William Turner

William Turner

English water colorist and landscape painter, William Turner started out young in his career. As early as 12 his works were already being sold to the market and it was a rare occurrence in the history of English art. Although his life was quite controversial he was still able to win the hearts of his audience after his death. He was particularly hailed as one of the greatest watercolor landscapist of Britain.

Tagged as the “Painter of light”, Turner served instrumental in the earliest development of Impressionism. He produced works that were abstract by characterization which was only discovered during the early 20th century. His technical skill in using watercolor was simply exceptional and to apply it in landscape painting produced remarkable results that he became highly celebrated for it.

Some of his earliest works include the drawing of St. John’s Church, Margate and a View of the Archbishop’s Palace in Lambeth. And since he was a landscape painter, his subject largely involved the views of his boyhood town, ruins in Rome, castles, and still-life objects. In his later years, he experimented with a composition style that would later be known as abstract painting. He used oil as a medium more often and developed a new way of treating light and color, which can be seen in his Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway of 1844.

Overall, Turner was one of the pioneers of abstract art. His skills may have been ahead of his time for that matter but it was his fearless approach to changing the British landscape art that led him there.

Early Life

The English painter was baptized on May 14, 1775 as Joseph Mallord William Turner. His exact birth date remains unknown, though but the month should be anywhere between April and May. He grew up to a working class family, in which his father was working as a barber. It is said that he maintained a close-knit relationship with his father until advanced years.

Unfortunately, Turner’s mother suffered a mental problem and had to be confined in an asylum in 1799. His mother died of an unknown mental disorder in 1804. But this was not the first of tragedies in his family because in 1786, his younger sister Helen had died prematurely. Possible due to these unfortunate events, William was sent to live with his maternal uncle in Brentford, West side of London from 1785 until he finished attending school.

Around this period when Turner’s father took notice of his son’s talent in painting. The younger Turner began with a series of colorings of plates for the engraving of Picturesque View of the Antiquities of England and Wales by Henry Boswell. His father did not have any second thought about sending his son to a place where he could develop his skill further.

In 1786, William Turner was sent Margate, Kent Coast to produce another set of drawings of the city view and its people. The town provided as his subject for the next few years of his life, which established his reputation at a young age. One factor that helped him become quite popular around town was his father’s initiative in displaying his works at their shop. Each painting was sold for a couple of shillings and his father had never been so proud of him since.

In fact, the adult Turner even introduced the son’s works to Thomas Stothard, a local painter. He believed that William would eventually become a brilliant painter in his own right. The painter then returned to Sunningwell, Berkshire to live with his uncle who was already retired at the time. There he filled his sketchbook with a whole new batch of images, including some watercolor works. He used pencil in most of his sketches and it helped him lay the foundations of his unique style and composition.

Early Training and Works

The earlier works of William Turner were taken out of his architectural studies of the city buildings. It is believed that he may have taken classes under various architects such as Joseph Bonomi the Elder, Thomas Hardwick, and James Wyatt. Toward the latter part of 1789 Turner entered the studio of draftsman Thomas Malton who he considered as his real master.

When he reached 14, William Turner pursued his formal education at the Royal Academy of Art but it was only after a year when he got finally accepted. At the time Sir Joshua Reynolds run the academy and so he was one of the panel members who screened him and his work thoroughly. Thomas Hardwick then advised the young Turner to pursue painting instead of architecture.

Subsequently, in 1790, William painted his first ever watercolor painting titled A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth. This painting made into the summer exhibition of the academy, and amazingly he was only 15. He eventually earned the on probation status from 1790 to 1793, wherein he studied how to draw figures from plaster casts of ancient sculptural works.

In the academy, he mastered how to draw and paint the human body from the available nude models. But his paintings were still mostly watercolor landscapes and he drew inspiration from his travels every summer. He took the opportunity to journey around Britain and Wales in order to create a wide array of drawings, most of which were designs for his architectural studies such as The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St. Vincent’s Rock Bristol of 1793.

Mature Years

In 1802, William Turner traveled across Europe. He began in France, Switzerland and then paid a visit to Venice, Rome, Naples and Florence. In France, he studied arts in Louvre to learn the works of the old masters there. And in Venice, he went to Lyme Regis to capture and paint a stormy scene. Overall, he produced approximately 1,500 drawings.

He had also made friends with Walter Ramsden Fawkes during one of his visits in Otley, Yorkshire. At the age of 22, Fawkes contracted Turner to paint watercolor landscapes of the town’s surroundings. The commission made him fall in-love with the city that he kept returning to Yorkshire throughout his professional years. In the Hannibal Crossing the Alps painting, he used the stormy night over Chevin, Otley as an inspiration. He witnessed the stormy scene while he was staying at his commissioner’s household in Farnley Hall.

Aside from working for Fawkes, Turner was also a painter to George O’Brien Wyndham, who was the 3rd Earl of Egremont. He got to visit the Petworth House, West Sussex to paint the outdoor scenes there. He produced drawings of the Sussex countryside as well such as the view of Chichester Canal.

Advanced Years

In his advanced years, Turner turned into an eccentric painter which lost him a lot of his friends. He maintained a close relationship with his father, who worked with him as an assistant as he opened up a studio. In 1829, his father had died and it made him depress for a certain period of time. He turned to using snuff to cope up with the death of his father.

In 1838, Louish-Philippe, the then King of France, gifted him a tobacco box made with gold and was followed by two other boxes made in agate and silver. Each box bears his surname, which is really suggestive of the fact that smoking tobacco became a huge part of his adult years.


William Turner died of an unknown disease on December 19, 1851. He was in the household of Sophia Carline Booth, his mistress, when he passed away. Art historians say that the last few words that he uttered were “The Sun is God”. His remains were interred at St. Paul’s Cathedral beside the tomb of Joshua Reynolds.

Legacy and Influence

Before his death, William Turner left a considerable amount of fortune to provide aid for “decayed artists”. He was so concerned about the future of art in Britain that he even designed the artists a halfway house in Twickenham.

The legitimate heir to his estate were his first degree cousins, Royal Academy of Arts and the government. He also requested to the government to build a gallery to host his remaining works. However, the committee responsible for it failed to secure a site where the gallery could be built on. So a little over two decades after his death the government passed an act that allowed museums outside of London to borrow Turner’s works.

His influence continue to flourish until the 20th century. In 1976, St. Mary’s Church produced a stained glass window to commemorate Turner. Meanwhile, Westminster made a memorial plaque in 1999 to be place at his birth town located at 21 Maiden Lane, Convent Garden. Other organizations started making award giving bodies named after William Turner such as the annual Turner Prize of The Tate in 1984. Lastly, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours honored Turner’s contributions to the arts by founding the Winsor & Newton Turner Watercolour Award.