Voted Britain’s favourite artist in 2015, Joseph Mallord William Turner is renowned for his sweeping brushstrokes and incredible use of light.
Though perhaps best known for his paintings of ships and the sea, Turner also painted scores of landscapes depicting England’s most picturesque sites.
Here we take a look at three of them and find that, as with all great art, there’s more to Turner’s paintings than at first meets the eye…
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament – Or Perhaps Not
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament – is that part of the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey in the background?
England: Richmond Hill on the Prince Regent’s Birthday
For another of Turner’s landscapes, England: Richmond Hill on the Prince Regent’s Birthday, the location is less of a mystery than the choice of objects shown in the foreground.
In 1819, when it was first exhibited, this was the largest of Turner’s paintings. The canvas measured a whopping 1.8 metres high by 3.5 metres across, and when it travelled to Australia’s National Gallery for exhibition, it took 13 people to unpack it.
The top half of the painting shows one of Turner’s familiar expanses of sky, this time clear blue and punctuated by tree tops; but it’s the lower half where things really get interesting.
This shows a group of party-goers gathered on Richmond Hill, near London, to celebrate the prince’s birthday – a birthday shared by Turner himself.
Quintessentially English, and barely different from the vista greeting visitors to Richmond Park today, the view looks in the direction of Turner’s home in Twickenham and even includes a game of cricket in the meadows below.
At first sight, the gathering of people on the hill looks like a typical birthday party, but look closer and some surprising objects provide rich sources for speculation.
The Royal Court at Play
Scattered across the front of the canvas lie abandoned toys and musical instruments: a drum, a cello, a sun hat and – wait for it – a hula hoop.
There’s also a kite and a red and white flag, perhaps that of St George, patron saint of England.
The Prince Regent took St George’s day, 23 April, as his official birthday, and it’s possible that the flag is intended to represent him.
Some, though, have suggested that the prince is supposed to be standing in the place of anyone viewing the painting, since several of the guests seem to be looking out of the canvas at someone or something.
Many of the figures are female, wearing distinctive Regency clothing with dresses that drape low on the shoulders to emphasise their swan-like necks.
Accompanying them are royal heralds wearing scarlet jackets. The Prince Regent himself had something of a reputation with the ladies – who knows how many court intrigues were taking place among the people gathered that day?
This part of England was dear to Turner, and it continued to inspire him even after he sold his Twickenham home, Sandycombe Lodge, in 1826.
Climate and Colour
Chichester Canal c.1829, J. M. W. Turner, Tate Gallery
As Turner grew older his paintings became increasingly atmospheric, with broadly applied washes of paint creating movement and mood.
The palette for his Chichester Canal, painted some time between 1827 and 1831 is dominated by strong yellows and ochres – but there may be more behind his choice of colours than a desire for drama.
In 1816, the planet experienced severe climate abnormalities, with a drop in average global temperatures spelling agricultural disaster for parts of the United States, Canada and Western Europe.
It became known as the “Year Without Summer” and was triggered by the eruption the previous year of Mount Tambora, a volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa.
The ash was perhaps responsible for more than global cooling: the particles are believed to have given the sky over England a yellow tint, reproduced by Turner in his painting.
Today, you can see the picture on display in its original home at Petworth House in West Sussex, once the residence of George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, who was a friend of the artist and commissioned the work.
See Turner’s Work for Yourself
Turner’s landscapes give his own inimitable perspective on England’s drama and beauty.
The Tate Gallery in London is home to many of them – so if you find yourself in the city, why not call in and take the opportunity to search out more of the stories behind these unique paintings.