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Turner's Style

JMW Turner's Style  is described in a running discourse throughout this website. The following specifics are presented to help Turner advocates better understand the enigmatic character of this enigmatic master.


 Shipwreck, the Rescue, detail: three men adrift on a spar, one with both arms raised high to hale the rescue boat, the other two draped and clinging for dear life. The loose brushwork is rendered as Sir George Beaumont would later disparage over. The much echoed statement that he made while viewing other early Turner oil paintings, including Calais Pier: “his foregrounds are comparative blots, & faces of figures witht. a feature being expressed.” The sensitive Turner would soon react to such criticism with a higher level of finish and impasto.


                                                   Art World’s Dirty Little Secret

 Because of their particular relationship it can be assumed that when the aging Turner presented Shipwreck, the Rescue to Griffith, his friend and gentlemanly agent, the two men felt the monumental sea piece was a key example of the artist’s work. It is closely linked to Shipwreck, one of Turner’s most innovative and popular works of the day. Certain characteristics would date Shipwreck, the Rescue to a time shortly before Shipwreck, at a point when Turner was developing the early stages of his famous lozenge shaped composition, an invention that would culminate with the all-consuming vortex composition years later. Kenneth Clark singled out this innovation succinctly when he wrote: “only Turner could have conceived, a fearful melee of conflicting directions occupying a diamond-shaped area, an agitated lozenge in the middle of the composition. This picture, The Shipwreck, is one of Turner’s first assertions that the force of the elements could not be conveyed by traditional schemes of landscape painting. It might be said to be one of his first great anti-classical pictures.” [i]

Another implication of this painting having been presented to Thos. Griffith, Turner's friend and gentlemanly dealer is that Turner must have considered large oil-sketches completed artworks under certain circumstances. This must be true in order for him to make such an auspicious gift, titled and signed, on a fine commercial stretcher, and ready for display.
      He was known to exhibit oil-sketches in his own gallery and elsewhere, but when it came to the Royal Academy exhibitions he felt a need to produce conservative pictures more in the public taste. He would lavish them with thick impasto and additional pigments. This practice came after criticisms by potential patrons and colleagues alike who condemned his early exhibited pieces for lack of finish. First Fuseli said, ‘Perhaps the foregrounds too little attended to – Too undefined’,[1] then Sir George Beaumont, “his foregrounds are comparative blots, & faces of figures witht. a feature being expressed.” [ii] 


This is an intermediately detailed portrait of one of the survivors in the rescue boat of Shipwreck, the Rescue (greatly enlarged). There is a considerable difference of finish on the figures and faces throughout the painting, ranging from the highly finished portrait in the stern of the boat ( which is seen on the book cover of Rescuing Turner: A New Age of Art Discovery--likely a self-portrait), to the faceless figures in the foreground that cling desperately to the spar.  Except for the portrait, which one would expect to be more highly finished, the rest are very much in keeping with the above descriptions by Fuseli and Beaumont.

Was Turner giving a gestural reply to such hurtful remarks several years later when he offered his colleagues a dramatic performance of paint slinging? Yes, he reached the polar extreme of what he had been doing early on. His watercolour painting technique in oils had turned to heavy impasto applied in what appeared to be a slap dash fashion. Perhaps this was meant to make the attendees at the Royal Academy exhibition aware that their wishes were now being granted—but only under protest. Hamerton makes it clear that he did not suffer fools gladly, “Turner bitterly despised the public for not understanding.”[iii] In fact, “all his life Turner was in open and notorious revolt against ‘proper finish’”[iv]

 Eventually, confidence inspired by his growing success refueled these fires, and with the use of the vortex composition to aid his purpose, his late works became even freer. This is the point in time that Shipwreck, the Rescue might have been reworked, c.1844, and along with the relining and re-stretching it appears that Turner did a certain amount of touching up and revitalizing of the pigments in the area of the water around the rescue boat. This added brushwork is very similar to that seen in his, Rain Steam and Speed also of 1844 as well as Snow Storm of 1842. Sorrowfully, and incongruously, this was also the point in his life that the public was beginning to question both Turner’s power and competence, calling his submissions to the Royal Academy, “Mr. Turner’s little jokes.”[v]

