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Joseph Mallord William Turner
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One of the greatest English painters of the nineteenth century, Joseph Mallord William Turner is celebrated for his brilliant depictions of light, the virtuosity of his technique, and his extraordinary Romantic imagination. The spectacular effects of atmosphere, light and color in his paintings and watercolors have influenced generations of artists. Best known for his landscapes, he also created history paintings. He was also a printmaker and either created or commissioned some 800 prints after his designs. Born in London in 1775, the son of a barber and wigmaker, Turner was sent to live with his mother’s brothers from 1785, first in Middlesex and then in Kent, probably due to her mental instability. A precocious artist, his earliest surviving watercolors are probably from 1786. He probably worked as a draftsman for the architect Thomas Hardwick (1752-1829) in the late 1780s and worked for the architectural draftsman Thomas Malton (1748-1829) in 1789. Later that year at age 14 he entered the Schools of the Royal Academy of Art. Turner’s skills as a landscape painter were largely self-taught, since the Academy Schools did not teach landscape drawing or painting. However, from around 1794 Turner began working in the home of Dr. Thomas Monro (1759-1833) along with the young artist Thomas Girtin (1775-1833), where they copied drawings in Monro’s collection, particularly the landscape drawings of John Robert Cozzens (1752-1797). Turner first exhibited a watercolor in the Academy’s annual exhibitions in 1790. He won a prize for a landscape drawing from the Society of Arts in 1793 and quickly established his reputation. He soon began receiving commissions for his watercolors, including an assignment in 1794 for watercolors to be reproduced as engravings in “Copper-Plate Magazine.” Turner first exhibited an oil painting at the Academy in 1796. He would continue to exhibit in the Academy’s annual exhibitions almost every year through 1850, even after he opened his own gallery in London in 1804. Turner was famous for finishing paintings at the Academy during “Varnishing Days,” a few days before exhibitions opened. He was elected an associate member of the Academy in 1799, having achieved the minimum age of 24, and was elected a full member in 1802. His close association with the Academy included service as a Professor of Perspective, lecturing from 1811 through 1828. Extensive travel provided Turner with the inspiration for his works. He took many sketching trips throughout England, Scotland and Wales, beginning in 1789 when he visited an uncle near Oxford. His first trip to the Continent was in 1802, during which he visited Switzerland and France and studied Old Master paintings in the Louvre in Paris. Over his lifetime he would make fifteen trips to the Continent, including visits to Austria, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Italy and return visits to France and Switzerland. Turner became wealthy, thanks to robust sales and many commissions. Notable patrons included George Wyndham (1751-1837), the 3rd Earl of Egremont and Walter Fawkes (1769-1825), both of whom purchased and commissioned many works and hosted Turner at their respective country homes. In 1817 Fawkes notably purchased a series of fifty watercolors depicting scenes along the Rhine River, based on sketches Turner made while in the Rhineland earlier that year. Then in 1819 Fawkes exhibited in his London home more than sixty of Turner’s watercolors. Turner’s printmaking activities included several sets of prints after his drawings. Inspired by Richard Earlom’s (1743-1822) prints after Claude Lorrain’s (1604-1682) “Liber Veritas,” Turner created his “Liber Studiorum” (“Book of Studies”), published 1807 through 1819, a series of landscape prints. Turner etched the preliminary design and then the plates were finished in mezzotint. Turner did the mezzotinting for 11 plates himself and employed others to mezzotint the remainder. Although a series of 100 plates was planned, the venture was a financial failure and only 71 plates were produced. Other notable series of prints after Turner’s designs include “Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England” (published from 1814 to 1826), “The Rivers of England and Wales” (published 1823-1827) and “Picturesque Views in England and Wales,” (published 1827-1838). Turner’s private life was unconventional. He was close to his father, who served as his studio assistant and cook. Turner never married but Sara Danby (1760/66-1861) became his mistress after the death of her husband, the composer John Danby (1756/7-1798) and bore him two illegitimate children. Their relationship lasted until around 1813. Sometime in the 1830s Turner began spending time at the home of the widow Sophia Booth in Margate, on the coast in East Kent. In 1846 they began living in a house in Chelsea, where Turner was known as Admiral Booth. Turner died at his home in Chelsea in 1851, and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. His will was extensively litigated, and a settlement was finally reached in 1856. The new National Gallery received the contents of his studio, known as the “Turner Bequest,” nearly 300 oil paintings and around 30,000 watercolors and drawings, including over some 300 sketchbooks. His relations received the bulk of his remaining assets, valued at over £140,000. (TNB 6/2015) Selected bibliography: Brown, David Blayney, Amy Concannon and Sam Smiles, eds. J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free. Exhibition catalog. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2014. Warrell, Ian, ed. J. M. W. Turner. Exhibition catalog, with an essay by Franklin Kelly. Washington: National Gallery of Art in association with Tate Publishing, 2007.