Exhibition: Turner Prize
Date: 25 September 2018 – 6 January 2019
Venue: Tate Britain, UK
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born at 21 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, sometime in late April or early May 1775. (The artist himself liked to claim that he was born on 23, April which is both the English national holiday, St George’s Day, and William Shakespeare’s birthday, although no verification of that claim has ever been found.) His father, William, was a wigmaker and barber.
We know little about Turner’s mother, Mary (née Marshall), other than that she was mentally unbalanced, and that her instability was exacerbated by the fatal illness of Turner’s younger sister, who died in 1783. Because of the stresses put upon the family by these afflictions, in 1785 Turner was sent to stay with an uncle in Brentford, a small market town to the west of London.
It was here he first went to school. Brentford was the county town of Middlesex, and had a long history of political radicalism, which may have surfaced much later in Turner’s work. But more importantly, the surroundings of the town – the rural stretches of the Thames downriver to Chelsea, and the countryside upriver to Windsor and beyond – must have struck the boy as Arcadian (especially after the squalid surroundings of Covent Garden), and done much to form his later visions of an ideal world.
By 1788 Turner was attending school in Margate, a small holiday resort on the Thames Estuary far to the east of London. Some drawings from this stay have survived and they are remarkably precocious, especially in their grasp of the rudiments of perspective. His formal schooling apparently completed, by 1789 Turner was back in London and working under various architects or architectural topographers. They included Thomas Malton, the younger (1748-1804) whose influence on his work is discernible around this time.
On 11 December 1789 the first President of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), presided over a committee that admitted Turner to its schools. The Royal Academy Schools was then the only regular art training establishment in Britain. Painting was not taught there – it would only appear on the curriculum in 1816 – and students merely learned to draw, initially from plaster casts of antique statuary and then, when deemed good enough, from the nude. It took the youth about two and a half years to make the move. Amongst the visitors or teachers in the life class were history painters such as James Barry RA and Henry Fuseli RA, whose lofty artistic aspirations would soon rub off on the young Turner.
Naturally, as Turner lived in the days before student grants, he had to earn his keep from the beginning. In 1790 he exhibited in a Royal Academy Exhibition for the first time, and with a few exceptions he went on participating in those annual displays of contemporary art until 1850. In that era the Royal Academy only mounted one exhibition every year, and consequently the show enjoyed far more impact than it does today, swamped as it now is by innumerable rivals (some of the best of which are mounted by the Royal Academy itself). Turner quickly provoked highly favourable responses to his vivacious and inventive offerings. At the 1792 Royal Academy Exhibition Turner received a lesson that would eventually move his art into dimensions of light and colour previously unknown to painting. He was especially struck by a watercolour, Battle Abbey, by Michael Angelo Rooker ARA (1746-1801), and copied it twice in watercolour (the Rooker is today in the Royal Academy collection, London, while both of Turner’s copies reside in the Turner Bequest).