London: Merrell, 208 pp., $59.95
London: Tate, 280 pp., £29.99 (paper)
Yale University Press/ Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 162 pp., $39.95
Third Millennium/Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 72 pp., £12.95 (paper)
J.M.W. Turner was born in London in 1775, the only son of a Covent Garden barber and a mother so unstable that she was to die in a lunatic asylum unvisited and unmourned by her husband and child. A prodigy, Turner first trained as an architectural draftsman before the Royal Academy schools accepted him as a student at the age of fourteen. Although he had little formal education and may have suffered from some form of dyslexia, these very disadvantages, coupled with a powerful intellect and raging curiosity, turned him into a voracious autodidact. At the Academy, he was instructed in the rudiments of his art through the academic practice of drawing first from antique casts, and then from life. The president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, taught his students to differentiate between the hierarchies in art, from history painting, the most prestigious, on down to landscape, portraiture, and lowly genre scenes. The importance of these teachings for Turner’s later artistic development can hardly be overstated. As a landscape painter, Turner absorbed the idea that a great artist idealizes nature, transcending the particular to express a general truth. For Sir Joshua, the purpose of a great work of art was to appeal to the imagination and not simply to the eye. Turner learned to look at art through the lens of old masters such as Claude, Poussin, and Gaspard Dughet.
But there is another side to Turner’s art. As a boy and as a young man he roamed the streets of London, visiting the panoramas and dioramas that were then a feature of late-eighteenth-century popular entertainment. Influenced by such spectacles, the seventeen-year-old used his art the way a journalist uses his pen, to report on current events. This happens as early as his watercolor study The Pantheon, the morning After the fire, an “eyewitness account” of the destruction of a famous London theater in January 1792. Though a finished work of art and exhibited at the Royal Academy in that year, it is so immediate and realistic that Turner even shows the icicles formed where water from the firemen’s hoses dripped off the building. Side by side with natural spectacles such as avalanches and storms at sea, Turner never lost his interest in recording dramatic current events, whether he worked from newspaper accounts, as in his Battle of Trafalgar of 1806, or was actually present as history was being made, as in his two oil paintings Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, exhibited in 1835 (see illustration on page 22).
Turner spent a lifetime filling his notebooks with quick sketches, some of which he turned into finished watercolors back in his studio. This working method enabled him to add or eliminate details, and so to transform the raw data gathered on these sketching expeditions into highly wrought works of art expressing his thoughts on nature, history, politics, and society. When it comes to finished works as opposed to sketches, we can …