Endowed with a towering intellect, John Mallord William Turner is arguably the greatest of all English Romantic painters. One year older than Constable, Turner was John Constable’s life-long rival.

He did not enjoy the financial support of an affluent family (unlike Constable) and had to earn his keep by selling his paintings. He exhibited and sold his work at the Royal Academy for first time in 1790 at the age of 15 and continued to exhibit until 1850 while Constable sold relatively few of his paintings before he reached his mid-forties.

Early Life

  • Turner’s early life was very different from Constable’s comfortable, rural childhood. He was a Cockney-speaking Londoner. His family was poor (his father was a barber and wig-maker). The death of his sister in childhood so exacerbated his mother’s mental illness that as a boy, Turner was sent away to stay with an uncle in Brentford. His mother was eventually declared insane and died in Bedlam.
  • While Constable attended a good grammar school in Dedham, Turner’s formal education was scanty and finished at the age of 13. Although Turner’s intellect was by all accounts, enormous his patchy education, poor dress sense and rough way of speaking meant he cut a poor figure socially. However, his precocious artistic talent meant he was enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy School at the age of 14 – Constable would be 23 before he was admitted for similar training.

Landscape Painter

Like Constable, Turner painted impressive landscapes and seascapes in beautiful English locations (see 3rd image above) but while Constable was nostalgic for the demise of the countryside of his childhood, Turner felt excited by what was replacing it, regarding heat, light and belching smoke as the “industrial sublime”.

  • The Fighting Temeraire (1838) shows an old, redundant sail ship being pulled to the scrap-yard by a steam-powered, iron tug, a fraction her size, belching out smoke – a scene of poignant sorrow or of excitement, depending on your point of view – see 4th image above.
  • Rain Steam and Speed (1844) creates a blur of speed as the Great Western train hurtles out of the canvas. The front of the train is almost obliterated by the bright, white heat of its furnace. To emphasise its power still further, Turner places a tiny hare (the fastest natural runner in England) in the bottom right corner of his painting and on the left side a tiny boat (representing old technology) floundering in the water – see 6th image above.
  • For an enlightening discussion on Turner and the Industrial Revolution, click this link –  Turner and Rain, Steam and Speed

Moral Seer – Duty of an Artist

Turner had a deeply moral conscience and he supported contemporary demands for political and religious freedom and believed slavery should be abolished throughout the world. He was not afraid to shame those guilty of gross immoral acts and openly claimed: “It is the duty of an artist to act as a moral seer” (extract from a letter written by JMW Turner in 1811). He first exhibited Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (1840) at an anti-slavery conference with British royalty in attendance. This shocking painting (see 5th image above) was based on a real incident that took place in 1783.The captain of a ship ordered his cargo of sick slaves to be thrown over-board so he could claim on his insurance policy.

Historial Paintings

Turner painted both contemporary history and history from ancient times. Contemporary historical scenes include:

Compositions are distanced by the silvery treatment of his subjects – and whole scenes are rendered ethereal in a silver or golden aura of light.

In his depiction of ancient history sunlight on the water is a recurring theme, varying from the glare of the morning sun in Dido Building Carthage (1815) to the Mediteranean sunset in Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus 1829 in which the brilliance of the sun highlights the critical moment when Ulysees taunts the giant

In paintings such as Snowstorm: Hannibal Crossing the Alps (1812) Turner uses the storm as a symbol of human emotion, painting tiny human figures and elephants dwarfed by the power and scale of nature. The snowstorm whirls down the valley, blotting out the sun and evoking feelings of humans overwhelmed by the elements of nature.


Like Constable, Turner was an inveterate sketcher but Turner created and used his sketches very differently:

“He would freely alter or omit anything in a particular scene that did not accord with his imaginative demands – so sometimes his landscapes bore little resemblance to the actuality of a place while unusual or striking weather effects he had witnessed in one place could be transposed into representations of others.” (extract from A Turner Biography by Eric Shanes)

While Constable created paintings based on the country landscapes as he had really seen and sketched them, Turner used his sketches more imaginatively.

“Turner’s principal method of studying appearances and still allowing himself manoeuvre was to sketch a view in outline, omitting any effects of weather, light, human figures or even human figures or animals (if needed these ancillaries would be studied separately) and then return to the sketch at a later date, supplying the ancillaries from memory and/or the imagination.” (extract from A Turner Biography by Eric Shanes).

Rivalry with John Constable

The rivalry between Turner and Constable was famously illustrated by an incident in 1832 when both men were finishing off paintings due to be exhibited next to each other at the Royal Academy. Constable was adding the final touches to The Opening Of Waterloo Bridge while Turner was doing the same to a rather grey seascape called Helvoetsluys. Turner watched as Constable added more and more rich colours to his canvas. He then went up to his own picture and placed a daub of bright red, (about the size of a 5p coin) into the water in his picture and then left the gallery. C.R. Leslie, Constable’s biographer, and contemporary recounted:

“The intensity of the red lead, made more vivid by the coolness of his picture, caused even the vermilion and lake of Constable to look weak”. (extract from Autobiographical Recollections of the late Charles Robert Leslie R.A. edited by Tom Taylor, 1860).

End of Life

A private and eccentric man, Turner had few friends except for his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as his studio assistant. After his father’s death in 1829, Turner became depressed. He never married but had two daughters by Sarah Danby, the widow of the composer (of glees) John Danby and he kept a mistress in Margate who was called Sophia Booth. He died in Sophia’s house at the age of 76 leaving 2,000 paintings and watercolours in private hands plus nearly 300 finished and unfinished oil paintings and nearly 20,000 sketches in watercolour, pencil and other media.