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Joseph Mallord William "J. M. W." Turner, RA (baptised 14 May 1775[a] – 19 December 1851) was an English Romanticist landscape painter, watercolourist, and printmaker. Turner was considered a controversial figure in his day, but is now regarded as the artist who elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivalling history painting.
Although renowned for his oil paintings, Turner is also one of the greatest masters of British watercolour landscape painting. He is commonly known as "the painter of light" and his work is regarded as a Romantic preface to Impressionism.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was baptised on 14 May 1775, but his date of birth is unknown. It is generally believed he was born between late April and early May. Turner himself claimed he was born on 23 April, but there is no proof.[a] He was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, in London, England. His father, William Turner (1745–21 September 1829), was a barber and wig maker. His mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. A younger sister, Mary Ann, was born in September 1778 but died in August 1783.
In 1785, due to his mother showing signs of the mental disturbance for which she was admitted first to St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics in Old Street in 1799 and then Bethlem Hospital in 1800, the young Turner was sent to stay with his maternal uncle, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford, then a small town on the banks of the River Thames west of London. From this period, the earliest known artistic exercise by Turner is found, a series of simple colourings of engraved plates from Henry Boswell's Picturesque View of the Antiquities of England and Wales. Around 1786, Turner was sent to Margate on the north-east Kent coast. Here he produced a series of drawings of the town and surrounding area foreshadowing his later work. Turner returned to Margate many times in later life. By this time, Turner's drawings were being exhibited in his father's shop window and sold for a few shillings. His father boasted to the artist Thomas Stothard that: "My son, sir, is going to be a painter." In 1789 Turner again stayed with his uncle, who had retired to Sunningwell in Berkshire (later, following the 1974 boundary changes, part of Oxfordshire). A whole sketchbook of work from this time in Berkshire survives, as well as a watercolour of Oxford. The use of pencil sketches on location as a basis for later finished paintings formed the basis of Turner's essential working style for his whole career.
As a probationer in the academy, he was taught drawing from plaster casts of antique sculptures and his name appears in the registry of the academy over a hundred times from July 1790 to October 1793. In June 1792, he was admitted to the life class to learn to draw the human body from nude models. Turner exhibited watercolours each year at the academy – travelling in the summer and painting in the winter. He travelled widely throughout Britain, particularly to Wales, and produced a wide range of sketches for working up into studies and watercolours. These particularly focused on architectural work, which utilised his skills as a draughtsman. In 1793, he showed a watercolour titled The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent's Rock Bristol (now lost) that foreshadowed his later climatic effects. Cunningham in his obituary of Turner wrote that it was: "recognised by the wiser few as a noble attempt at lifting landscape art out of the tame insipidities...[and] evinced for the first time that mastery of effect for which he is now justly celebrated." Turner exhibited his first oil painting at the academy in 1796, Fishermen at Sea: a nocturnal moonlit scene of The Needles, which lie off the Isle of Wight.
Turner travelled widely in Europe, starting with France and Switzerland in 1802 and studying in the Louvre in Paris in the same year. He made many visits to Venice. On a visit to Lyme Regis, in Dorset, he painted a stormy scene (now in the Cincinnati Art Museum).
Important support for his work came from Walter Ramsden Fawkes, of Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire, who became a close friend of the artist. Turner first visited Otley in 1797, aged 22, when commissioned to paint watercolours of the area. He was so attracted to Otley and the surrounding area that he returned to it throughout his career. The stormy backdrop of Hannibal Crossing The Alps is reputed to have been inspired by a storm over the Chevin in Otley while he was staying at Farnley Hall.
Turner was a frequent guest of George O'Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, at Petworth House in West Sussex and painted scenes that Egremont funded taken from the grounds of the house and of the Sussex countryside, including a view of the Chichester Canal. Petworth House still displays a number of paintings.
As Turner grew older, he became more eccentric. He had few close friends except for his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as his studio assistant. His father's death in 1829 had a profound effect on him, and thereafter he was subject to bouts of depression. He never married but had a relationship with an older widow, Sarah Danby. He is believed to have been the father of her two daughters born in 1801 and 1811.
Later he had a relationship with Sophia Caroline Booth, after her second husband died, living for about 18 years as 'Mr Booth' in her house in Chelsea. Like many of the day, Turner was a habitual user of snuff; in 1838 the King of France, Louis-Philippe, presented a gold snuff box to him. Of two other snuffboxes, an agate and silver example bears Turner's name, and another, made of wood, was collected along with his spectacles, magnifying glass and card case by an associate house keeper.
Turner died in the house of his lover Sophia Caroline Booth in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea on 19 December 1851, and is said to have uttered the last words "The Sun is God". At his request he was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, where he lies next to Sir Joshua Reynolds. His last exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1850.
Turner's friend, architect Philip Hardwick (1792–1870), son of his tutor, Thomas Hardwick, was in charge of making the funeral arrangements and wrote to those who knew Turner to tell them at the time of his death that, "I must inform you, we have lost him." Other executors were his cousin and chief mourner at the funeral, Henry Harpur IV (benefactor of Westminster – now Chelsea & Westminster – Hospital), Revd. Henry Scott Trimmer, George Jones RA and Charles Turner ARA.