Photo: Courtesy Tate Publishing
J.M.W. Turner once tied himself to the mast of a ship during a storm, to get the feel of his painting just right. It’s a tale that’s been told ever since.
Other than a few anecdotes focusing on Turner’s eccentric ways and his reclusive habits, however, relatively little personal information is known about one of Britain’s most acclaimed painters—recognized by leading English art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900), as the artist who could “most stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of nature.” They didn’t nickname Turner (1775–1851) “the painter of light” and “the great pyrotechnist” for nothing.
For anyone lucky enough to be travelling Down Under this summer, you’ll be able to see Turner’s luminous canvases firsthand at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, where Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master is currently on view. From the Turner holdings of the Tate collection in London, this landmark show is one of the biggest Turner exhibitions to be held outside of Britain.
For those of us who can’t make it to Australia, the recently released J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Master is an enriching alternative. Once again, Tate Publishing has produced an enlightening art book that is a journey through the painter’s oeuvre, providing insight into why Turner is regarded as one of the great masters of the Romantic period that preceded Impressionism.
Turner made captivating and distinctive works in oil and watercolour, and was also a skilled printmaker. While perhaps best known for his landscapes, the Tate’s holdings surveyed in the book—oil paintings, watercolours and sketchbooks—reveal the artist’s equally remarkable seascapes and historical paintings.
Essays cover Turner’s methods and materials, and his experiments with mood and colour, from his beginnings to his final years. His artistic development is studied in relation to colonial art and the print market of the time, as well as his impact throughout Europe and as far away as Australia. An extensive chronology is also provided. Even without the accompanying images, it’s a thought-provoking read.
It’s fascinating to progress through the book and see how Turner’s work went from being traditional to more experimental, visionary and modern. It is in these later plates, where light dissolves forms and less attention is given to detail, that the atmospheric quality is breathtaking.
Sure, some of the images are a bit small. If anything, it will make you want to see the real works even more. Which you can do if you happen to be passing through the National Gallery of Canada, which houses over 250 prints by the artist, and where Mercury and Argus and Shoeburyness Fishermen Hailing a Whitstable Hoy are on permanent display.
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