Master painter, insatiable traveller and… owner of tailless cats? Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) was a giant in the history of British art, and also a bit of an eccentric. Learn more about the man behind the paintings on view at J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free (on now until January 31).
1 – Turner’s father was heavily involved with his son’s paintings
Turner kept his very successful business in the family. His dad, a former barber and wigmaker, lived with and worked for him for over 30 years, performing the duties of an artist’s assistant: grinding pigments and preparing and varnishing canvases. Turner was motivated by the knowledge that his work gave his father pleasure and pride.
2 – He liked a hearty drink (or eight)
The artist enjoyed the simple pleasures in life—and lots of local brew. He drank up to eight pints of rum and milk a day.
3 – He lashed himself to the mast of a ship in the middle of a storm
Turner loved to be in nature and strove to capture nature’s elemental, destructive forces. According to legend, he had sailors tie him to the mast of a boat during a major winter storm so he could witness it first-hand. Turner recounted: “I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it; I was lashed for four hours, and I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did.” Visitors can experience the drama of that moment in his masterpiece Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, on view now.
4 – He wanted to see honest reactions to his work
Turner had a peephole cut into the wall of his showroom so he could discreetly observe visitors’ reactions to his paintings.
5 – Turner wiped tobacco juice, stale beer, snuff and more on his canvases
He tested odd combinations of watercolour and oil as well as new products, which were not always beneficial to his work. Sometimes he even used unusual materials like tobacco juice and stale beer—or spit and rubbed snuff on his work. One collector saw a maid sweeping up lost bits of paint off the floor as canvases cracked and flaked in response to Turner’s ceaseless trials. His paintings required restoration even during his lifetime!
6 – He preferred cats to dogs
Turner liked tailless cats — a lot — and was thought to own 7 of them.
7 – He never stopped working
Turner was extremely hardworking and prolific, producing more than 30,000 oil paintings, sketches, drawings and watercolours from age 12 to age 76, almost the end of his life. While travelling, Turner drew constantly in his sketchbooks, leading his colleagues to remark on his diligence. One artist, idling with a cigar in a gondola in Venice one evening, said he felt ashamed to see Turner “hard at work.” Another watched him sketching “continuously and rapidly” in a tiny book while aboard a steamship on Lake Constance near the Alps.
8 – Sophia Booth was his (secret) longtime companion
He kept his love affair with the widow Sophia Booth a secret for 18 years, living at times under an assumed name. They met when the artist stayed at her boarding house in a picturesque port on the Thames River. Turner was inspired by the view of sky, water and boats from her property, and his time there proved highly productive. Booth and Turner never married, and no known portrait of Booth survives.
9 – Dressing was not his forte
Despite being famous and wealthy in his lifetime, Turner never lost his simple manners, simple dress, and brusque humour. Turner was so badly dressed that when visiting his friend Louis-Philippe, the King of France, at his château at Eu in 1845, the painter had to borrow a women’s stocking to use as a bowtie.
10 – He spoke to the light
His last words on his deathbed were “The sun is God.” Throughout his career, the artist made no secret of his love of light. For Turner, light produced colour, sculpted form, created mood and revealed the infinite beauties and horrors of nature. Capturing it in both watercolour and oil was a lifelong challenge for the artist. To bring intensity to his oil paintings, Turner pioneered the use of white undercoating, which lent new brilliance to his colours.