Detail: Shipwreck, the Rescue

  In 1844, if Turner had wanted to rework the water of Shipwreck, the Rescue to a point reminiscent of his early exhibited sea-pieces such as Calais Pier or Shipwreck, but at the same time maintain a uniform level of finish throughout the painting, he would have needed to rework the entire painting including the survivors in the boat. It is unlikely this would have appealed to him considering that the clear vision he wanted to express had already been fully described. Additional reworking and impasto would have only defeated this vision by deadening his first inspired idea and the feeling of immediacy and action that normally accompanies swift brushwork.

In Turner's Snow Storm from 1842 it is evident that his brushwork is meant to describe the forces of nature on a more visceral level.

Joyce Townsend notes in a very appropriate context, the artist’s use of both dark and light scumbling, “Thin, dark scumbles can be seen in the shore of the foreground of Waves Breaking Against the Wind (c. 1835; BJ 457) and in many other unfinished seascapes of this decade. Numerous light-coloured scumbles of localized extent can be seen in the sea and sky in Snow Storm - Steam Boat Off a Harbours Mouth (RA 1842; BJ 398).”[vi]

In light of Turner’s very early overall lack of finish and in-articulation of his figures, many reviewers at the time treated him wretchedly. Surely the key to understanding where the aesthetic conflict arose is hidden within the fundamentals of Turner early training in watercolour. What Butlin and Joll describe as, “careful but thinly painted, in just the manner one might suppose a watercolour artist might paint.”[ vii]

“Turner has frequently been reproached with basing his practice in oils on his watercolour technique. This was…one of the charges which Sir George Beaumont brought against him, and even Constable echoed it.”[viii] John Gage confirms that, “Turner’s thoroughly unconventional attitude towards the status of watercolour, and his capacity to develop watercolour methods in his oil paintings, are so striking that it would be surprising if they were not related to views on the nature and role of water itself.”[ix]  Philip Hamerton put it even more succinctly when he said that Turner “painted much in oil, but the influence of his water-colour practice is evident in nearly all his pictures; in many of them it is even painfully evident, so that Constable, not unjustly, called them ‘Large Water-colours.’”[x]


Shipwreck, the Rescue showing Turner’s unusual brushwork - unblended, done largely in the technique of his watercolours.


According to one writer on Turner, Mary Chamot, the simple rendering seen on the figures in the rescue boat might elevate Shipwreck, the Rescue to an exemplary level of aesthetic importance. The ‘lack of finish’ of those tormented figures, as they are found woven carefully into the rescue boat, should add rather than detract from the impact of the painting according to this scholar. As she put it: "probably the chief reason why Turner left so many vivid direct studies in their pristine condition is that he realized how much the 'finish' demanded by the public would detract from their quality. The difference seen by the comparison of the oil-sketches with the exhibited pictures is even more apparent in front of the actual paintings. The figures in particular, often so inarticulate and blurred in the finished pictures, even seem to fit into the landscape better when indicated only by a few apt touches of colour without any attempt at modeling."[xi]

       This is clearly an echo of a 1958 statement by the same author: “Today however our interest is undoubtedly focused on the slighter sketches, of which he must have had a large stock in his studio, perhaps for the purposes of finishing off when required for exhibition, or more probably, because he himself realized that some of the beauty would be inevitably sacrificed with the addition of details… a number of seascapes are among the most remarkable of these.”[xii] From this description, it is almost as though Mary Chamot had seen Shipwreck, the Rescue.


