Late Turner: Painting Set Free

Art , Drawing and illustration
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'The Wreck Buoy', 1846

Courtesy of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (Walker Art Gallery)

'Snow Storm - Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth', exhibited 1842

© Tate

'Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus', exhibited 1839

© Tate

'The Blue Rigi', 1841-2

© Tate

'Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis', 1843

© Tate

'Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino', 1839

© The J Paul Getty Museum

'Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus', exhibited 1839

© Tate

'Peace - Burial at Sea', 1842

© Tate

'Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway', 1844

© The National Gallery, London

With over 150 works from all over Europe this is sure to be an eye-opener into a fascinating period for our most important painter.

There are some artists whose final works have a special frisson attached to them. Late Rembrandt. Late Beethoven. All mortality is there, we are supposed to understand: the grave opens up and yet they cleave to existence, reporting back from the edges of the infinite. Maybe old Ludwig Van is not a bad comparison with Turner. Both were products of the enlightenment, but their final tonal experiments were greeted with horror, as they circled around their themes, as if pacing the cells of their own imagination.

Certainly some of Turner’s later oil paintings have a febrile quality: great whorls of paint. Coruscating wreckage and doomed ships. Grey vortices. Lilac dawns and apricot skies. The endless thrashing waves. Take ‘Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water’ (1842): the viewer is practically sucked beneath the surface along with the struggling vessel. Or ‘The Wreck Buoy’ (reworked 1849), in which Turner, then aged 73, takes one of his own seascapes from 40 years earlier and fashions in it a kind of apocalyptic offshore portal.

But there are other Turners. There’s the Turner of Margate: domestic, humble, going out to see the day, to look at the sea, to paint the boats, the water, the clouds. Turner’s watercolours from his latter years, such as ‘Wreck on the Goodwin Sands’ (1845), tend towards abstraction in their economy, but they are always founded on observation.

Tonal variation becomes everything, and you read these moments as a series. No one work is more significant than another; there is enormous democracy in Turner’s vision. He doesn’t so much show what paint can do, but what paint is: part of the world, an element. Everything, he seems to say, changes from moment to moment: the landscape, the sky, the sea, history. You cannot stop these changes by painting them, and the true freedom is in accepting that.

Chris Waywell


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Claire D

This is a really good exhibition if you are a Turner fan, there is a lot of great work to see. The only downside was Tate letting too many people in at once so the first few rooms were extremely crowded. It is worth looking at the permanent Turner collection too and I liked the Eliasson colour experiments too.

Kate J

I thought I know Turner, I thought this exhibition will delight but not surprise.
I was mistaken and I'm rather happy about it. You do expect the yellow and the gorgeous skies and seas but all is not as calm as it seems at first and not just because of the storms. The daily struggle is somewhere there in every picture. Be it the running hare or sinking ship, a friend on his last journey or the Parliament burning.
The exhibition is magnificent and wonderfully curated. A joy for the senses. And now I crave a trip to the seaside. Even though it's freezing and windy...


A fresh and comprehensive look at Turner's late output, this exhibition seeks to free the painter from the very many labels he has been given in recent decades.  This is not a show about Turner-the-this or Turner-the-that, with the focus on how subsequent generations interpret the artist.  Instead we are given a real-time mid-nineteenth century Turner in all his shapes and forms.  And from here, you yourself are set free to interpret him as you will: