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Christine Riding on 'Turner and the Sea'

How did JMW Turner, a working-class London lad, become Britain’s greatest painter of the sea? National Maritime Museum curator Christine Riding explains

JMW Turner ('The Wreck Buoy' (1807, reworked 1849), © Board of Trustees of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside)
'The Wreck Buoy' (1807, reworked 1849), © Board of Trustees of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside

'This is Turner's last exhibited seascape but it's actually one of his earliest sea paintings. It was begun and finished in about 1808 and sold to a friend of his, called HAJ Munro of Novar. Turner then asked him in 1849 if he could exhibit it, because it had never been shown before, which was a criterion of exhibiting at the Royal Academy. Turner went to spruce up the painting but instead he completely changed it. X-rays show that just beneath the surface is an early estuary painting. The addition of a double rainbow really transforms the painting.'


JMW Turner (From 'Liber Studiorum', © British Museum)
From 'Liber Studiorum', © British Museum

'In the twenty-first century, Turner's 'Liber Studiorum' is a neglected part of his art, yet he instigated it, funded it, oversaw every aspect of it, so to him it was tremendously important. The 'Liber Studiorum', which means of course book of study, was meant to respond to the 'Liber Veritatis' by Claude Lorrain. Turner's concept was 100 plates, within which there would be five categories of art epic. What we’re showing here is all the mezzotints under the letter M – for Marine. In America and in Europe, Turner's reputation would have been established through prints. We’re still talking about luxury works of art. We often think of prints as being cheap, but they are not in this period. Any print that was made after Turner's work is of supreme quality. He had enormous interest in quality control, he would literally hang over people’s shoulders to see how they were translating his image into a final work of art.

He was the artist of choice in terms of what was a burgeoning almost armchair tourism, the idea of sequential prints that took you round the coast of Engliand or across different landscapes. He was very careful to keep changing the viewpoint and the horizon line. He would be very mindful of that sense of variety.

JMW Turner ('Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth' (exhibited 1842), © Tate)
'Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth' (exhibited 1842), © Tate

'The anecdote about Turner lashing himself to the mast comes from the full title of this painting, "Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwick". It's assumed that Turner is referring to himself as "the author" but we know he's quite mischievous with his titles. No one has found evidence that a ship of that name left that particular port in those weather conditions in 1842, it just didn’t happen. So I think Turner was being quite playful. He would certainly appreciate the power of that kind of myth around an artist’s work.'

JMW Turner ('Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water' (exhibited 1840), © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts)
'Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steam Boats of Shoal Water' (exhibited 1840), © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

'It's paintings like "Rockets and Blue Lights…" that really divided opinion. Turner, however, was always a controversial artist, you get people being equally polarised in the 1800s as they were in 1840s. Some people would say, "You could turn it upside down and it would be just as legible." Others would say, "Do you know what? It’s absolutely bonkers but what a master, what vision."

By this point Turner is independently wealthy, he’s able to stretch what would have been understood to art beyond any bounds that people would have experienced before and just please himself.'

JMW Turner ('Whalers (The Whale Ship)' (1845), © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
'Whalers (The Whale Ship)' (1845), © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

'When Turner made ths painting, whaling was a new subject for him. He was responding to a new publication about whaling. It's a very powerful painting, and it’s through this that I think you can see a link with "Moby Dick", because Herman Melville certainly knew about Turner. I have this theory that the chapter in the book called "The whiteness of the whale", the appalling whiteness of the whale and its sublimity… I wonder if Melville knew about the predominance of white in Turner's whaling paintings.'


He painted apocalyptic storms, history-defining battles and death-defying whale hunts, but Joseph Mallord William Turner wasn’t from nautical stock; he was the son of a Covent Garden wigmaker. It wasn’t unusual in the eighteenth century for an artist to have such a humble beginning. ‘You get Turner, you get Hogarth, you get William Blake, all London boys, all coming from modest backgrounds, who are literally having to earn their keep,’ explains Christine Riding, head of arts at the National Maritime Museum, where the first full-scale exhibition dedicated to Turner’s fascination with the sea opens this month.

'His talent for drawing and painting was nurtured on the muddy banks of the Thames'

Born in 1775, Turner was shipped off to relatives at a young age following a ‘fit of illness’ in the family that would eventually see his mother committed to the Bedlam ‘lunatic asylum’. His talent for drawing and painting was nurtured on the muddy banks of the Thames in Brentford and, later, in Margate where he lodged with an uncle. Turner’s father showed off his early efforts in his Maiden Lane barber shop, boasting that one day his son would become a painter.

At the National Maritime Museum visitors are instantly plunged into a painterly maelstrom courtesy of a trio of early masterpieces, ‘Calais Pier’ (1803), ‘The Shipwreck’ (1805) and ‘The Wreck of a Transport Ship’ (1810), with which Turner made his name at the Royal Academy. What the show subsequently makes clear is that the talent surging through these spectacular works is equalled by a shrewd business sense. ‘Turner moved very quickly from promising newcomer to being the most important artistic talent of his generation,’ explains Riding. ‘And he did so by positioning himself as a sea painter. He didn’t have a private income that was going to allow him to experiment. He had to respond to a market.’

Turner blows his contemporaries out of the water with paintings such as ‘Fishermen at Sea’ (1796), the surprisingly small but characteristically intense canvas that marked his entrance to the Academy. Here, he claims a place for himself and announces what would become his ‘trademark’ of depicting warm light (the fishermen’s lantern) and cool (the moon) in the same painting. Few viewers at the time would have mistaken ‘Fishermen at Sea’ for a simple depiction of seafaring. As Riding says, ‘In British art nothing is ever just a coastal scene because the sea is a very powerful symbol. It’s absolutely understood that the storm-tossed ship is an emblem of society.’

His most famous painting, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ (1839), depicts the gunship, a veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed by paddle steamer to its final berth in Rotherhithe to be broken up for scrap. But Turner understood that heartstrings could be tugged in the smallest sketch as well as the grandest production. By the time ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ was exhibited, Turner was at the height of his career. Thanks in part to widely distributed prints made after his paintings he was also famous and wealthy (he had his own gallery made in his Harley Street home). Yet, adventurous to the end, he set about making paintings that are truly revolutionary. Like the four pages from ‘The Whaler Sketchbook’ (1844-45), on show at the National Maritime Museum, in which he conjures the terrifying immensity of the open sea in a few cursory strokes.

'Turner was quite wily'

In later life Turner was said to resemble an old sea captain. Despite his rise in society, he never lost his Cockney accent and when he died his fellow Academicians were shocked to discover he had led a secret life with a mistress in Chelsea, where he was known as Admiral Puggy Booth.

The most famous anecdote associated with the artist is that, in order to become a better painter, he had himself lashed to the mast of a ship during a storm. ‘Turner travelled extensively and experienced storms, but it’s unlikely,’ says Riding, referring to ‘Snow Storm – Sea Storm off a Harbour’s Mouth’ (1842) around which the story grew. ‘Turner would have been almost 70 at the time. But he was quite wily. He would certainly appreciate the power of that kind of myth around an artist’s work. It’s almost like a martyrdom, almost otherworldly.’ As this epic show makes clear, the myth entirely befits an artist whose paintings come closer to the sublime than anything in British art before or since.

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By: Time Out London Art