About Turner

About J.M.W. Turner

Self Portrait of J.M.W. Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Self-Portrait, c. 1799, J .M. W. Turner (1775–1851) Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 © Tate 2019

A prolific painter, traveler, watercolorist and printmaker, J.M.W. Turner is regarded as one of Britain’s most iconic painters. His work inspired generations of artists to pursue more modern styles of painting such as impressionism and abstraction and continues to influence artists to this day.

Early Life

Born Joseph Mallord William Turner, in London on April 23, 1775, to a middle-class barber and wigmaker, Turner showed precocious promise from a young age. At 14, Turner entered the Royal Academy Schools, where he initially specialized as a draughtsman, using his artistic skills to help with architectural sketches. Those precise and meticulous skills Turner then used to create detailed engravings of topographical drawings, the first pieces he successfully sold to magazines and to engravers commissioning work.

British and Royal Academy Influence

J.M.W. Turner found great inspiration in the seaside and the countryside, traveling throughout the far-flung corners of England to Scotland, Devon, Sussex, Wales, and the Isle of Wight, among other English destinations, to paint oceans, seascapes, ports, harbors, and storms. Early in his career, Turner exhibited mostly watercolors that portrayed various English country estates. His first oil painting to involve his signature maritime theme, Fishermen at Sea, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1796 when he was twenty-one. Turner maintained a lifelong connection to the Academy, exhibiting frequently and joining the staff as the Professor of Perspective in 1811.

A World Traveler

As early as the mid-1790s, Turner established a routine that would continuously expose him to other European destinations outside of England: travel in the summer, work in the studio in the winter. His travels helped influence his art, and particularly his landscape art, whether visiting Holland and Belgium to paint the battlefield of Waterloo, Venice, Rome and Naples for Roman architecture, or the crisp, alpine lakes of Switzerland, Turner was constantly on the move capturing everything he saw via sketchbook and unfinished impressions, and moving from site to site either by foot or by stagecoach (the Greyhound bus of its time).

Capturing Historical and Maritime Themes

Throughout his lifetime, Turner witnessed many changes brought by the Industrial Revolution. Britain, a proud maritime nation at the epicenter of the industry, was an ideal location to document the advent of steamships, commercial shipping and the first railroads, subjects that are often the focal points of Turner’s paintings. In fact, Turner’s paintings were unlike any other artists’- no one at the time was attempting such representations of the emergent modern world, its moral preoccupations of slavery or machine labor, and its new industrial technologies.

J.M.W. Turner’s Lasting Legacy

The Turner Bequest received by the British nation in 1856, five years after Turner’s passing, is one of the largest, most revealing collections of a single artist’s work in existence. The Bequest includes approximately 37,000 drawings and watercolors ranging from fully worked-up studies to the scrappiest sheet recalling the briefest touch of the artist’s hand. J.M.W. Turner also left behind a small sum of money to help fund future young artists’ works. In 1984, Tate honored that desire by establishing the Turner Prize, now in its thirtieth year of awarding modern British artists. It’s no wonder that a review from the publication, The Champion, placed Turner among ‘the masters whose day is not so much of today, as of “all time”.

For a more in-depth biography, refer to Tate’s full-length bio