Art Art Exhibition English J. M. W. Turner

All at Sea

Think of Turner, and you think of the sea. Beaches, ports, sunrises, sunsets, raging storms, crashing waves and heavy battles, conjured up in a swirling mist of colour and light. You might be surprised to learn, then, that the National Maritime Museum’s current exhibition is in fact the first major one dedicated to this theme.

Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On, 1840. Oil on canvas, 91 x 138 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On, 1840. Oil on canvas, 91 x 138 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The sea has been a subject of fascination for many of the greatest artists, from Brueghel and Rembrandt to Signac and Monet. But it was Turner whom the subject gripped with the most fervour, pulling him in with its charms and relentless metamorphosis. Watch the sea from a cliff top for an hour or two and it is easy to see how- its dramatic moods and changes of cloak are enough to keep any artist chasing after it, trying to fix on canvas even one enigmatic incarnation.

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838, 1839. Oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm. Turner Bequest, National Gallery, London.
The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838, 1839. Oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm. Turner Bequest, National Gallery, London.

Upon his death, ‘the Painter of Light’ bequeathed much of his work to the British nation, in the largest ever donation of artworks to the National Gallery. They can be seen today on display at Tate Britain. On gifting his works, Turner requested that two of these, Dido building Carthage and Sun Rising through Vapour, should be displayed alongside two by Claude, the Old Master he so much admired. Turner strove to be compared to this Master, hoping even to outdo him. His wish is granted even today, and in their normal hanging the two artists vie with one another side by side.

Claude Lorrain, Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648. Oil on canvas, 149.1 x 196.7 cm. National Gallery, London.
Claude Lorrain, Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648. Oil on canvas, 149.1 x 196.7 cm. National Gallery, London.
Dido Building Carthage; or, the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, 1815. Oil on canvas, 155.5 x 232 cm. Turner Bequest, National Gallery, London.
Dido Building Carthage; or, the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, 1815. Oil on canvas, 155.5 x 232 cm. Turner Bequest, National Gallery, London.

It is said that so dedicated was Turner to capturing the magnificence of the sea, that on one occasion he went so far as to tie himself to the mast of a ship, just to secure the best possible view. To see for yourself the works of this great British master, hurry along to the National Maritime Museum before 21 April 2014. If you’d like to read more about Turner, check out Eric Shanes’ The Life and Masterworks of J.M.W. Turner.

G.A.

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