JMW Turner: master of the ocean

Turner is the sublime artist of the sea. But many of his seascapes were produced away from the public eye – and never finished. As an exhibition of his work opens, Richard Johns explores the impact of these 'secret' paintings

A broad sweep of cobalt blue, applied across a wet page with a few strokes of a loaded brush, sets the scene. The dampness of the paper gives the  artist a valuable few seconds to manipulate the vibrant watercolour before it dries: enough time to add a disorderly flourish with the tip of the same brush (without pausing to adjust the colour) to indicate a fully rigged ship sailing into the picture from the left; and to work a neater, calligraphic pattern into the blue to suggest the rolling breakers of an agitated but unthreatening sea. The lightest of washes above and below denote the sky and a sandy beach, while a handful of darker yellow marks towards the bottom of the page indicate something else. But what? The carcass of a wrecked fishing boat? A group of figures? It is not clear, but the marks are just sufficient to animate the foreground, as the waves and the three-masted ship above draw the blue sweep away from the viewer towards a distant horizon.

With an economy that few artists have been able to match, Turner evoked a coastal landscape – the kind of marine view that he had created countless times before, in all manner of ways. Blue Sea and Distant Ship probably dates from the early 1840s, though there is not much to distinguish it from similar works of 10 or even 20 years earlier. It belongs to a group of  several hundred rapidly made and highly expressive watercolours, sometimes referred to collectively as colour "beginnings", that form part of the body of preparatory studies, unfinished work and related items from Turner's studio that went to the national art collection after his death in 1851.

If such works are experiments, they are so only in the loosest sense of the word, as exercises in imagination. After a lifetime of experiencing and imagining the sea, there was little practical value to be learned from such experiments, which seem to convey their maker's undiminished delight in the materials and techniques of his profession, and in the process of transforming unadulterated colour into a boundless seascape.

Turner: Blue Sea and Distant Ship
Blue Sea and Distant Ship. Credit: Tate Images Photograph: Tate Images

The more elemental of Turner's late watercolour sketches are often discussed in relation to the non-figurative painting that emerged and flourished during the 20th century. Yet, for all their abstract appeal to modern eyes, Blue Sea and Distant Ship, and other watercolours and oil paintings made in the same spirit, are determinedly figurative. A more rounded view of the work that Turner produced away from the public eye reveals a far greater variety of imagery reaching across his whole career. Some of it is experimental, some even verges on the incomprehensible, but much of it is more conventional in subject and technique, and more clearly grounded in the principles of land- and seascape painting that had been established during the previous century.

Turner rarely travelled without a pencil and pocket-sized sketchbook to hand. Among his belongings during his second visit to Scotland, in 1801, was a small sketchbook treated with a tinted wash that could be scratched away to reveal the white paper beneath. Thus armed with a single brush and colour, he was able repeatedly to model the infinitely complex surge of North Sea waves breaking on Dunbar beach. One such wave reappeared a year or so later on the walls of the Royal Academy, much embellished and combined with the contents of another sketchbook but in essence unchanged, as the central motif of Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather.

Increasingly, he made his watercolour sketches and compositional studies in the studio or, when travelling, in his lodgings after a long day exploring and observing. They are filtered by memory, simplified and reconfigured by the physical properties of the artist's chosen medium. At first glance, a watercolour thought to represent the Eddystone Lighthouse gives the impression of having been made rapidly in front of the subject. It appears in a sketchbook interleaved with numerous pencil drawings of West Country scenes and other landscapes from the early 1810s, when Turner made several visits to the Devon coast. But the lighthouse is situated 12 miles off Plymouth, and the image, a night scene, is one of three that show the structure at different times of day and in various stages of a storm. The effect of immediacy was fabricated safely on dry land, heightened by the storm of watercolour that the artist conjured around the remembered outline of the isolated tower.

