Inspiration JMW Turner: Curious Facts About the Life and Career of the Most Loved English Artist


Who was JMW Turner? What is he known for? Where are his famous paintings today? 

JMW Turner was an English artist and a Royal Academician. He is noted for his body of work that depicted the visual proof of the unfolding Industrial Revolution in England. Above all, Turner is known for his loose brushstrokes, vibrant colors, and his subtle rendering of light on landscapes. He used mainly watercolor and oil in his art, preferring a bright palette of colors to paint light.

Moreover, Turner is the first and only artist to grace a United Kingdom banknote. So, in this article we’ll be exploring his early life in London, some lessons from the life he lived, and a few curious facts.

Early Life in London
Life with the Royal Academy
Landscapes, Romanticism and the Sublime
Visual Representations of the Industrial Revolution
ZenART Turner Collection
What can we learn from JMW Turner’s life?
Curious Facts about J.M.W. Turner
Where are J.M.W. Turner’s most famous portraits?

“My business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there.” —J.M.W. Turner

Early Life in London

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born on the 23rd of April 1775 at Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London to parents Mary, née Marshall and William Turner. Mary came from a line of successful London butchers. On the other hand, William was a barber and wig maker. At a very young age, JMW Turner showed great talent which his father encouraged. Indeed, it is thought that his father even displayed his paintings and sold them in his shop.

JMW Turner self portrait (ca. 1791-93), Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

Turner’s mother, Mary, didn’t have a good constitution. She was often ill and eventually got admitted to Bethlem Hospital in London. As a result, young Turner had to move in with his uncles to study in Brentford in 1785, and Margate in 1786. Later, he entered the Royal Academy School in Somerset House, London after a term’s probation in December 1789.

I believe that these works of Turner’s are at their first appearing as perfect as those of Phidias or Leonardo, that is to say, incapable of any improvement conceivable by human mind.” 

—John Ruskin
English writer, philosopher and art critic of the Victorian era

Life with the Royal Academy 

JMW Turner remained loyal to the Royal Academy throughout his life. In fact, he started attending the ‘Plaister Academy’ at 14, where he drew from casts of ancient Greek sculpture and from écorché figures — anatomical figures depicting an animal or human without the skin.

He began exhibiting his watercolor paintings at the Royal Academy in 1790. By 1792, Turner progressed to the ‘Life Academy’ where he started drawing subjects from the nude.

A moonlit seascape Fishermen at Sea (1796) by J.M.W. Turner, the first oil painting he exhibited at the Royal Academy,
Image: Google Cultural Institute, Tate Images, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

Turner improved his skills exponentially through other occupations. For example, he not only worked on projects with architects and architectural draughtsmen, he also painted scenery backdrops for the London stage. Some experts say that this might have influenced his lifelong love for opera.

Moreover, Turner attended the evening ‘academy’ by Dr. Thomas Monro in 1794 where he copied works by other artists. Finally, he exhibited his very first oil painting at the Royal Academy, a magnificent moonlit seascape called Fishermen at Sea.

Turner at Varnishing Day (ca. 1846) by William Parrot, Turner depicted at the Royal Academy, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

As Turner’s skills improved, his influence grew. Thus, the Royal Academy council elected him Associate Member at 24. He then became the youngest full Academician by the time he was 26, which was a prestigious accolade. Turner not only served the Royal Academy as a member of the Council, he was also the Professor of Perspective from 1807 to 1837. Indeed, in 1843, the Academy appointed him Acting President while the incumbent Martin Archer Shee was ill. 

Landscapes, Romanticism and the Sublime

Turner’s varied occupation at the beginning of his career may have indicated the need to fund his education. His first source of real income? Landscape and antiquarian topography, sketches and paintings that represent the physical and geographical features of a place. Turner created watercolor paintings for exhibition or for reproduction in prints. He pushed to study and improve not only because of the growing demand for landscape art but because he values self-improvement.

Trips with his father outside London made him aware of the benefits of sketching and painting studies on the spot to capture light on the scenes. Thus, by the mid 1790s, he started and maintained a routine of traveling during summer and then working in the studio over winter for pieces that he will exhibit the following year.

Bell Rock Lighthouse (1819) by J. M. W. Turner, watercolor and gouache, technology vs nature. Currently at the Scottish National Gallery, Image: Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

Turner established a rhythm. He traveled outside London in search of inspiration and landscapes to sketch and paint. However, his fascination with the Sublime prompted him to not only explore the English countryside. Turner also explored other countries where he found vast wild landscapes to incorporate in his paintings.