In attempting to rationalize the connection between sketches, studies, and “finished” pictures; A.J. Finberg comes closest to understanding the relevance of Turner’s early “unfinished” work, as well as, the spiraling force of his latter work. Finberg concurs as early as 1910 with what he calls the “consensus of educated opinion,” that “the subjects lost rather than gained by elaboration…some mental and emotional contents are incapable of definite embodiment.” [xiii]


Certainly, Shipwreck was Turner’s first successes at escaping the contemporary criticism being leveled at him over lack of finish. This is the work that one of the most artistically adroit of Turner’s biographers, Walter Bayes, used to establish the defining moment of Turner’s conversion. Bayes reiterated the criticism “detractors leveled at some of Turner's work, the reproach that his oils were but enlarged water colours,” but goes on to describe his new vision: “In the early years of the nineteen century he had already advanced a step further and had come to feel not only that the basic masses of his pictures had to be given the precedence over detail and be painted first, but that, to give them their due predominance, they must be endowed with the major weight of impasto." (Bayes, 1931, p. 99)

     Key to Turner’s development at this time was the synthesis of classical figure drawing he had laboured for years on at the Royal Academy school and the move toward his sublime shipwreck series. The lead into this of course was the Bridgewater Sea-piece of 1801. About the sketchbook that mapped out this transition, or rather, integration, Finberg tells us “studies for the Bridgewater Sea-piece were made in a…book which seems to have been devoted at first to the purpose of making life studies at the Academy classes.” [xiv] A strategic sketchbook indeed, and one that helps clarify why there are several carefully studied figures in Shipwreck, the Rescue. There are indications that he firstly drew the figures with a fine brush, even articulating the musculature in the arms of the heroic trio of rescuers found in the foreground of the rescue boat. This clearly indicates that the painting was done early; at a point when he still believed his watercolour-style touches would be adequate to finish a picture. By this Turner betrayed his inexperience and the lack of understanding about oil painting. He did not fully understand the oil painting sequence used in modern painting versus that used by old masters who used translucent glazes to finish their work.

SWR four desperate souls cling to the spar

, Turner would soon learn that the impasto required in bringing these works to the level of finish that the public demanded would expunge much of his figure drawing. His labored articulations would soon wane as he realized that such finish would eventually negate the effect of expressing his talents in this area—the fine detailing would need obliterating by additional layers of paint. As the spontaneity of his brushwork needed preserving above all, articulate figure drawing gave way to the need for a uniform finish. Turner was not going to sacrifice his watercolour-style completely. Shipwreck, the Rescue seems to have been consciously preserved by Turner as a developmental watershed within his body of work, “inarticulate and blurred” was not to be its fate. Turner apparently held this painting in storage for nearly half a century in order to preserve what was one of his best examples of integrated figure drawing.

Using Shipwreck (or The Storm, as it was called at first) for an example of Turner's figure drawing, Ruskin expressed his reverence such: "infinitely more power of figure-painting than ever landscape painter showed before." (Finberg, 1961,  p116) It would be absorbing to see the two paintings, the highly finished Shipwreck, and Shipwreck, the Rescue displayed side by side in light of Chamot’s comments, “indicated only by a few apt touches of colour.” It would also provide a better idea of their relationship to one another.


On stylistic grounds it is reasonable to believe that Turner's early but extensive sea-piece ‘series’ was sketched within a short period of perhaps five years, circa 1799 -1804, before and shortly after Turner’s first trip to France. “The result of this was a series of pictures more ambitious and varied than he had previously attempted. Vivid memories of his rough channel crossing inspired him to paint Calais Pier, with French Poissards preparing for Sea: an English Packet Arriving (National Gallery). Here and in Shipwreck exhibited two years later, but probably painted about the same time, his mastery in painting a stormy sea appears coupled with a new and more emphatic use of chiaroscuro, giving drama and depth to the design.”[xvi]

It would make more sense to expect Turner to experiment his way through this sequence of several large aquatic disasters (most of which are roughly the same dimension) at roughly the same time. It might even be suggested that other early large-scale works not exhibited until years later, perhaps even, The Goddess of Discord exh.1806, or Wreck of a Transport Ship, were also done around this time.


