The Genius of Turner: Painting the Industrial Revolution

J. M. W. Turner was born in 1775, at the end of the Age of Sail, and lived until 1851 at which point the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. During his life he often painted the machinery and scenes of the new industry. The Genius of Turner: Painting the Industrial Revolution was part a biography of the man and part a look at some of his key paintings.

Turner was the son of a London barber who from an early age displayed a talent for art. He attended the Royal Academy where he was taught to draw, and he taught himself to paint in oils. His art was heavily influenced by a painter called Claude Lorrain whose landscapes were widely admired. They showed us several of Turner’s Claudian works pointing out the similarities of composition to things that Claude painted. But where Claude was interested in painting idyllic scenes with nymphs or gods Turner painted the modern world around him. Industry and all.

Only about half the programme was about the life of Turner – so it pretty much just hit the high (or low) points, and as it’s a few days since I actually watched the programme I only remember the high points of the high points, so’s to speak. Turner’s father lived with him most of his life, as his assistant. His mother had fits of madness and was confined to Bedlam sometime when Turner was in his teens, eventually dying there. The programme pointed out this was a pretty poor way to handle things on the part of the Turners. Turner himself was not a very sociable man, near the end of his life they talked about him allowing people to watch him paint but never turning to face them, even as he left the room at the end of the session. He never married, but did have a relationship with Sarah Danby and is probably the father of her two children – he didn’t seem a particularly attentive father, tho.

The rest of the programme was several talking heads discussing the themes & so on in Turner’s paintings. Which is a little difficult to write about as it’s all visual. One of the things they drew out was that he was clearly both fascinated with and approved of the Industrial Revolution. Two of the paintings they used to illustrate this were The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838 and Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway. Sometimes the programme did seem to get carried away with itself (in particular a discussion of how Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth is “clearly” a painting of iron filings attracted by a magnet as well as the more obvious subject), but generally this wasn’t a problem.

I was left wanting to go & see some of Turner’s paintings, which I suspect was the desired effect. In particular because I quite like seeing industrial things in the landscape – for instance, I like the big cooling towers on coal power stations and the way they rise up out of the hills. I even have favourites! There’s one that we pass on the way up the A1(M) to Northumberland that feels like a symbolic gateway to The North. There is also one near Stafford that I’ve only seen once, on the way to a Snowplains Meet, where the cooling towers are red brick and stand out beautifully against the green. I’d’ve loved to take a photo but sadly I didn’t have the camera to hand and anyway we couldn’t exactly stop in the middle of the A51 (I think that was the road). Ahem, I’m the one getting carried away now. The subject matter appeals, is the point of this paragraph 🙂