Joseph Mallord William Turner was as proud as his name, and never allowed a hostile critic or a shattered love to disturb his march to unquestioned mastery.
He was born on April 23, 1775, perhaps sharing the day and the month with Shakespeare. His father was a barber whose shop in Maiden Lane, behind Covent Garden, was hardly a fit spot for a landscape artist’s growth. According to an early biographer,12Maiden Lane was a “dim defile,” paved with mud, crowded with noisy traffic, and torn with vendors’ cries. Across from the barbershop was an inn, the Cider Cellar, whose habitués sang in prophetic atonality. Add that William’s sister was soon to die, and his mother was going mad. Nature and circumstances made some amends by giving the boy a tough frame and will, a realistic mind, and an unshakable selfconfidence, which, conjoined, withstood, for seventy-six years, crises, critics, and germs.
His father saw in him signs of a talent ill-adjusted to Maiden Lane. He sent William, aged ten, to live with an uncle—and attend school—in Brentwood, Middlesex. Within two years the boy had produced drawings that his proud father hung in and around the barbershop, and offered for sale. A clergyman customer recommended some of them to an Academic friend. Soon William was given a trial at the Academy; he did well; he was accepted as a student at the age of fourteen, and, a year later, was allowed to display a watercolor at the exhibition.
In vacation time, during the years 1789–92, he toured the countryside with his sketchbook, going as far afield as Oxford, Bristol, Wales; those eager sketches of land, sun, and sea are still visible in the British Museum. At nineteen he was selling his drawings to magazines; at twenty-one he began to exhibit his oil paintings at the Academy; at twenty-four he was elected an associate, at twenty-seven a full, member. Made economically independent by his sales, he opened (1800) a spacious studio at 64 Hurly Street; and there his father came to live with him as his attendant and business agent. This love affair harmonized well with the artist’s disinclination for marriage. He was not physically or facially attractive, and had little charm of manner. He was a man absorbed. For almost half a century he dominated English art, overwhelming competition with the abundance and brilliance of his work.
Biographers ease their task of understanding him by dividing him into three periods. In the first (1787–1820) he inclined to historical subjects, but transformed them into studies of sun and sea. In 1799 he was among the four painters who, in the Academy exhibition, celebrated Nelson’s demolition of Napoleon’s fleet at Abukir. In 1802 he made his first trip abroad. As the packet neared Calais it found the waves too high and violent to allow docking. Turner and some other passengers managed to reach shore in a rowboat. There he took out his sketchbook and outlined the complex scene of the vessel struggling against the storm; a year later he exhibited in London his massive canvas, Calais Pier, in which he gave full play to his fondness for dark clouds, angry seas, and brave men. From France he hurried on to Switzerland to make four hundred drawings of mountains challenging the sky. His sketchbooks became his second memory.
When he returned to London he found the Academic critics complaining that he laid colors down too thickly, recklessly, confusedly, and in combinations violating all sane precedent; that his methods ignored the norms taught by the late Sir Joshua Reynolds for following Old Masters and observing traditional rules. Turner honored the memory of the kindly dictator, but he obeyed the dictates of his own character. Henceforth he was in art the clearest voice of the Romantic revolt against age-old subjects, obsolete rules, and the stifling of experiment and imagination by custom and reality. He replied to his critics by exhibiting in his studio The Shipwreck (1804) —a merciless visualization of nature’s mastery over man. It was acclaimed. A year later he won British hearts by celebrating Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. The picture was a confusion of ships, the elements, and men; but so had the battle been. Nevertheless, the critics voiced a widely felt bewilderment: Turner was all color, no line; even the color seemed to have been splashed about formlessly, and yet made a subject in itself; the edifices and the human beings on his canvases were blotches of obscurity, dots denoting insignificance, as if the artist had been obsessed by the helplessness of man against a nature enraged. There were pleasant exceptions, as in The Sun Rising through Mist (1807); but in Hannibal Crossing the Alps (1812) all sense of man’s heroism seemed lost in the black and yellow clouds swirling above soldiers cringing in fear. Was this wild artist an enemy of the human race?