Defined in 1757 by the philosopher Edmund Burke, the Sublime art represented the grandeur and most destructive powers of nature. The depictions of which overwhelm viewers with feelings of awe, terror and exaltation. In addition, Sublime emphasizes man’s fragility and humility in the face of these powerful forces of nature. 

Visual Representations of the Industrial Revolution

Turner painted the Industrial Revolution as it unfolded. Combined with his depictions of nature, he started  painting something that the experts call the Industrial Sublime. He created a whole new kind of art that depicted nature whilst injecting the wonders of science and invention. Indeed, he was successful in capturing what it was like to actually be there while technology formed a new world.

Snow Storm - JMW Turner - ZenART Supplies Art History
Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (ca. 1842) by J.M.W. Turner, oil on canvas. May have been inspired by Michael Faraday and Mary Somerville’s study of electromagnetism. Public Domain commons.wikimedia.org

ZenART Turner Collection

Master your watercolor techniques by choosing watercolor brushes that would take the pain out of painting. Our Turner Collection, as the name suggests, is inspired by the great JMW Turner, who widely used watercolor paints ahead of his time. The collection is a comprehensive fourteen-piece, hand-crafted professional water brush set specially designed for watercolors, gouache, inks and silk painting.

Turner Collection brushes - JMW Turner - ZenART Supplies Art History
ZenART Turner Collection, professional brush set for water media

What can we learn from JMW Turner’s life? 

#1 Work hard and smart. Invest in furthering skills and knowledge.

Turner worked hard and smart to further his education and career. To afford his education, he sold early sketches as a teenager. He also painted sceneries for the London stage, worked with architects, and created landscape and antiquarian topography either for exhibition or reproduction for prints and books. Moreover, Turner also joined artist clubs and aligned himself with significant people both to improve his techniques and to make connections. 

#2 Keep experimenting to find a visual style. And once found, expand it.

Throughout his career, Turner kept experimenting with techniques, colors, and textures. He took inspiration from masters and created something of his own version. Furthermore pushing to reinvent and develop without going far from his distinguishable visual style. I personally believe this to be the perfect mindset of a successful contemporary artist.

#3 Find inspiration around you, now. Open your eyes and observe what’s currently happening.

Turner’s body of work is one of the most popular and sought after collections of all time. Certainly not only because of his skill, but also because of his curiosity and keen observation. As a result, he endeavored to depict what he was seeing. Art that is a merge of both the beauty of landscapes and the evidence of the unfolding Industrial Revolution.

The Chain Pier at Brighton - JMW Turner - ZenART Supplies Art History
The Chain Pier at Brighton (1824) by J. M. W. Turner, watercolor on paper. Privately owned for over a hundred years, this watercolor piece was auctioned at Christie’s New York in 2012 and was finally acquired by the Royal Pavilion & Museums at Brighton. Image, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

Curious Facts About J.M.W. Turner

#1 J.M.W Turner was one of the earliest if not the first artist-curator

Driven by his want to be in control of how his art was presented, JMW Turner opened his own art gallery in 1804. He turned a portion of his Harley Street corner Queen Anne Street London house into an art gallery big enough to display around thirty paintings. It was a success. The most eminent and wealthy personalities in the society visited his exhibitions.

A short video about J.M.W. Turner’s Queen Anne Street Gallery in London

To showcase his own art collection, art collector Sir John Leicester even commissioned Turner to design his own gallery at his country house in Cheshire. This project inspired Turner in 1818 to design a proper gallery to show his work the best way possible. He was very hands on with the design taking great care to provide proper natural lighting for his paintings. Thus, the sloped ceiling opened up to accommodate glass skylights. 

#2 Turner’s contemporaries condemned his later work as unfinished. Thus, unworthy of exhibition due to its almost abstract impressionist quality

JMW Turner’s later works, though inspired by the unfolding Industrial Revolution, were depicted in a more experimentative, luminous, and almost impressionist quality. Decades later, the Impressionists, inspired by the study of light and the means to capture and render it, created paintings that greatly resemble Turner’s work. It is then that many curators considered his works to be way ahead of his time.

Burial at Sea - JMW Turner - ZenART Supplies Art History
See the Impressionist qualities of this painting. Peace – Burial at Sea (1842) by J. M. W. Turner, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

“Of all the periods of his art life there is none to be compared with the period contained in the few glorious years when he (JMW Turner) was past 60 and drawing near to his seventieth year, the period when light in all its manifestations obsessed him.”