Turner was known for being secretive about his methods and means. Those few who saw him draw or paint first-hand recalled with excitement the variety and inventiveness of his technique. Manipulating the pigment in every way imaginable, he would even plunge whole sheets of paper into a bath when working in watercolour, as he conjured an image into existence. On one celebrated occasion, Hawkesworth Fawkes, the eldest son of his patron Walter Fawkes, expressed his amazement on seeing Turner create from memory a richly detailed watercolour of a man-of-war within a few hours – pouring, tearing, scratching and scrubbing "in a kind of frenzy" until the final, detailed image emerged in time for lunch. Others, too, likened Turner's finished watercolours to the work of a magician who could bring forth poetical views on to the page, as if from nowhere. However, there is a marked difference between his finished watercolours, such as that witnessed by Fawkes, which he was able to sell as quickly as he could make them, and the many thousand sketches and drawings that he produced for his own purposes, and about which he was even more guarded.

In the past 50 years, this once-hidden aspect of Turner's enterprise, particularly those drawings and watercolours that are concerned with the sea, has shaped the artist's reputation at least as much as the oil paintings. The subjects he depicted and the many handwritten annotations, observations and memoranda that are scattered throughout his sketchbooks provide an essential, if at times elusive, source of information about the artist's many journeys around Britain and Europe, the places he saw and the works by other artists he deemed worthy of visual record. But this incomparable record of artistic endeavour almost disappeared without trace.

Turner had made clear his intention to leave about 100 finished oil paintings to the National Gallery, but he made no explicit provision for the vast quantity of preparatory and unfinished material that filled his West End studio at the time of his death. As a result of this uncertainty and a poorly drafted will, Turner's estate was subject to a legal challenge by the artist's extended family. The finished oil paintings that he had intended to leave to the nation – a representative selection which, with an eye on posterity, he had extended and refined over several years – already ensured that he would become (as he remains) the most comprehensively represented British artist in any national collection. With the addition of around 180 other oils that were deemed by his executors to be unfinished (the precise figure varies according to the definition of "finished") and more than 19,000 drawings, watercolour studies and other works on paper spanning more than 50 uncommonly productive years, the legally determined Turner Bequest of 1856 grew into an unprecedented and unwieldy record of a creative life.

John Ruskin was the first to impose a semblance of order on the Bequest, in ways informed by his own impassioned vision of the artist as a purveyor of divine truth through his engagement with the natural world. Named as one of Turner's original executors, Ruskin stood down when the will was contested, but once the court case had been determined, he set about preparing an unofficial catalogue for the inaugural exhibition of works selected from the Bequest, which opened at London's Marlborough House in 1856. A second show at Marlborough House included a selection of sketchbooks and a small group of preparatory sketches, or "trials of effects for pictures". However, there was only a handful, as Ruskin concluded that, while such works might be useful to students, "they are not, in general, interesting".

Selections from Turner's studio gradually became known to a wider public through a series of further displays, in London and beyond. Also selected by Ruskin (or otherwise informed by his ideas on the artist), these emphasised Turner's experiential and imaginative response to nature, and endorsed a rigid chronological assessment of the artist's creative ascent, maturity and decline. As Ruskin worked his way through the remainder of Turner's career, preparing for display those works he regarded as exemplary and consigning others to tin boxes, he became the first to appreciate the full extent of his brilliant, and at times chaotic, artistic life.

Turner: Waves Breaking against the Wind
Waves Breaking against the Wind. Credit: Tate Images Photograph: Tate Images

Now prominent within the Bequest is a group of late and atmospheric seascapes, painted in oil on board or canvas, that seem to transcend the function of the preparatory sketch, and which blur the distinctions between a finished and unfinished work of art, confounding all modern attempts to assign anything as certain as a title or even a subject. They are among the most evocative (and provocative) of Turner's works, and much about them, including his hopes for their future preservation and display, is clouded in uncertainty. They include Waves Breaking against the Wind and Seascape with Storm Coming On, two of a series of canvases that were first taken seriously and incorporated into the permanent Bequest during the 20th century, having previously remained rolled up in the basement of the National Gallery. These later exercises also include Calm Sea with Distant Grey Clouds, one of a group of chromatically complex but austere paintings that lay unnoticed for more than 100 years after his death. 

