J.M.W. Turner RA (1775 - 1851)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

A child prodigy who went on to become one of the stars of British art, Joseph Mallord William Turner began his formal training at the Royal Academy Schools aged just 14.

Turner’s father was a Covent Garden barber who encouraged his son’s artistic ability, exhibiting and selling Turner’s early drawings in his shop. However, his mother was frequently unwell and was eventually admitted to Bethlem Hospital; as a result, Turner spent much of his childhood with relatives in Middlesex.

Turner began exhibiting watercolours at the Royal Academy’s Annual (Summer) Exhibition in 1790, soon after joining the RA Schools. In 1796 he exhibited his first oil painting and in 1799, aged just 24, he was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy. He became a full Academician in 1802. Turner remained closely involved with the RA and its activities throughout his life. In addition to exhibiting at the Summer Exhibition and serving on Council, he was also Professor of Perspective from 1807-1837 and even stood in for the President on occasion.

At this time the Royal Academy promoted history painting as the height of artistic accomplishment. Turner set out to change this outlook by elevating the status of landscape painting by demonstrating landscape’s potential to address historical, religious and literary subjects. Turner is said to have also tried to persuade the Academy to create a Professorship of Landscape Painting for him but this never came to fruition. This may have influenced his decision to continue work on his Liber Studiorum (1807-24), a series of prints divided into six categories (Historical, Pastoral, Epic Pastoral, Mountainous, Architectural and Marine) intended to highlight the expressive power and emotional range of landscape art.

While Turner enjoyed great success as an oil painter and continued to explore the potential of watercolour. As a portable and quick-drying medium, it proved indispensable as a means of recording scenery and fleeting effects of light and shade observed during his extensive travels around the UK and Europe and it was in watercolour that he achieved some of his most creative and innovative results.

Turner’s experiments in capturing light and shade, particularly paintings such as Rain, Steam and Speed, bemused some contemporary viewers, but are now seen as highlights of his career. In later years, Turner became known as something of an eccentric, often deliberately submitting incomplete works to the Summer Exhibition and rapidly finishing them in the gallery just before the official opening. He is famously said to have added a bright red buoy to his Dutch seascape Helvoetsluys in a bid to outdo his rival, John Constable. A crestfallen Constable apparently compared the event to Turner walking in and firing a gun.

Turner died in 1851. His grave lies close to Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence in St Paul’s Cathedral, in accordance with his wish to be “buried among my Brothers in Art”.

Following years of controversy and deliberation over Turner’s will, the Royal Academy eventually received a sum of £20,000 from his estate in 1856, without conditions. The funds were placed in a separate Turner Fund to be used for: annuities and gifts to artists in hardship who were not RAs; a medal called ‘Turner’s medal’ for landscape painting, with an accompanying scholarship; and an annual contribution to the cost of the RA Schools. The medal was designed by Daniel Maclise and executed by L. C. Wyon, and first awarded in 1857. The Turner Fund was wound up formally in 1998. Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and the Royal Watercolour Society now award a Turner Medal.

RA Collections Decolonial Research Project - Extended Biography

Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840; MFA Boston, USA) is one of JMW Turner’s most famous and most disturbing works. In the foreground, drowning people struggle in vain in a churning sea. In the distance, a tall ship is set against a glaring sunset and reddened sky. This scene is based on an account of the notorious British slave ship, the Zong. Sailing from West Africa to the Caribbean in 1781, the ship was behind schedule and many onboard were ill. The captain ordered one hundred and thirty-three enslaved men, women and children to be thrown overboard believing that he could claim insurance for those ‘lost at sea’.

Turner probably also intended this brutal scene to allude to more recent events. The Slavery Abolition Act, which ended enslavement in British colonies, was only passed in 1833 (and not in effect, in many cases, until 1838) and, at this time, similar atrocities were reported as slavers sought to avoid fines calculated per head of each enslaved person they were caught transporting.

The Slave Ship was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840 to coincide with the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society Convention which took place in London in June that year. Turner exhibited the painting with an extract from his unfinished and unpublished poem “Fallacies of Hope” (1812) which read:

“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay; Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds Declare the Typhon’s coming. Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard The dead and dying - ne‘er heed their chains Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope! Where is thy market now?”

It would be fair to assume that Turner’s views were strongly pro-abolition at the time he painted this work. However, scholars have pointed out that earlier in his career he apparently had no qualms about investing in a company that ran a plantation (see Notes, 1). In 1805 Turner invested £100 to buy a share in a business called Dry Sugar Work. Despite the name, this enterprise was a cattle farm on a Jamaican plantation run on the labour of enslaved people. The business was owned by Stephen Drew, a barrister who bought the estate from William Beckford in 1802. The firm went bust in 1808.

Winsome Pinnock’s recent play Rockets and Blue Lights (2020) responds to Turner’s painting and some of the questions and contradictions it raises.


  1. Introduction in Smiles, Brown and Concannon, Turner’s Modern World (2020)

Relevant ODNB entries

Herrmann, Luke. “Turner, Joseph Mallord William (1775–1851), landscape and history painter.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 1 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-27854


Royal Academician

Born: 23 April 1775 in London, England, United Kingdom

Died: 19 December 1851

Nationality: British

RA Schools student from 11 December 1789

Elected ARA: 4 November 1799

Elected RA: 10 February 1802

Professor of Perspective: 1807 - 1837

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting, Watercolour, Illustration, Printmaking, Etching, and Mezzotint

Works by J.M.W. Turner in the RA Collection

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Works after J.M.W. Turner in the RA Collection

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Works associated with J.M.W. Turner in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

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