xxxxxThe Fighting Temeraire of 1838 was the first of a succession of masterpieces produced by Joseph Turner in the last fifteen years of his life. These included Rockets and Blue Lights of 1840, Snowstorm at Sea and Burial at Sea of 1842, Rain, Steam and Speed of 1844, and his superb paintings of Venice. These vibrant works, remarkable for their bold colours, free brushwork, and intensity of light, served to create the atmosphere of a chosen scene, be it a dramatic incident on land or sea, or a sun-filled view over the Grand Canal. As we have seen (1818 G3c), Turner started his career in a fairly conventional way, producing romantic landscapes and views of the River Thames, but in the late 1790s he began painting in oil, and experimenting with the effect of light, and this resulted in a more powerful interpretation, as seen in such works as Fishermen at Sea of 1796, Calais Pier of 1803 and Hannibal Crossing the Alps of 1812. Then two visits to Italy in 1818 and 1835 introduced him to the beauty and natural light of Venice. His determination to recreate this diffused, simmering light, together with his unorthodox colours and swirling brushwork, produced the masterpieces of his last years. These avant-garde works were not generally appreciated, but his reputation remained in tact, due in no small part to the young art critic John Ruskin, whose first volume of Modern Painters, published in 1843, defended these imaginative works, and singled out Turner as one of the greatest landscape painters of all time.


(G3a, G3b, G3c, G4, W4, Va)


Turner: The Fighting Temeraire – National Gallery, London; The Bridge of Sighs and Ducal Palace, Venice – Tate Gallery, London; Rain, Steam and Speed – National Gallery, London; Snowstorm at Sea – Tate Gallery, London. Peace, Burial at Sea – Tate Gallery, London; Wilkie: The Penny Wedding – Royal Collection, UK; Self-Portrait (detail) – Portrait Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. Ruskin: by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896) – Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Brantwood: engraving, date and artist unknown. Whistler: The Falling Rocket – The Institute of Arts, Detroit, USA.

xxxxxThe Fighting Temeraire (illustrated) was the first of a succession of imaginative masterpieces produced in oil and watercolour by the great English artist Joseph Turner during the last fifteen years of his life. These brilliant works included The Slave Ship and Rockets and Blue Lights of 1840, Snow Storm at Sea and Burial at Sea of 1842, Rain, Steam, and Speed of 1844, and his superb paintings of Venice - such as Venice from the Canale della Giudecca of 1840, The Sun of Venice Going to Sea of 1843, and The Approach to Venice, produced a year later. In these powerful, vibrant works - full of swirling brushstrokes and bold, unorthodox colours, and remarkable above all for the intensity of their glowing, hazy light - he sought to capture the atmosphere not the pictorial detail of a moment caught in time. The forerunners of impressionism and bordering at times on the abstract, they were the culmination of his artistic genius.

xxxxxAs we have seen (1818 G3c), Turner began his career in a fairly conventional way. Influenced in particular by the works of the Englishman Robert Cozens and the Welsh artist Richard Wilson, he produced romantic landscapes, mythical scenes and attractive river views, mostly of the Thames. In 1796, however, he ventured into oil painting with his Fishermen at Sea, and three years later, having seen works by the French painter Claude Lorrain - an artist known particularly for his study of sunlight on water - he began his own, individualistic experiments with the power and diffusion of light. In the early 1800s came works such as Calais Pier and Hannibal crossing the Alps, scenes depicting man’s struggle against the elements - a favourite theme - and anticipating, by their robust style and lighting effects, the imposing works yet to come. By now he was earning a good living, and was fast becoming recognized as one of the country’s leading landscape artists.

xxxxxThen in 1819 Turner made his first of two visits to Italy, and was completely won over by the magic quality of the country’s natural light. Fascinated especially by the beauty of Venice, he began painting views of the city and, following his second visit in 1835, introduced original new methods of reproducing the overall effect of light. This technique, together with a bolder use of colour and an even freer use of the brush, produced the masterpieces of his final years.