The auspicious establishment of his new workspace might give us a terminus ad quem for the entire sea-piece series and similar works. “In 1801, 1802, 1803, and 1804, his new address in the Royal Academy Catalogue is 75, Norton Street, Portland Road; but in 1804 it is again 64, Harley Street.”[xvii] He had taken on this new studio in addition to his better-known one for only a brief four-year period. One might only imagine Norton Street replete with tumultuous sea-pieces at various stages of completion, somewhat in the fashion of his approach to “watercolours en masse.[xviii] A concise description by Sophia Booth shows that such work done “as a series” continued through till the end of his working life: "The paintings were set out in a row and he went from one to the other, working one and touching up another, and so on, in turn.”[ xix]

Walter Bayes, from his own experience as a watercolourist, is able to give special insight into why Turner might have chosen this craft-like method of mass production: "Even the more elaborate compositions in water colour which he made in his studio were probably rapidly executed, for with admirable good sense he was wont to have three going at once, thus avoiding what any water-colour painter will remember as the most irresistible temptation to go on with one before it is properly dry."(Bayes, 1931, p 220) Of course, the necessary drying time between stages while using oil-paints would have been even more frustrating.

When Thornbury wrote, “The Turner Gallery contains no picture that is with certainty known to have been painted in 1801, but 1802 yielded a full harvest,”[xx] one clearly understands how Turner was obsessed. Indubitably, in 1801 he dove into his new project on such a grand scale that he had no time or energy to demonstrate, and thus, verify his production through exhibition of it. And by the time the series was at a point where the odd picture could be harvested for immediate completion, there was a deluge. After the first flood of sea-pieces, wrecks, and disasters were shown to the public over the next five or so years, this monumental creative body of oft' times; dark, foreboding, and sublime work was mined for decades afterwards.

It is understandable that the dating of such work is dubious and that the dates given by Butlin and Joll are often tentative. It is evident that some of these works have been given dates later than they deserve. Butlin and Joll apparently fell prey to Turner’s stealthy plan. According to his own intentions Turner exhibited his works in a haphazard fashion in order “‘to put the critics off the scent,’ as he said, he often doubled on his tracks.” This was easy for him to do because, “at any one time he kept a large quantity of work on hand.”[xxi] For the project at hand, the work most in need of re-dating is probably Wreck of a Transport Ship. We see in both this painting and Shipwreck, the Rescue the same figure with speaking-trumpet in hand trying to summon help. Its use in both pictures would seem more than coincidence. This device most often employed by a ship's captain was at its apex of use in the late eighteenth century, and was used to give orders over the length of a ship. They were as a rule custom fabricated.


 Shipwreck, the Rescue (enlarged detail) Turner's poetic inclination might suggest that this image  is a reference to Gabriel

During the first few years of the century it is easy to envision the factory setting at the Norton studio with bolts of large dimension canvas, easels, pigment materials, and his old daddy in a distant corner toiling away on strainers to support those monstrous canvases. Oh yes: and on occasion there would be Sebastian Grandi stopping in to apply those brown ‘Venetian’ grounds for which he was famed - but always done under the watchful eye of the old man who was ever concerned over the use of costly materials. Stories connected to Orrock’s painting master W.L. Leitch give us a sense of this same working method: “The Fawkes girls also told Leitch that they had seen in Turner’s bedroom at Farnley ‘cords spread across the room as in that of a washer woman, and papers tinted with pink and blue and yellow hanging on them to dry,” [xxii] then again from Walter Sparrow (1903):

“Leitch, the watercolour painter told a friend of mine [certainly Orrock][2] that he once accompanied Pickersgill to Turner’s studio, where he had the privilege of watching the great man at his labours. There were four drawing-boards, each of which had a handle screwed to the back. Turner after sketching in his subject in a fluent manner grasped the handle and plunged the whole drawing into a pail of water by his side. Then, quickly, he washed in the principle hues that he required. Leaving this first drawing to dry, he took the second board and repeated the operation. By the time the fourth drawing was laid in, the first would be ready for the finishing touches.”[xxiii]


Detail: Wrecked Ship from Ship Wreck, the Rescue

the time Turner had produced all of his great works the Athenaeum in 1849 published: “For the credit of England and of Mr. Turner let it be said that the picture of most excellence and interest in this assemblage [of Old Masters] is from his hand… We have no recollection of any production in its class – whether of the Dutch, the Italian, or the French school – which surpasses – or even equals – the artist’s Shipwreck.” It shows “a grasp of mind and the command of hand that have exhibited in a high moral sense the excitement and action of the tempest in its wrath.”

