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Turner began his career as a precise recorder of picturesque places, but developed into one of the great painters of the imagination, conjuring dramatic visions from the full majesty of nature.
Turner is generally considered to have been the most original genius of landscape painting of the 19th century, though it would be true to say that by the end of his life he had become a painter, not of land, sea and sky, but of light itself. Certainly, no other painter matched the sheer brilliance of his colours, and none used light to create such powerful and overwhelming images of nature and its impact on human destiny.
As a young man, Turner was gifted with both a precocious talent and a strong sense of ambition. Devoted from the first to landscape, he received some training in topography (the detailed depiction of places) and soon became adept at drawing ruined abbeys, crumbling castle walls, decaying villages and subjects favoured by a fashionable taste for the 'picturesque'. Turner's visual memory was extremely acute, and never forsook him, but his engravings and water-colours of this early period were based, as were almost all his works, on the innumerable sketches he always made on his journeys, whether to the Scottish Highlands or the Swiss Alps. He was tirelessly energetic and got up in time to see the sun rise whenever he could.
Once he had taken up oils, he made a name for himself by adapting the style of other famous landscape painters to the romantic style of his day. These versions of such masters as Claude, Richard Wilson and Rembrandt were made in a spirit of rivalry, rather than homage. Throughout, he freely indulged his preference for the melodramatic and catastrophic. Whirlwinds, avalanches, storms at sea and the destruction of great civilizations were his constant subjects.
Due entirely to his own neglect of them, many of Turner's oil paintings were badly damaged during his lifetime, but fortunately his huge collection of sketches was much better preserved. In 1806-7 he was painting oil sketches directly from nature; as often as not, his subject was the Thames Valley, which he painted while being rowed in a boat. Their vivid grasp of detail and atmosphere anticipates Constable's equally celebrated sketches by almost ten years.
Turner associated London and the Thames with other great civilizations Venice, ancient Rome and Carthage. In one of his Thames sketchbooks, Phoenician ships sweep down the river at Twick-enham. Turner was fascinated by every kind of ship and boat, and prided himself on his nautical knowledge. No sooner had HMS Victory limped into port after the Battle of Trafalgar, than Turner was on board, interviewing the crew and making numerous sketches.
Despite his mastery of oils, Turner never lost his interest in water-colours, which he used both as an aid to his memory in sketches and as a serious medium in its own right. In fact, his technique in oils was indebted to his experiments in water-colours, for he devised a way of floating a beautifully subtle film of mother-of-pearl paint over his canvases, which gave them a unique delicacy.
By 1805, Turner was applying paint boldly and freely, and later began to compose his paintings around circular or winding shapes, allowing the eye to be drawn into his receding whorls of colour. This proved especially effective when he came to paint seascapes. Another typical feature is that Turner's viewpoint nearly always looks directly into the sun. In his later masterpieces, the immaterial vehicles of colour steam, smoke, mist, clouds and so on envelop the forms, which are seen to merge, dissolve and lose themselves in the general blaze of light. Indeed, in some of his most personal works, he dispensed with form altogether, relying entirely on the power of colour.
He realized that one colour had a greater power than two, and two greater than three. Colour now acquired an almost symbolic significance. Jotting down colours in one of his sketchbooks, he wrote 'fire and blood' instead of 'red'.
Turner's tendency towards abstraction did not by any means prevent him painting pictures which, in their subject matter at least, were very particular. His picture Snowstorm, painted in 1842, carried the subtitle Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water and Going by the Lead, which shows both his love of circumstantial detail and pride in the painting's factual accuracy. His views of Venice, especially those executed immediately after his visits, are moving exactly because they combine strict architectural authenticity with an almost magical luminosity of atmosphere. And, as the young lady who followed Turner's example by sticking her head out of the train-carriage window was able to confirm, Turner's observation of such phenomena as trains running through storms (Rain, Steam and Speed) was also highly accurate.
Turner's avalanches and storms expressed his belief in the insignificance of man faced with the overpowering and destructive force of nature, but at the same time his radiant colours and light testify to nature's life-giving essence. It is the tension between these two great contrary visions that made Turner the genius he was. As Ruskin said of him: 'Here and there, once in a couple of centuries, one man will rise past clearness and become dark with excess of light.'
One characteristic feature of Turner's painting is his use of whirling, vortex-like compositions to suggest a sense of energy and movement. The most spectacular example is the famous.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish