Turner & the Sea (How to become great)

Turner & the sea RNM poster

I recently went to the excellent Turner & the Sea exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (down the road from our house), an exhibition of paintings by JMW Turner of – you guessed – the sea.

I am not much of a painting specialist, but this exhibition was hugely inspiring on many levels, which is why I wanted to share it with you:

First of all, the art was stunningly beautiful, and anyone could see why Turner is considered one of the greatest British painters. From his early works which were vividly descriptive scenes of sea wreckage (and must have been quite the sensation at the time – imagine nowadays someone painting scenes from a plane crash) to the poetic impressionist seascapes of his late career, it was a breathtaking display of imagination, beauty, and extraordinary skill and precision which never ceases to amaze me in old figurative paintings… another reminder that in spite of technological progress, we haven’t got much in terms of intellect or skills on the guys who lived centuries before us.

But the show was also interesting in other respects. It displayed Turner’s works along with paintings that might have inspired him: masters of previous centuries as well as contemporary competitors – younger painters that copied his style and became famous by emulating, and ultimately improving on it.

So it was a brilliant way of understanding how inspiration happens, and also what makes a good artist. As we learnt about Turner’s personal and professional circumstances, we were reminded that genius doesn’t happen in isolation, and that it is in fact shaped not only by the artists’ personal vision but also material contingencies such as fashions and market demand. We were also reminded that success, in art as in anything, requires not only talent but hard graft and a good dose of business acumen.

I discovered that Turner wasn’t born by the seaside as I might have assumed, and his ancestors weren’t fishermen. His father had been a barber and wig-maker in Covent Garden, and much of Turner’s trade had been learnt on the banks of the river Thames.

Because his family wasn’t well off, young Turner had needed to make money quickly, and so as his marine paintings proved popular at the time, he pretty much created for himself what marketers today would refer as a “niche” from which to make a good living.

And pretty good he was at marketing too, and PR – creating fame for himself by exhibiting in London’s biggest show at the Royal Academy, and later on in his own purpose-built showcase gallery.

Like all great successes though, he didn’t do it alone – he enjoyed great support from his father, who was his biggest fan from an early age, and went on to be his studio assistant for 30 years (an arguably bizarre father-son relationship, but support nevertheless).

In the end, the part of the exhibition that fascinated me most was an extensive display of Turner’s sketches and studies – notebooks upon notebooks and small format of drafts and ideas for larger paintings.

Here you took the measure of the artist’s capacity for work, but also his obsession with his craft. It shows us a man who was fascinated with the sea and must have spent hours by the coast or on sea journeys obsessively watching and tirelessly sketching, capturing his ideas again and again and again until they became perfect.

But there was also sheer genius, in the precious moments where art worked its magic and left you enchanted and speechless. As I stood contemplating small sketches of three or four brush strokes on plain paper, for a few seconds I actually saw a violent tempest, or a peaceful sunrise. Or did I? I rubbed my eyes and saw only a few brush strokes on letter paper again.

At that point, I truly appreciated how an artist’s life and and experience results in that amazing ability to create such pure emotion with such few brushstrokes, so that the viewer is not longer looking at a fixed scene on a canvas, but at an actual live scene from the past through someone else’s eyes.

So, much as I was impressed by the paintings, I was truly in awe of the man behind them. Because what we come to see as works of arts represent a lifetime of hard work and sweat, clever business planning,  and the sheer love of your craft that will keep your going even when things aren’t going your way.

As I wiped the ocean spray off my glasses and returned home, this is what remained with me: enormous inspiration resulting from having met a great artist, a visionary and a great mind – as refreshing as a day at the seaside. There are worst ways to spend an afternoon.

If you happen to be in London, the show is still on until 21st April at the National Maritime Museum.

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