xxxxxThe first of his great works of the 1830s and 1840s was The Fighting Temeraire, the warship that had distinguished itself in the Battle of Trafalgar. Turner saw it being towed up the Thames on a summer’s evening in 1838, on its way to the breaker’s yard, and quickly made a number of small sketches. The result was a masterpiece which thrilled the public by its patriotic sentiments and marked, by its brilliant use of colour, the passing of the age of sail, pulled to its death by a tug, the symbol of the new age of steam. The warship, graceful, majestic, and bathed in a soft silver light, contrasts vividly with the busy little black tug, belching out fire and smoke against a sky and sea ablaze with the red tones of a setting sun. The English writer William Thackeray likened the scene to the playing of “God save the Queen”.

xxxxxRain, Steam, and Speed (illustrated below), painted in 1844, depicts a steam train of the Great Western Railway as it thunders across a high bridge at the height of a rain storm. We are told that Turner prepared for this painting by sticking his head out of a train window for ten minutes in like weather conditions! The result was a swirling mass of colour which almost engulfs the train itself, blots out all but the barest detail, and conjures up an intense feeling of speed and biting rain.

xxxxxAnd in stark contrast to this turbulent, frenzied moment-in-time were his superb paintings of Venice, airy vistas which, whilst faithfully depicting the grandiose architecture of the city, bathed the whole scene in a shimmering haze of subtle hues. This highly effective lighting technique was achieved by laying his washes in layers, blotting wet surfaces to create the illusion of mist or haze, and using short brush strokes to produce ripples on water or a textured sky. He was also known to scratch out details with his fingernails or a small knife, and to use breadcrumbs, chalk, ink and other materials to achieve his special effects. And it was such unconventional techniques, essential aids in his quest for bold colours and shimmering light, which produced such works as his outstanding Swiss watercolours of the early 1840s. One of these, Blue Rigi, Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise, sold for a staggering £5.8 million in June 2006.

xxxxxAs one would expect, these avant-garde works were not to everyone’s taste. Indeed, a large number of the public and the majority of critics found Turner’s new style too extreme; some found it incomprehensible; and a few regarded it as a joke. One critic described Snowstorm at Sea as a load of “soapsuds and whitewash”. This did little, however, to dent Turner’s immense reputation, due in large part to the young but influential art critic John Ruskin, whose first volume of his Modern Painters, published in 1843, came out in fulsome praise of Turner’s works, and ensured his continued popularity.

xxxxxAs a person Turner was something of a recluse. His gruff manner made him few close friends, he was mean with money - a trait he inherited from his father - , and he preferred to travel and sketch rather than spend time in high society. He was particularly secretive about his private life, but it is known that he kept a mistress in London in the early 1800s, named Sarah Danby - by whom he had two children -, and later in life he teamed up with a Mrs Sophia Booth, even adopting her surname in an attempt to keep their relationship a secret. And the discovery after his death of a collection of erotic sketches - the vast majority destroyed by Ruskin to preserve his idol’s good name - suggested a life of debauchery during his early days in the East End of London. When his father died in 1829, he spent some time at Petworth, the ancestral home of Lord Egremont, but, again, he kept himself to himself in a studio at the top of the house. For some years he had a riverside retreat at Twickenham - aptly called Solus Lodge -, but he spent his last years in a house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, from where he could look out upon his beloved Thames. He died there in December 1851, aged 76.

xxxxxTurner was one of the greatest and most prolific of British artists. He worked quickly and tirelessly throughout his career, and he left over 300 oil paintings, nearly 20,000 water colours, and some 19,000 sketches, produced during his life in London, and from his extensive tours of Britain and the continent. Fascinated by the river life of the Thames and attracted throughout his career by real-life drama, be it on land or at sea, he evolved over the years a style which was as brilliant as it was original. In his final years, his highly individual use of colour, his free-flowing brush strokes, and his obsession with the changing nature of light, created, as no artist had done before, the atmosphere rather than the precise vision of a chosen subject, be it a snowstorm at sea or a sun-filled view over the Grand Canal. Therein lay his contribution to the birth of impressionism.


