This painting is the culmination of Turner’s studies of Devon, which he visited in 1811 and 1813. His watercolours and drawings of the area were remarkably fresh and informal. Here, however, he creates a more monumental and self-consciously artful image in the mould of the seventeenth-century classical landscape painter, Claude Lorrain. Even so, contemporaries recognized that the scene was intended to show a particular place: the Tamar valley. This painting was exhibited in the year of the battle of Waterloo. It would have been hard to avoid the patriotic subtext of such a grandly ambitious depiction of the national landscape
Joseph Mallord William "J. M. W." Turner, RA (baptised 14 May 1775[a] – 19 December 1851) was a British Romantic landscape painter, water-colourist, and printmaker. Turner was considered a controversial figure in his day, but is now regarded as the artist who elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivalling history painting.
Although renowned for his oil paintings, Turner is also one of the greatest masters of British watercolour landscape painting. He is commonly known as "the painter of light" and his work is regarded as a Romantic preface to Impressionism.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (above) was baptised on 14 May 1775, but his date of birth is unknown. It is generally believed he was born between late April and early May. Turner himself claimed he was born on 23 April, but there is no proof of this.[a] He was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, England.
His father, William Turner (1745–21 September 1829), was a barber and wig maker, His mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. A younger sister, Mary Ann, was born in September 1778 but died aged four in August 1783.
Drawing of St John's Church, Margate by Turner from around 1786, when he would have been 11 or 12 years old. The ambitious but unsure drawing shows an early struggle with perspective, which can be contrasted with his later work
A View of the Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth – this watercolour was Turner's first to be accepted for the Royal Academy's annual exhibition in April 1790, the month he turned fifteen. The image is a technical presentation of Turner's strong grasp of the elements of perspective with several buildings at sharp angles to each other, demonstrating Turner's thorough mastery of Thomas Malton's topographical style.
In 1785, as a result of a "fit of illness" in the family the young Turner was sent to stay with his maternal uncle, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford, then a small town on the banks of the River Thames west of London. From this period, the earliest known artistic exercise by Turner is found, a series of simple colourings of engraved plates from Henry Boswell's Picturesque View of the Antiquities of England and Wales.
Around 1786, Turner was sent to Margate on the north-east Kent coast. Here he produced a series of drawings of the town and surrounding area foreshadowing his later work. Turner returned to Margate many times in later life.
By this time, Turner's drawings were being exhibited in his father's shop window and sold for a few shillings. His father boasted to the artist Thomas Stothard that: "My son, sir, is going to be a painter". In 1789 Turner again stayed with his uncle, who had retired to Sunningwell in Oxford. A whole sketchbook of work from this time in Oxford survives, as well as a watercolour of Oxford. The use of pencil sketches on location as a basis for later finished paintings formed the basis of Turner's essential working style for his whole career.
Many early sketches by Turner were architectural studies and/or exercises in perspective and it is known that as a young man he worked for several architects including Thomas Hardwick (junior), James Wyatt and Joseph Bonomi the Elder.
By the end of 1789 he had also begun to study under the topographical draughtsman Thomas Malton, whom Turner would later call "My real master". He entered the Royal Academy of Art schools in 1789, when he was 14 years old, and was accepted into the academy a year later. Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, chaired the panel that admitted him. At first Turner showed a keen interest in architecture but was advised to continue painting by the architect Thomas Hardwick. His first watercolour painting A View of the Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth was accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1790 when Turner was 15.
As a probationer in the academy, he was taught drawing from plaster casts of antique sculptures and his name appears in the registry of the academy over a hundred times from July 1790 to October 1793. In June 1792 he was admitted to the life class to learn to draw the human body from nude models.
Turner exhibited watercolours each year at the academy – travelling in the summer and painting in the winter. He travelled widely throughout Britain, particularly to Wales, and produced a wide range of sketches for working up into studies and watercolours. These particularly focused on architectural work, which utilised his skills as a draughtsman.
In 1793, he showed a watercolour titled The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent's Rock Bristol (now lost) that foreshadowed his later climatic effects.
Cunningham in his obituary of Turner wrote that it was: "recognised by the wiser few as a nobel attempt at lift in landscape art out of the tame insipidities...[and] evinced for the fist time that mastery of effect for which he is now justly celebrated."
Turner exhibited his first oil painting at the academy in 1796, Fishermen at Sea: a nocturnal moonlit scene off The Needles, Isle of Wight. The image of boats in peril contrasts the cold light of the moon with the firelight glow of the fishermen's lantern.
Wilton said that the image: "Is a summary of all that had been said about the sea by the artists of the eighteenth century." and shows strong influence by artists such as Horace Vernet, Philip James de Loutherbourg, Peter Monamy and Francis Swaine, who was admired for his moonlight marine paintings. This particular painting cannot be said to show any influence of Willem van de Velde the Younger, as not a single nocturnal scene is known by that painter. Some later work, however, as shown below, was created to rival or complement the manner of the Dutch artist. The image was praised by contemporary critics and founded Turner's reputation, both as an oil painter and as a painter of maritime scenes.
Turner travelled widely in Europe, starting with France and Switzerland in 1802 and studying in The Louvre in Paris in the same year. He made many visits to Venice. On a visit to Lyme Regis, in Dorset he painted a stormy scene (now in the Cincinnati Art Museum).
Important support for his work came from Walter Ramsden Fawkes, of Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire, who became a close friend of the artist. Turner first visited Otley in 1797, aged 22, when commissioned to paint watercolours of the area. He was so attracted to Otley and the surrounding area that he returned to it throughout his career. The stormy backdrop of Hannibal Crossing The Alps is reputed to have been inspired by a storm over the Chevin in Otley while he was staying at Farnley Hall.
Turner was a frequent guest of George O'Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont at Petworth House in West Sussex and painted scenes that Egremont funded taken from the grounds of the house and of the Sussex countryside, including a view of the Chichester Canal. Petworth House still displays a number of paintings.
As Turner grew older, he became more eccentric. He had few close friends except for his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as his studio assistant. His father's death in 1829 had a profound effect, and thereafter he was subject to bouts of depression. He never married but had a relationship with an older widow, Sarah Danby. He is believed to have been the father of her two daughters born in 1801 and 1811.
Turner died in the house of his mistress Sophia Caroline Booth in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea on 19 December 1851. He is said to have uttered the last words "The sun is God" before expiring. At his request he was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, where he lies next to Sir Joshua Reynolds. His last exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1850.
Turner's friend, architect Philip Hardwick (1792–1870), son of his tutor, Thomas Hardwick, was in charge of making the funeral arrangements and wrote to those who knew Turner to tell them at the time of his death that, "I must inform you, we have lost him." Other executors were his cousin and chief mourner at the funeral, Henry Harpur IV (benefactor of Westminster – now Chelsea & Westminster – Hospital), Revd. Henry Scott Trimmer, George Jones RA and Charles Turner ARA.