Skip to content

London 1775–1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. is generally agreed to be the greatest British artist. He was eccentric and reclusive, hoarded his work, leaving much of it to the nation and though a fearless innovator had a deep respect for the past. The critic John Ruskin credited him with elevating landscape painting to the level of history painting. Monet later spoke of "doing battle with the sun" but Turner was as victorious in his expressionistic mastery of sunlight and atmosphere.

His early reputation was in the established English tradition of topographical watercolors but he soon began to travel abroad, notably in France, the Rhine valley, Switzerland and Italy, where he could find more dramatic scenery. He acquired some powerful patrons, but many were baffled by his increasingly impressionistic style.

Ruskin however extolled him as true to the moods of nature. Though personally reclusive, Turner was never shy of publicity and embarked on a printmaking venture, the Liber Studiorum, to disseminate his work more widely.

Ruskin wrote a delightful account of Turners boyhood exploring the wharfs and banks of the Thames and Turner was proud of Britain's maritime supremacy. In one of his first masterpieces, the so-called Bridgewater Sea Piece (1801) he pays homage to the art of a former maritime power, the Dutch of the seventeenth century, notably to the marine painter Willem van de Velde (1633–1707) who also worked in England. By 1810, in the Wreck of a Transport his style had become broader with emphasis on the perils of the sea in the vortex like composition. In Hannibal crossing the Alps (1821) the terrifying powers of nature are even more dramatically expressed and this for Turner was to be an ongoing theme.

Turner's respect for his predecessors in landscape is clear early shown in his Crossing the Brook, a homage to the classical landscapes of Claude (1600–82), and in his later Dido building Carthage he soups up the steep perspective of Claude's seaports. Many of his subsequent pictures evoke the gilded romance of Italy and for an aficionado of blazing suns and mists Venice was an obvious port of call. Among the most celebrated works of his later years are the nostalgic Fighting Temeraire, a depiction of a superannuated man of war being towed to the breakers, the Slave Ship in which an atrocity at sea takes second place to the drama of light and water, and Rain Steam and Speed where the driving force of steam locomotion, fire vaporizing water, is sublimated by the sun dissipating the mist.

Turner was a consummate watercolorist. Usually he bows to the market demand for adequate topographical description, but others are minimalist, strips of multicolored sea under multicolored sunsets. In very late works like Norham Castle at Sunrise all detail is suppressed in the haze, for which Turner has been hailed as a forerunner of Abstract Expressionism.


Top Auction Results for James Mallord William Turner

Rome (from Mount Aventine)
Sold for £30,322,500 ($47,609,516)
London, Sotheby’s, 3 December 2014, Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale, lot 44

Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino
Sold for £29,721,250 ($45,099,164)
London, Sotheby’s, 7 July 2010, Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale, lot 57

Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio
Sold for $35,856,000 
New York, Christie’s, 6 April 2006, Important Old Master Paintings, Part I, lot 97

Back To Top