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Joseph Mallord William Turner

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Joseph Mallord William Turner Biography


1775 – London – 1851


Joseph Mallord William Turner was the outstanding English landscape painter of the nineteenth century. Born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden in 1775, the son of a barber, he worked for the architectural draughtsman Thomas Malton and, with Thomas Girtin in 1794, copied the drawings of Alexander Cozens for Dr Monro. Throughout the 1790s Turner made accomplished topographical watercolours and explored the Sublime scenery of the north of England and Wales. In 1802 he toured Switzerland. After exhibiting his first oil painting, Fishermen at sea (Tate Britain, London) at the Royal Academy in 1796, he was made ARA in 1799 and RA in 1802.


Turner opened his own gallery in Harley Street in 1804. In 1807 he began his Liber Studiorum, mezzotints after his own works. His oil paintings were often imbued with influences from Dutch and Italian Old Masters; he treated subjects from history, poetry, the Bible and modern life, and himself wrote poetry. In 1819 Turner first visited Italy and his palette lightened. In 1814, with Picturesque Views on the South Coast of England (1814-26), Turner made the first of his series of highly complex and allusive topographical watercolours for engraving; the finest is the series of Picturesque Views in England and Wales (1825-35). He worked out the compositions in ‘colour beginnings’, blocks of colour, before adding detail in the finished watercolour. From 1808-25 Turner was a frequent visitor to the north of England, visiting his Yorkshire patron Walter Fawkes.


Commissions such as the watercolour series on the Loire and the Seine took Turner often to Europe in the 1820s and 30s. In 1828 he was once more in Rome; the influence of the classical world and the paintings of Claude inspired important works such as Ulysses deriding Polyphemus, RA 1829 (National Gallery, London), which combine history painting with an intense evocation of a sunset landscape. In 1828 Turner painted a series of gouaches evoking the intimate atmosphere of a house party at Petworth, home of his patron Lord Egremont.


In 1836 and 1841-4 a series of visits to the Alps resulted in some of Turner’s most free, expressive and sublime watercolours. His Venetian views of the late 1830s and 40s epitomise the brilliant, misty atmosphere of his late style. Rain, steam and speed: the Great Western Railway, 1844 (London, National Gallery) shows him dealing in his inimitable way with the scientific advances of the Victorian world. 


Turner died, a wealthy and reclusive man, in Chelsea in 1851. By the terms of his will a large number of his works were left to the nation and are now housed at the Clore Gallery, Tate Britain.


The work of Joseph Mallord William Turner is represented in the National Gallery, London; Tate Britain, London; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Louvre, Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.


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