Like many artists, J.M.W. Turner wanted to have more control over how his artwork was displayed and viewed. The major opportunities for British artists to showcase their art at the time were summer exhibitions at the Royal Academy in London, but these were traditionally overcrowded exhibitions with many canvases crammed into very little wall space.
Inspired to open a place to house his own work, Turner first opened a small gallery in 1804 in West London. This proved to be a huge success, drawing in wealthy and distinguished crowds, so in 1822 Turner completed and opened a new gallery on London’s Queen Anne Street that would house his work for many years to come.
Because Turner did not allow anyone to draw or make copies within the gallery, the artist George Jones painted a quick sketch from memory after visiting. From this we know the approximate size of the gallery, and that it had red walls, a fireplace, and a central skylight, with the light from above being diffused by nets covered with tissue paper and hung across the ceiling. Turner’s paintings were shown close together on the walls, and some of them just stood on the floor.
Entering Turner’s gallery, here are some of the paintings you would have seen to your left.
This large, finished painting of the Battle of Trafalgar—which saw the Royal British Navy face off against the combined French and Spanish navies—was first exhibited in Turner’s gallery in 1806, the year after Horatio Nelson died leading the British side to victory. Turner has carefully observed and drawn the ships and soldiers, but this dramatic painting is not just a form of detailed reportage. How does this painting make you feel? Sails and cannon smoke fill the frame, creating a claustrophobic backdrop, while the action appears to thrust outwards towards the viewer. We are confronted by the chaos of battle and the intimate tragedy of Nelson’s final moments.
One of Turner’s colleagues from the Royal Academy recorded in his diary that The Battle of Trafalgar “appeared to me to be a very crude, unfinished performance, the figures miserably bad.” We don’t know whether he told Turner what he thought, but Turner did re-work the painting before he showed it in public again, a couple of years later. This time, he decided to show this painting beside two sketches for a later commission of the same subject.
In complete contrast to the scene of horrific disaster hung just above it, this painting depicts a scene of calm, bright weather at Blythe Sands, at place at the mouth of the Thames River on the English coast. Interestingly enough, towards the end of his life Turner’s gallery became less of a showroom and more of a repository for unsold pictures. There are letters that suggest that Turner tried yet failed to sell this painting to one of his patrons.
What do you think Turner finally did with this painting he couldn’t sell? (Studies suggest that the canvas was eventually used in Turner’s house as a cat flap!)
In one of Turner’s most popular works, a steam boat attempts to withstand the power of the elements in a snow storm. Dull, swirling colours and smeared shapes evoke the feeling of being at the heart of the storm. (Can you see the steam boat? Would you know it was a steam boat if you didn’t know the title of the painting?)
Turner claimed to a friend that he had actually been tied to the mast of a ship in order to experience the drama of a storm at sea firsthand. While this is probably nothing more than fiction, it has become part of the mythology surrounding this painting. Does it matter whether Turner really experienced the storm in this way, or not? Do you think an artist has to witness something firsthand in order to depict it?