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A barber’s son became England’s greatest painter – J M W Turner

Posted in Art, Artist, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Monday, 30 April 2012

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This edited article about J M W Turner originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 697 published on 24 May 1975.

JMW Turner, picture, image, illustration

Turner famously lashed himself to the ship’s mast to paint a storm by C L Doughty

When a 28-year-old barber, who worked near London’s Covent Garden Market, and his 34-year-old wife had a son in April 1775, they were, of course, delighted. They probably did not know that this day, the 23rd April, was the very day of the year on which Shakespeare, England’s greatest writer, had been born in the 16th century; they certainly had no idea that England’s most famous painter had his birthday on the same day of the year, and that they were his parents. For William and Mary Turner were simple people; the father was really a Devon man, who had come to London after the death of his own father years before, and who had set up shop as a barber in what was then quite a fashionable part of the town. Being near the theatres, William used to dress wigs for actors as well as gentry, and was kept quite busy at these and the other tasks of a barber’s trade. His wife was the daughter of a London butcher, and in those days, was probably glad to marry a promising tradesman. Their son, born within a year of their wedding, was christened at the nearby church of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden; three years later, a little sister was also christened there. She died, however, when the boy was only eleven, and he felt the loss very deeply.

The heart of London, with its squares and alleys, does not seem a very promising place to grow up in for a lover of rich colours such as young Turner became. Grey stone, dull brick, and grimy plane trees did not offer much splendour, and the sun shone only fitfully in Maiden Lane, where the family lived over the barber’s shop. But young Turner was fortunate because, when his sister died, the parents feared for their son’s health so much that they sent him to lodge with an uncle at Brentford, in Middlesex, which at that time was a country village near the north bank of the Thames.

There he went to the Free School, in Brentford Butts. It was only a small school, for about fifty boys and a few girls, but there was a kindly and shrewd headmaster, who noticed the unusual talents of the shy and awkward boy from Covent Garden.

Turner’s school friends noticed his talents also. Years later, when Turner was famous, one remembered how he would pocket a piece of chalk in the classroom, and on the way home, draw amazingly life-like pictures of cocks and hens, or other farmyard scenes, on the wall of any house they passed. And as he walked along the banks of the nearby river, there is no doubt that the young artist’s mind began to fill with scenes of boats and barges, great houses and avenues of trees, clouds and rainbows, all of which were to find places in the immense output of pictures in his later years. He must have loved the place, for when he became rich and famous, it was in Twickenham, just across the river, that he chose to live.

Sometimes he returned to his parents’ home in the heart of London, and from there he often wandered down to the waterside below London Bridge. In those days, the banks of the Thames on either side were a maze of wharves and docks, filled with a forest of masts and spars. From the sight of these, came Turner’s love of the great sailing ships which he loved to paint so often and so well. From their sailors, he heard tales of the fearful storms through which they passed on their voyages to the Americas and the Indies. These also he stored in his mind, and afterwards painted vivid scenes of ships battling with hurricanes which he himself had never experienced, but which he could bring to mind from memories of what these sailors had told him.

Turner loved children, although he never married, and so never had a family of his own. But children often appeared in his paintings of scenes from the English landscape, and they must be just the kind of children whom he met and observed so keenly on his solitary boyhood walks. We see them weeding gardens, driving donkeys, gathering firewood, playing with dogs and cats, and very often flying kites. Around Brentford, Turner also learned to fish, and became an expert in the art which he enjoyed all his life. Indeed, he enjoyed anything to do with boats, and his love for the great wooden warships of his day later showed itself in one of his most famous paintings called The Fighting Temeraire.

By the time he was twelve, Turner’s promise as an artist had showed itself quite clearly. At that age, he was already drawing views of London, which were hung around the walls of his father’s shop, and sold for two or three shillings each. Today any one of them might fetch thousands of pounds in a sale room. He was allowed to have lessons from a series of drawing masters in London and Brentford, and even as far away as Margate, where he stayed for some time with an aunt. It was the interest of one of his father’s customers, a clergyman called Robert Nixon, which led to young Turner being sent to the Royal Academy as a student. Here he rapidly mastered the rudiments of architecture and the making of plaster casts, as well as the use of oil paints and the principles of design and colour. By the time he was sixteen, Turner already had two water-colour paintings hung in the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition – a remarkable feat for one so young.

By the time he was eighteen, his paintings were being noticed by the art critics in the London newspapers. Turner, for his part, was beginning to travel in search of fresh scenes and ideas. He was a keen walker, often travelling twenty-five miles a day on foot, making quick sketches and notes of things which interested him when he paused for brief rests. He walked through much of Wales, the Isle of Wight, Oxfordshire and Kent, and the sketches which had once been sold from the walls of his father’s barber’s shop for five or ten pence, now fetched as many guineas.

Before he was twenty, Turner was using rich oil paints and huge canvasses. His first notable picture, Fishermen at Sea, was the result of an unusually long stay he had to spend on the mud-flats of the Thames estuary, when the tide went out as he was sketching from a boat. It was a fortunate delay, for it began the great output of masterpieces in oil painting which he was to produce with ceaseless energy for another fifty years. His last great picture was a sea-scene like the first, and between the two came the richest and most colourful riot of colour in which the beauties of sea and sky, sunlight and the countryside, were ever depicted by an English artist. A far cry indeed from the drab and grimy upbringing of a young genius.

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