Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775, in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden to a lower-middle class family. His mother showed signs of mental disturbance from 1785 and was admitted to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in Old Street in 1799, where she died in 1804. Turner was sent to his maternal uncle, Joseph Marshall, in what was then the small town of Brentford. Though his childhood was largely unsettled, Turner’s proclivity for painting and drawing was encouraged by his family from a young age. He was able to train under architects such as Thomas Hardwick, and the topographical draftsman Thomas Malton, to whom Turner would later refer as ‘my real master.’ His work as a topographer allowed him to pay for his own studies.
Turner applied for the Royal Academy of Art in 1789, aged 14, and was accepted a year later by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Turner showed an early interest in architecture, but was advised by Thomas Hardwick to focus on painting. His first watercolour, A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth was accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1790 when Turner was just 15.
Turner exhibited watercolours each year at the academy while painting in the winter and travelling widely in the summer throughout Britain, particularly to Wales, where he produced a wide range of sketches for working up into studies and watercolours. Cunningham in his obituary of Turner wrote that it was: “recognised by the wiser few as a noble attempt at lifting landscape art out of the tame insipidities…[and] evinced for the first time that mastery of effect for which he is now justly celebrated”. Slate Quarry in Wales is likely to be a sketch from this period, in which Turner’s preoccupation with climatic effects on the landscape came to the fore. Turner’s imagination was sparked by shipwrecks, fires (including the burning of Parliament in 1834, an event which Turner witnessed first-hand, and transcribed in a series of watercolour sketches), and natural phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain, and fog.
Turner travelled widely in Europe, starting with France and Switzerland in 1802 and studying at the Louvre in Paris in the same year. He made many visits to Venice. Important support for his work came from Walter Ramsden Fawkes of Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire, who became a close friend of the artist. Turner first visited Otley in 1797, aged 22, when commissioned to paint watercolours of the area. He was so attracted to Otley and the surrounding area that he returned to it throughout his career. The stormy backdrop of his famous work, Hannibal Crossing the Alps, is reputed to have been inspired by a storm over the Chevin in Otley while he was staying at Farnley Hall.
Financial independence allowed Turner to innovate freely; his mature work is characterised by a chromatic palette and broadly applied atmospheric washes of paint. According to David Piper’s The Illustrated History of Art, his later pictures were called “fantastic puzzles”. Turner was recognised as an artistic genius: the influential English art critic John Ruskin described him as the artist who could most “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature.”
Turner’s work drew criticism from contemporaries, in particular from Sir George Beaumont, a landscape painter and fellow member of the Royal Academy, who described his paintings as ‘blots.’ However, Turner’s legacy of worldwide fame and popularity since his lifetime is testament to his timeless talent and unparalleled skill for the depiction of atmosphere.