Turner went on his way wielding his brush with force and verve, apparently resolved to sweep man and life from the earth, leaving nothing but sun, clouds, mountains, and raging seas. He was not entirely a misanthrope; he was capable of warm affection, and developed a quiet friendship with Sir Thomas Lawrence, his opposite in practice and theory. But he recognized no nobility except genius, and had few delusions about the common man. He liked his work and his privacy, feeling, like Leonardo, that “if you are all alone you will be all yourself.” He had no ascertainable faith in any supernatural world. His god was nature, and he gave it his kind of adoration—not of its wisdom and beauty, as in Wordsworth, but of its pertinacity and power; and he knew that it would engulf him too, and man, in its own grim time. He did not bother much about morality. He had a mistress or two, but kept them decently private. He made some nude drawings of an erotic character; these, falling into Ruskin’s hand, were at once destroyed. He loved money, commanded high fees, and left a fortune. He was a rough diamond, solitaire.
His middle period (1820–33) began with a sun-pursuing trip to Italy. During those six months he made fifteen hundred drawings; after his return to England he turned some of them into new essays in color, light, and shade, like The Bay of Baiae (1823), where even the shadows speak. Again in France (1821), he made illuminating watercolors of the Seine. In 1825–26 he wandered through Belgium and Holland and brought home sketches, some of which became the paintings Cologne and Dieppe, now in the Frick Collection in New York. Occasionally, in the 1830s, he enjoyed the hospitality of Lord Egremont at Petworth; as usual he hid himself with his work, but he gave his host a moment’s immortality with The Lake at Sunset.
In the final period (1834–45) of his fertility he surrendered more and more to the lure of light; recognizable objects almost disappeared; what remained was a fascinated study of color, radiance, and shade. Occasionally he let objects play a leading role, as in The Fighting Téméraire Towed to Her Last Berth (1839) after many a blast for Britain; or the proud locomotive announcing a century of iron horses in Rain, Steam, and Speed (1844). When the Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834 Turner sat nearby, making sketches for his later painting of the spectacle. Crossing from Harwich his ship ran into a madness of wind and snow; the aging artist had himself lashed to the mast for four hours that he might burn into his memory the details and terror of the scene;13 later he fused the confusion into a fury of white paint called The Snowstorm (1842). Then (1843), as a final triumph, he pictured The Sun of Venice Going Out to Sea.
His last years were darkened by a mounting consensus of condemnation, mitigated by a paean of praise from a master of English prose. One critic dismissed The Snowstorm as “soapsuds and whitewash”;14 another summed up the artist’s final period as the work of “a diseased eye and reckless hand”; and Punch proposed a general title for any picture by Turner: “A Typhoon Bursting in a Simoon over the Whirlpool of Maelstrom, Norway, with a Ship on Fire, an Eclipse, and the Effect of a Lunar Rainbow.”15 After half a century of labor, the grand and brilliant oeuvre seemed to be despised and rejected by the merciless judgment of conservative taste.
Then, in May, 1843, John Ruskin, aged twenty-four, issued the first volume of Modern Painters, whose persistent and enthusiastic themes were the superiority of William Turner over all other modern landscape painters, and the complete veracity of Turner’s pictures as a report on the external world. Turner was not offended to find himself exalted above Claude Lorrain, who had been the inspiration of his youth; but as he read on he began to wonder would not this eulogy harm him by its elongation and excess. For a time it did; critics lauded Ruskin’s prose but questioned his judgment and counseled a more balanced view. Ruskin was not to be restrained; he returned again and again, in volume after volume, to the enterprise of defending and expounding Turner, until he had given the artist almost a third of the book’s two thousand pages. In the end he won his battle, and lived to see his idol acclaimed as one of the creative enlargers of modern art.
Meanwhile Turner died, December 19, 1851, and was buried in St. Paul’s. His will left his artistic remains to the nation—three hundred paintings, three hundred watercolors, nineteen thousand drawings—and left his unspent earnings, £140,000, to a fund for needy artists. (His surviving relatives obtained annulment of the will, and divided the money among themselves and their lawyers.)
Perhaps his greatest legacy was his pictorial discovery of light. In that same generation that heard Thomas Young formulate his wave theory of light, Turner spread over Europe luminescent paintings and watercolors proclaiming that light is an object as well as a medium, and that it deserves representation in its diverse forms, colors, components, and effects. This was impressionism before the Impressionists; and perhaps Manet and Pissarro, when they visited London in 1870, saw some of Turner’s spectacular illuminations.16 Seven years later Degas, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir sent to a London art dealer a letter saying that in their studies of “the fugitive phenomena of light” they did not forget that they had been “preceded in this path by a great master of the English School, the illustrious Turner.”17