.” Touche, Mr. Turner.

Sexy Sexy Scandal Sex

Turner didn’t age well. He was known as a man with a slovenly appearance and attitude. He barely spoke and when he did it was with a surly attitude and thick barely understandable cockney accent. This did not stop him from getting some. Mrs. Sarah Danby was the wife of an organist, had 4 children, and when her husband died in 1798 happened to be neighbors with a young Mr. Turner who was anywhere from 11-15 years her junior. She gave birth to two more children, daughters Evelina and Georgiana. They would be given small pensions in Turner’s will, Sarah would not. Why would Turner give these two women money and not the woman who he had lived with and whose visage is among his copious amounts of erotic art? It’s assumed that the two women were his offspring, but the details as to why Mrs. Danby was cut from his will are unknown. I’m gonna go ahead and say it’s connected with the fact that Turner’s live-in maid Hannah was also Sarah’s niece. Upon his death Hannah received a larger chunk of his will than his daughters, not to mention some of the paintings he had refused to sell. Love triangle much? Or maybe it has to do with Sophia Caroline Booth, the mistress he lived with for 18 years when visiting Chelsea (he would eventually die by her side).  Little is known about their relationship other than he referred to himself as “Mr. Booth” on these visits and may have actually cared for her (this last speculation is based solely on the fact that he kept her around so long).

Sexy Sexy Erotic Art, or The Inexplicable Pudenda of Woman

Turner loved the ladies. He loved them so much that over his career he produced over 30,000 known works of erotic art. When he died art critic, Turner’s #1 fan, and staunchly puritanical Victorian, John Ruskin discovered what he called, “painting after painting of Turner's of the most shameful sort - the pudenda of women - utterly inexcusable and to me inexplicable". He told the public he burned all but a small portfolio of the drawings but the Tate’s Turner experts say that based on the huge amount of these pictures they found in a weirdly articulate filing system of Ruskin’s devising (with the close-up drawings having been folded over/out of sight) none of them were burned. Ruskin may have been so enamored by Turner that he couldn’t bear to burn the images, I choose to believe that he kept them as a personal porn stash.

The Sun is God

Upon his death in 1851, Turner bequeathed all of his unsold paintings to Britain with the intention that they be exhibited together in a permanent gallery. Instead, many of the paintings were sadly held in storage and later shipped off to other collections.  He also left and a small fortune to “decayed artist” (someone needed to fight off that 1851 zombie epidemic), which was contested and partially split up by his bickering relatives. His supposed last words “The Sun is God” is the unofficial tagline of Burning Man.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about J. M. W. Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (23 April 1775 – 19 December 1851), known in his time as William Turner, was an English Romantic painter, printmaker and watercolourist. He is known for his expressive colouring, imaginative landscapes and turbulent, often violent marine paintings. He left behind more than 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, and 30,000 works on paper. He was championed by the leading English art critic John Ruskin from 1840, and is today regarded as having elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivalling history painting.

Turner was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, to a modest lower-middle-class family and retained his lower class accent, while assiduously avoiding the trappings of success and fame. A child prodigy, Turner studied at the Royal Academy of Arts from 1789, enrolling when he was 14, and exhibited his first work there at 15. During this period, he also served as an architectural draftsman. He earned a steady income from commissions and sales, which he often only begrudgingly accepted owing to his troubled and contrary nature. He opened his own gallery in 1804 and became professor of perspective at the academy in 1807, where he lectured until 1828. He travelled around Europe from 1802, typically returning with voluminous sketchbooks.

Intensely private, eccentric, and reclusive, Turner was a controversial figure throughout his career. He did not marry, but fathered two daughters, Evelina (1801–1874) and Georgiana (1811–1843), by the widow Sarah Danby. He became more pessimistic and morose as he got older, especially after the death of his father in 1829; when his outlook deteriorated, his gallery fell into disrepair and neglect, and his art intensified. In 1841, Turner rowed a boat into the Thames so he could not be counted as present at any property in that year's census. He lived in squalor and poor health from 1845, and died in London in 1851 aged 76. Turner is buried in St Paul's Cathedral, London.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about J. M. W. Turner

Comments (6)

spurklin targedash

An artist who is also a greedy ambitious egotist? Why that is unheard of, NOT!



pogo agogo

y'all need to add Helvoetsluys and talk about his fight with John Constable!


This guy's face gives me the willies


Slave ships and Hannibal's army beat boring landscapes by Constable. Also, he was great in that movie Five stars.

Lorna Wright

Great article about Turner. Thank you!