With few exceptions, these late marine studies (usually described as "unfinished", if only for want of a better word) focus on that essential maritime motif – the wave. It was a phenomenon that Turner had attempted to capture in countless sketches throughout his working life and which had been a defining aspect of his public seascapes from the beginning. From the luminous, threatening swell of Fishermen at Sea (1796), his first-exhibited painting in oil, to the storm-tossed waters of The Shipwreck, one of a series of stormy scenes that had done so much to secure his reputation in the early 1800s as a painter of the sublime sea, the visible action of the wind and tide was the driving force behind a series of seascapes that effectively reinvented the genre while raising their maker to the highest level of artistic achievement. The hoard of canvases that Turner produced during the last 10 years of his life indicate that, towards the end (a period that Ruskin characterised as one of decline and increasing incomprehensibility), the anonymous, unrelenting churn of the sea became the focus of deep self-reflection. 

Following the completion of AJ Finberg's monumental inventory of the Bequest in the early part of the 20th century, and the physical relocation of the work from the National Gallery to the Tate (via the British Museum), Turner's private world became the subject of renewed study. As the contents of his studio became known, his posthumous identity was increasingly constructed around the shifting priorities and new formal challenges of the contemporary 20th‑century art world, which valued repetition and championed the abstract, the provisional and the raw as signs of untamed creativity. As a result, a very different artist emerged – one who would have been unrecognisable to his contemporaries. Turner was reimagined as a progenitor of modern art; first of impressionism, then of postwar abstraction.

Turner: Staffa, Fingal’s Cave
Staffa, Fingal’s Cave. Credit: Yale Centre for British Art Photograph: Yale Centre for British Art

The late 20th-century reinvention of Turner found its clearest expression with an exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966. Dedicated to an artist who had been dead for more than 100 years (and who thus lay outside any commonly accepted definition of "modern" art in 1960s America), the show was unprecedented for MoMA, an institution then associated with American abstract work on a heroic scale. Within this transatlantic context, Turner was defined more than ever as a modern creative force. The re‑emergence of a body of later works that appeared to be more abstracted than anything previously known from Turner only enhanced the notion that he had single-handedly released painting from the conventions and expectations of the Victorian art world: it was as if they had come straight from the artist's studio.

More recently, with the advent of digital technology and the gradual realisation of a longstanding ambition to conserve and catalogue the entire collection, the Turner Bequest is now more accessible than ever before in its permanent home at Tate Britain. However, the visual challenge of those later, unfinished paintings remains. The "indistinct" (especially where it is deployed in such an expressive manner as, for example, in the Whalers Sketchbook) has come to define the artist's reputation above all else: restless in his work, ceaselessly creative, and an artist whose output seems to transcend the historical circumstances of its production. The notion of Turner as an abstract artist persists precisely because the critical language of modern and contemporary art offers an explanation that these extraordinary late works otherwise seem to lack.

Although Turner is not known to have sold any of his preparatory or unfinished works, a substantial number did find their way into private collections following his death. In July 2012, a watercolour study of a storm at sea was sold at auction in London. The sketch was advertised as "the first idea" for one of the artist's most powerful late seascapes, Staffa, Fingal's Cave. The exceptionally high critical and commercial value placed on Turner's preparatory works (the single sheet sold for a little over £120,000) is only partly explained by their evident aesthetic and technical qualities. Equally important is the mythical status of Turner's private studio practice, as a result of which such "beginnings" have come to represent something essential and immediate about the artistic process. In the context of Turner's reputation as a painter of the sea, it is notable that such a brisk sketch, one of several thousand similarly ephemeral works by him on paper (albeit one of only a few that could ever appear on the market), far surpassed the record amount paid for a finished oil painting by the most prominent and successful marine painter among Turner's contemporaries, Augustus Wall Callcott. If such a disparity tells us anything, it is that history (like the market) is fickle, and that the art of the past is always and inevitably reinvented according to the desires of the present.

• Richard Johns is co-curator of the exhibition Turner and the Sea at the National Maritime Museum.

Richard Johns

The GuardianTramp

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