Turner and the Sea

National Maritime Museum, London

Written by:
Frances Wilson
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Given Britain’s fine maritime heritage, and the painter John Mallard William Turner’s unerring ability to capture the mercurial nature of the sea, it is perhaps surprising that there has never been a full-scale exhibition of his marine paintings before now, especially when one considers that his seascapes make up more than half of his output.

The task of mounting such an exhibition has fallen, appropriately, to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and the extraordinary quality of the 120 works on display, drawn from some of the world’s most prestigious art galleries and collections, confirms Turner as the pre-eminent painter of water and demonstrate his extraordinary ability to represent, on canvas and on paper, the elemental and destructive power of the sea. Alongside works by Turner are sea paintings by other major British and European artists, such as Willem van de Velde, Thomas Gainsborough, Nicholas Pocock, John Constable, Francis Danby and Richard Sell Cotman which set Turner’s work in context while also demonstrating the influence he exerted on his fellow painters. Marine painting had a long and celebrated history, and the legacy of Dutch and French painters of this genre provided a benchmark against which Turner’s early artistic merits were judged. He studied the art of the past as far as possible and responded to it in new and unexpected ways, both in terms of technique and subject matter.

Right from the start of his career Turner was aware of the power of showmanship and as well as exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Art, he also built his own gallery, attached to his house in Harley Street, in which to display his works. His canvasses were impressive and often controversial, and he used his marine paintings to explore dramatic subjects and dynamic colours to attract the viewer’s attention. The works in the first room of the exhibition come from the early years of Turner’s career, as he was establishing his reputation, and depict a variety of maritime activities, from fisherman in squally weather to shipwrecks, sea voyages from Calais and the most famous work from this period, the atmospheric “Sun Rising Through Vapour” (1807). Already Turner’s fascination with the sea is evident in these works: frail wooden ships, their sails taught, are tossed on wind-whipped waves beneath dark, foam-flecked skies. There is social comment too in these works: “The Wreck of a Transport Ship” (c1810) is a reminder of the perilous sea voyages prisoners were forced to endure en route to Australia’s penal colonies.

Turner was working at a time of huge political upheaval in Europe, resulting in a new war with France from 1793, which gave an added importance to the art of the sea for British artists and their audience. He painted naval vessels mustering for battle, or awaiting refitting in shipyards. Years after the battle, his “The Fighting Temeraire (1838) is a poignant depiction of one of the great gunships of the Battle of Trafalgar. Subtitled “tugged to her last Berth to be broken up”, the painting shows the Temeraire, old and broken yet still stately and beautiful, the smoking chimney of the tug-boat a reminder that, with the age of steam, a new era of shipping has been born. As if to confirm this, the setting sun provides a richly-hued elegy for the end of an extraordinary epoch in British Naval history.

At the heart of the exhibition is “The Battle of Trafalgar (1824), Turner’s largest and most theatrical marine painting and his only royal commission, which combines incidents from different times during the action of the battle. This is no sanitised representation of the events of 21st October 1805, but rather a naturalistic account: in the foreground, on the debris-strewn sea, British soldiers attempt to save friends and enemies from drowning, and the sea around them is stained dark with blood. The falling mast of “Victory” may symbolize Nelson who laying dying below decks.

Turner’s preoccupation with the sea continued throughout his life, and the later paintings in the exhibition show his experiments with colour and light, and his attempts to capture weather effects such as mists and storms, and the sun breaking through clouds. These are “impressionist” paintings, created years before the term was even coined: in them Turner evokes the coastal landscape and the sea itself with economy of palette and seemingly weightless paint effects. The watercolours at the end of the exhibition are expressive and atmospheric, while the sketchbooks, which Turner was rarely without on his travels, offer insights into his compositional impulses and a snapshot of the places he visited.

The exhibition, organized chronologically, has an open-plan layout, with clear labeling and brief introductions to each room. The paintings on show offer a very special celebration of Britain’s greatest marine painter, with unique insights into his creative life, and will delight lovers of art and the sea alike.

 This articles first appeared in OneStopArts.com.

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