John Ruskin

xxxxxIncidentally, Turner painted Peace: Burial at Sea (illustrated above) to commemorate the death of his close friend and fellow artist David Wilkie (1785-1841), who died aboard ship while returning from the Middle East in 1841. The scene, divided down the middle by a shaft of light, creates a feeling of sombre tranquility as the coffin is lowered into the sea. Wilkie, a Scotsman, excelled in the depiction of everyday scenes from life, seen in such works as The Village Politicians, The Blind Fiddler and The Penny Wedding (illustrated above). He was knighted in 1836. ……

xxxxx…… After Turner’s death his great admirer John Ruskin catalogued his paintings and drawings. Turner bequeathed most of his works to the nation, asking that they be housed in a special gallery. His request was eventually granted. The Clore Gallery, specifically built at the Tate Gallery, London, to house the Turner Collection, was opened in 1987. ……

xxxxx…… An annual prize, named after Turner, was established in 1984 to encourage new developments in contemporary British art. Contestants for the Turner Prize are short listed by a jury, and exhibit their work at the Tate Gallery. The winner receives £20,000.

xxxxx…… When living at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, Turner had a good view of the Thames, and used to watch the small boats going up and down the river. One such boat was a smack known as a hoy. This carried farm produce and items like coal and salt, but it also acted as a ferry. It is believed that the nautical term “Ahoy” comes from people on the bank calling out for the ferry service. ……


xxxxxAs we have seen, the English art and social critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), a great admirer of Turner’s works, played an important part in maintaining the painter’s reputation as one of the finest landscape artists of the century. His first volume of Modern Painters, published in 1843, was full of praise for Turner’s controversial style. Four other volumes followed, the last in 1860, and these proved popular with the public, as did his other major works, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849, and its sequel The Stones of Venice, completed in 1853. Later in his career he became a social reformer, writing on social and economic problems, and using his own money to assist in the education and the housing of working people.

xxxxxRuskin was born in London, the only son of John James Ruskin, a prosperous wine merchant. A precocious, self-centred child, he accompanied his parents on tours of Europe during his teens, during which he acquired a love for travel and a life-time appreciation of gothic architecture and scenes of natural beauty. After a strict and sheltered upbringing, centred on reading, writing and drawing, he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1836. There his studies in art and literature were interrupted by a period of illness - spent in Italy -, but he eventually graduated in 1842. By then his parents had moved to Denmark Hill, and from there he was able to visit the famous picture gallery at Dulwich College. This, together with visits to the National Gallery, further strengthened his interest in art and, thanks to a generous allowance from his father, he began to collect works by Joseph Turner.

xxxxxIt was his admiration for this well-known landscape artist, and the criticism that was then being leveled against his unorthodox style, that led Ruskin to begin writing his Modern Painters, a work which eventually ran to five volumes and was not completed until 1860. In the first volume, he mounted a powerful defence of Turner’s works, arguing that his sensitive, imaginative paintings were, in fact, true to nature, and infinitely superior to all previous landscape painters, reliant as they had been on vision alone. Like Turner, Ruskin maintained, the artist should “go to Nature in all singleness of heart, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing”. This opening volume, taking to task as it did those with conventional views, proved highly popular. It made Ruskin’s name as a critic, and it virtually assured the success of his subsequent volumes.

xxxxxIn 1845 Ruskin began a new phase in his career. In April of that year he visited northern Italy and, having made sketches of the Gothic architecture there and been overwhelmed by its romantic beauty, he decided to put his thoughts on paper. After a further visit to the area and a journey into northern France in August 1848, he returned to start work. By April 1849 he had completed the text and the illustrations for The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Then, as a sequel, later that year he and his wife (he had married in 1848) spent the winter in Venice, and his studies there resulted in the first volume of The Stones of Venice in 1851. These works established him as a leading authority in architecture, and one with a theory to prove. Continuing his theme of “truth to nature”, he argued that, unlike other styles, such as the artificial exuberance of Baroque, both Gothic and Venetian architecture had been inspired by genuine religious fervour and, by dint of their moral basis, were valid forms of art.

xxxxxIn 1851, as in the case of Turner, Ruskin took up the cause of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of unorthodox artists strongly opposed to the current neoclassical style (1848). He defended their stand in letters to The Times, and, as a result, became a close friend of one of its members, Edward Burne-Jones, and got to know John Everett Millais and the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. By this time, however, his idea that the craftsman, like the artist, needed to find moral satisfaction in his work - the dignity of labour - started to turn him away from his preoccupation with the arts. Like his contemporaries Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, he began to direct his criticism against the shortcomings of Victorian society. He attacked above all the social evils brought about by the Industrial Revolution and laissez-faire economics. This resulted in a number of works in the 1860s, such as Sesame and Lilies and The Crown of Wild Olive, in which he called for a return to moral standards and the social reforms this would bring about.

