Turner exhibition opens in Margate

Works by JMW Turner, including 12 oil paintings and 72 watercolours, go on show at Turner Contemporary gallery

After 161 years, JMW Turner is back in town for the first major exhibition of his work in Margate, the seaside retreat he repeatedly visited for what he claimed were "the loveliest skies in all Europe".

The exhibition, which includes 12 oil paintings and 72 dazzling watercolours, is free. The Turner Contemporary gallery has at times been overwhelmed by its own success, attracting more than 350,000 visitors before it reaches its first birthday. There are emergency plans to introduce timed tickets if the crowds become unmanageable. "It's fair to say there has been a lot of excitement in the town about this show," said director Victoria Pomery.

Quite right too, according to Turner's biographer James Hamilton. "This is just wonderful, at last to show these works on the site where so many of them were made or inspired by. When I arrived last night there was a shining sea, the last streaks of colour of sunset, a few little boats, and a bright sliver of moon - it absolutely was his painting which we have on that wall, The New Moon."

The fact that not a single work by Turner remained in the town, and that Sophia Booth's seaside boarding house, where he lodged and bedded the landlady, was bulldozed in road building half a century ago, were dismissed as minor hiccups when the ambitious scheme was launched to boost the fortunes of a tattered resort full of empty shops and hotels by building a gallery celebrating the links with one of the most famous artists of the 19th century.

Hamilton does not think there ever were any Turner collectors in Margate, or that the town was remotely aware of the growing fame of the stocky, eccentric little man who first came as a teenager, and made many visits in the 1820s and 30s.

A panoramic view of the seafront painted 20 years after his death in 1851 does not even show Booth's double fronted cottage, much less single it out as a place of artistic pilgrimage.

Both Hamilton and Pomery think there must at least have been some Turner drawings in the town, but if so they have vanished. Pomery still half expects that one day somebody will walk in with a piece of paper from a trunk in the attic, with a stormy sky and sea sketched in one swirl of grey watercolour.

The exhibition concentrates on Turner's lifelong fascination with the elements, from a drawing he made aged 15 of Neptune shaking his fist at Aeolus the god of the winds, to crimson volcanic ash streaked Italian skies, and his close interest in scientific advances in his lifetime.

It includes many of his late watercolours and paintings when objects dissolve completely into a dazzle of light and colour, which curator Ines Richter-Musso said completely bewildered his contemporaries.

He was well aware of their impact. The exhibition tells the story of the scientist Richard Owen coming at Turner's invitation to his private gallery in 1845, stunned at being shut by the housekeeper into a pitch dark room. Turner ordered him to wait in the darkness until his eyes adjusted from the bright August daylight, before being permitted to come upstairs to the gallery.

What modern viewers love, she said, is their immediacy, the vivid impression that like the artist they are in the scenes, battered by the waves and wind, blinded by the light – but by carefully comparing his notebooks, colour sketches and finished works, she has concluded that hardly any were made on the spot.

One spectacular painting in the show of a storm at sea off Harwich was captioned by Turner "The author was in this storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich" and no viewer could doubt that he was there in the thick of it. Not so, Richter-Musso said. "He was not in that boat. You see he says the author, not the artist. He has left some ambiguity."

The gallery's next major show, opening in May, is of that other Margate superstar, Tracey Emin. The timed tickets could be needed again.

• Turner and the Elements is at the Turner Contemporary Margate, free, until 13 May 2012


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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