—Charles Lewis Hind
English journalist, writer, art critic and art historian

Tate constructed a purpose-built Turner Wing in 1910. In 1926, the museum built a new gallery for its modern and foreign collections which housed the iconic Impressionists paintings. To reach this gallery, a visitor must first pass by the Turner galleries. As a result of some curatorial maneuvering, Turner’s said body of work became “sort of” an intro to the main Impressionist collection and its narratives.

#3 Turner is such a loved icon that he is the face on the new £20

The Bank of England announced in April 2016 that JMW Turner would be the face on the new £20 note. It was first unveiled on the 10th of October 2019 at the Turner Contemporary in Margate and released into circulation for the first time on the 20th of February 2020.

Bank of England - JMW Turner - ZenART Supplies Art History
JMW Turner on the new polymer £20 note, Image from the Bank of England

“Our banknotes celebrate the UK’s extraordinarily rich and diverse heritage and highlight the contributions of its greatest citizens. Turner’s art was transformative. I am delighted that the work of arguably the single most influential British artist of all time will now appear on another 2 billion works of art – the new £20 notes that people can start using today.” 

—Mark Carney
British-Canadian-Irish economist and Governor of the Bank of England (2013-2020)

Bonus: To complete our study of the great artist, the Bank of England released a map they call Turner’s London to show where J.M.W. Turner lived and worked in his lifetime. You’re welcome!

Where did Turner live and work? - JMW Turner - ZenART Supplies Art History
Turner’s Map by the Bank of England

Where are the most famous paintings by J.M.W. Turner?

There is no doubt that JMW Turner is England’s favorite artist of all time. Hence, in a public poll conducted by BBC in 2005, his painting The Fighting Temeraire (1839) was voted the greatest painting. Now, let’s take a look at some of his other notable paintings.

Weymouth (1811)

Weymouth - JMW Turner - ZenART Supplies Art History
Weymouth (1811) by J. M. W. Turner, watercolor on paper, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org currently housed at the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut, USA

The Fighting Temeraire (1839)

The Fighting Temeraire - JMW Turner - ZenART Supplies Art History
The Fighting Temeraire (1839) by J. M. W. Turner, oil on canvas, currently housed in the National Gallery, London is an image of the HMS Temeraire, a 98-gun English ship that fought during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, tugged to her last berth to be broken up.
Image, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844)

Rain Steam and Speed - JMW Turner - ZenART Supplies Art History
Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) by J. M. W. Turner, oil on canvas, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org currently housed at the National Gallery in London

Thinking of delving deeper into the life of England’s most celebrated artist? You can watch this short video J.M.W Turner – created by the National Gallery, narrated by Jeremy Irons and produced by the Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition J.M.W. Turner, the film was made possible by the HRH Foundation.

Did JMW Turner’s art journey inspire you to paint? Start improving your techniques by checking out the Toolkit section of our blog where you can find valuable instructions from rules of composition in art to mixing paints. Don’t forget to leave your questions and thoughts in the comment section below. Happy painting!


Fabrianne is the Ambassador of Art Buzz at ZenART, resident eccentric pocket-sized art curator, editor, and art world liaison. She builds and develops relationships with the arts community and makes sure that ZenART’s inspirational articles get to you “hot off the press.” She co-founded an online contemporary art gallery, worked with over 100 artists on exhibitions and performances, wears only black clothes and when she’s not creating buzz or curating and saturating in art, still daydreams of becoming a quirky Wes Anderson film character.

References and further reading:

Tate, JMW Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-1775-1851-r1141041
Britannica, JMW Turner, https://www.britannica.com/biography/J-M-W-Turner 
Wiki Commons, Self Portrait, By J. M. W. Turner Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1264691
Artsy, What You Need to Know About JMW Turner, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-jmw-turner-britains-great-painter-tempestuous-seas
National Gallery, J.M.W. Turner, https://youtu.be/QxKpM4JoqN8
BBC, The Genius of Turner, https://youtu.be/QEL3w9r5WOc
Bank of England, Turner £20 Enters Circulation, https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/news/2020/february/turner-20-enters-circulation
Hubbard, E., Project Gutenberg, Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/12933/12933-h/12933-h.htm#JMW_TURNER
Tate, JMW Turner: The Original Artist-Curator, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/joseph-mallord-william-turner-558/jmw-turner-original-artist-curator
Royal Academy, JMW Turner, https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/name/j-m-w-turner-ra
Tate, Mr. Turner and His Queen Anne Street Gallery, https://youtu.be/VTfEJo2zhc4Tate, Unfinished? Repulsive? Or a Work of a prophet? Late Turner, https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-15-spring-2009/unfinished-repulsive-or-work-prophet