xxxxxIn support of this idea of “regeneration” Ruskin lectured widely, taught at a girls’ school in Cheshire for some years, and wrote a large number of essays. Those denouncing the economic policy of laissez-faire aroused violent opposition, but were later published under the title Unto This Last. And it was in the 1860s that he gave generously of his own money to support education and housing schemes for the working classes. In 1869, however, he made a return to the art world when he was elected the first Slade professor of fine art at Oxford. His lectures proved highly popular, and he established a drawing school within the university to provide practical experience.

xxxxxIn 1871 his mother died, and he sold up his house in Denmark Hill and moved to the Lake District to live at Brantwood, a house overlooking Coniston Water. It was here that he established his Guild of St. George, a somewhat vague brotherhood designed to provide money for worthy public projects. The organization was publicised through his Fors Clavigera (Club of Fate) a series of letters to the nation’s working men spelling out the ills of contemporary society. It was one of these letters which contained a vicious attack on a painting by the American artist James McNeill Whistler and led to a libel action in 1878. The decision went against Ruskin, and though the costs awarded were less than a penny, it was a moral defeat, and virtually brought his career to an end. By then, however, his mental powers were already in decline. Despite periods of mental disturbance, he continued to write and lecture for some years, but in 1889 he became mentally deranged, and remained a total invalid for the last eleven years of his life.

xxxxxRuskin achieved a great deal of success in his chosen career, but his personal life was not a happy one. A teenage infatuation for a young Spanish girl seems to have affected him emotionally, and his marriage to Euphemia Gray in 1848 ended in scandal and an annulment six years later. By all accounts the marriage was never consummated, and she left him for the artist John Millais when they became involved with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the early 1850s. Then at the age of 39 he became besotted with a ten year old Irish girl, hoping to marry her when she came of age, but her rejection of him and her death in 1875 brought further anguish, and he was plagued with fits of depression and mental break down for the rest of his life.

xxxxxAs a pioneer in the fields of art criticism and history, it must be said that Ruskin’s works were limited in scope, not always well structured, and exploited for his own artistic theory. Nevertheless, from the 1850s onwards they had a marked influence upon Victorian public taste, awakening a wider interest in the arts and playing a vital role in championing the unorthodox views of Joseph Turner and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In his study of architecture he played a part in the Gothic Revival, then under way, and his lectures and letters on social reform had a long term effect. He is to be remembered, too, for his personal contribution to art and literature. He was an effective lecturer, a writer of some memorable prose, and his drawings were those of an accomplished draughtsman.

xxxxxIncidentally, as noted earlier, following the death of Joseph Turner in 1851, Ruskin offered to catalogue the thousands of drawings and paintings which the artist had left to the National Gallery. Starting early in 1857, it took him the best part of a year to complete the task. A great admirer of Turner, he claimed that “his sense of beauty was perfect .. only that of Keats and Tennyson being comparable with it”.

xxxxx…… The fact that the American artist James Whistler sued Ruskin for libel in 1878 is hardly surprising. In denouncing his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (illustrated), Ruskin accused him of “ill-educated conceit” and of “flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public”. Whistler won the case, but, nonetheless, had to meet his cost of the trial. ……

xxxxx…… Ruskin’s last book was a charming but incomplete autobiography entitled Praeterita. He started writing it in 1885, using a diary he had kept from his early years, but was unable to finish it following a particularly severe attack of madness in the summer of 1889. ……

xxxxx…… The portrait of Ruskin above was the work of his friend John Millais. He began it when they were on holiday together in Scotland in 1853. The following year, Ruskin’s wife Effie left him, having fallen in love with Millais, but nevertheless Ruskin insisted that the painting be completed.

xxxxxAs we have seen, the English art and social critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) came out in fulsome praise of the landscape artist Joseph Turner in his Modern Painters, first published in 1843, and played an important part in maintaining the artist’s reputation. He later championed the cause of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of unorthodox painters opposed to the current neo-classical style. Apart from his five-volume work on modern painters, he also published two books on architecture, The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice, works in which he praised Gothic and Venetian architecture for being the products of genuine religious zeal. Later in his career he became an active social reformer, condemning the effects of the Industrial Revolution and laissez-faire economics. A gifted lecturer, writer and draughtsman, he had a marked influence on public taste, awakening a wider interest in the arts and pointing out the shortcomings of Victorian society, and the need for moral regeneration.