Turner: why global museums are still rapt by the Romantic

By Rachel Potts

J.M.W. Turner, Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening (1826). The Frick Collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb.

London - This week, museums across the world will commemorate the anniversary of the death of the great British Romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner. Professor Sam Smiles, co-curator of a major Turner exhibition in 2014 at Tate Britain in London – which houses the most important collection of the artist’s work – says Turner “utterly transformed” his genre, elevating landscape into a site to tackle the intellectual challenges of his age, from science to history.

Turner was born in 1775, the son of a barber, but despite this inauspicious start, he had become a Royal Academician – an official member of the artistic elite – at the age of 26. By the time he died at the age of 76 on 19 December 1851, the celebrated art critic John Ruskin had called him “the greatest of his age”, although others questioned his radical experiments in paint.

His popularity has continued to grow over the years, with a string of major exhibitions in the past decade (North America’s largest ever Turner retrospective toured US cities in 2007–2008; Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master broke attendance records in Australia in 2013; Tate Britain has hosted the two major touring shows Turner and the Masters in 2009 and Late Turner: Painting Set Free in 2014), and, by popular demand, his portrait is being printed onto the British £20 note.

J.M.W. Turner, Loch Coruisk, Skye (1831-1834). Scottish National Gallery.

A Modernist before Modernism?

Critics in 1819 called Turner an “astonishing magician” after seeing his watercolours. Charlotte Topsfield, a curator at the Scottish National Gallery, says it is Turner’s range that gets us; the landscapes are “layered with interest”, drawn from geology, optics and modern life. Technology meets the elements in Tate’s Snowstorm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. “It’s just the most extraordinary thing that a work like that could be exhibited in the 1840s,” says Smiles. “The forms are barely visible; there’s this huge vortex of energy. It looks unlike anything by his contemporaries.”

Turner’s concerns speak to ours, says Susan Grace Galassi of the Frick Collection and curator of Turner's Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time (2017). “He had an eye for urban sprawl, the congestion of rivers, effects of industrialisation on water and air, the rise of tourism.” He painted progress, for good or bad: the Frick’s large oil of Cologne includes a medieval wall that was being demolished as Turner worked.

Leading Turner scholar Ian Warrell underscores Turner’s continuing hold over artists, who are still stimulated by his striving for “new means of expression”. Warrell’s 2012 book Turner’s Secret Sketches sheds light on erotic works, once thought destroyed, and which Warrell says “lend Turner a humanity for people”, including Tracey Emin, who has exhibited them alongside her own art.

J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (Tate Britain)

J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842). Tate Collection.

Where to See Turner

Tate Britain

“Head and shoulders above anywhere else,” says Charlotte Topsfield, “because they’ve got the Turner Bequest,” the settlement of Turner’s will that gave the contents of his studio to the state alongside finished works he formally bequeathed. “That’s 30,000 works on paper, almost all his sketchbooks and 300 oil paintings.”

Yale Center for British Art

“An exemplary collection of Turner’s work,” says Sam Smiles. Holds the seminal sea painting Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed, dubbed “one of the most magnificent pictures ever exhibited” in 1818.

J.M.W. Turner, The Great Fall of the Reichenbach, Switzerland (1802). National Gallery of Ireland. Photo: National Gallery of Ireland. The Henry Vaughan Bequest

Coming Up

Turner and the Poetics of Landscape, Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art until 4 February 2018, then the Museum of Kyoto, 17 February – 15 April 2018

Turner in January, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, 1–31 January 2018

Good Morning Mr Turner: Niall Naessens and J.M.W. Turner, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 1–31 January 2018

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