This news article, two years before Turner’s passing, mirrored the paramount respect Turner himself had for his early turbulent sea-pieces during his entire lifetime. The Shipwreck exhibited in 1805 was purchased back by Turner decades earlier in 1806, and was certainly destined early on to be part of his bequest to the Nation. He was apparently exhibiting these early sea-pieces with utmost pride right up until the end. Another one of Turner’s executors Charles Turner had engraved Shipwreck in 1806, the first of his oils to be engraved, and the public attention this effort garnered was a vital boost to the artist’s fame.

Turner's plan for the Turner Bequest included a 'Turner gold medal', and a strategy to create a retreat for derelict British artist's. Sadly, his Will was unraveled after his passing.

                                                   Art World’s Dirty Little Secret                                                                                



[1] The foreground of Shipwreck and particularly the figures in the foreground that cling to the wreckage fit both Fuseli’s and Beaumont’s descriptions faithfully.

[2] See James Orrock R.I., Painter, Connoisseur, Collector, 1903 for an extended description: page 60, vol. 1.

[i] Kenneth Clark, The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus Classic Art, (Longman Canada Limited, 1973), 232.

[ii] Andrew Wilton, Turner In His Time, (New York:  Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1987), 66.

[iii] Philip Gilbert Hamerton, Life of J.M.W. Turner R.A., (University Press: John Wilson & Son, Cambridge, 1879), 116-7

[iv] A.J. Finberg, introduction by Lawrence Gowing, Turner’s Sketches & Drawings, (Schocken, New York, 1968), xxi.

[v] Kenneth Clark, The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus Classic Art, (Longman Canada Limited, 1973), 242.

[vi] Joyce H. Townsend, The Oxford Companion To J.M.W. Turner, (Oxford University Press Inc., New York, Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin, and Luke Herrmann, 2001), 286.

[vii] Martin Butlin & Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, Evelyn Joll’s 1977 intro. Revised Edition, 1984), text vol., 20.

[viii] Graham Reynolds, Turner,  (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), 34.

[ix] Michael Lloyd, Turner, essay by John Gage, (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1996), 120.

[x] Philip Gilbert Hamerton, Life of J.M.W. Turner R.A., (University Press: John Wilson & Son, Cambridge, 1879), 40.

[xi] Mary Chamot, The Early Works of J.M.W. Turner,  (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1981), 8.

[xii] Mary Chamot with assistance of Martin Butlin and Dennis Farr, A Guide to the Tate Gallery, (Tate Gallery Publications and Information Department, 1959), 16.

[xiii] A.J. Finberg, Turner’s Sketches & Drawings, (Schocken, New York, 1968), 152.

[xiv] A.J. Finberg, Turner’s Sketches & Drawings, (Schocken, New York, 1968), 45.

[xv] William Hardy, The History and Techniques of the Great Masters: Turner (New Jersey:  Chartwell Books, 1988) , 26

[xvi] Mary Chamot, The Early Works of J.M.W. Turner, (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1981), 6.

[xvii] W. Cosmo Monkhouse, J.M.W. Turner R.A., (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, London 1879), 75.

[xviii] Eric Shanes, J.M.W. Turner, The Foundations of Genius, (The Taft Museum Cincinnati, Ohio; Corbett Foundation; The Hennegan Co. printers, 1986), 16.

[xix] Silvia Ginzburg, Turner, (Arch Cape Press, New York, 1990), 18.

[xx] Walter Thornbury, Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., (Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, London, 1862), vol. 1, 264.

[xxi] Camille Mauclair, Turner, (The Hyperion Press, Paris, agent - The Art Book Publications, N.Y., translated by Eveline Byam Shaw, 1939), 13.

[xxii] John Gage, Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth, (Studio Vista Limited, 1969), 32.

[xxiii] Walter Shaw Sparrow, The Genius of J.M.W. Turner R.A., (Offices of ‘The Studio’, London, Paris, and New York, MCMIII), w vii.