J. M. W. Turner – A Man of Entrepreneurial Instinct
News & Stories

J. M. W. Turner – 
A Man of Entrepreneurial Instinct

1856, the same year that Credit Suisse was founded, Joseph Mallord William Turner's collection of paintings was bequeathed to the British Nation. The National Gallery, long-term partner of Credit Suisse, inherited some of his most famous works. Turner was not only one of the greatest artists that Great Britain has ever produced, but also an exceptionally gifted businessman. Get to know the artist who embodied a sense of business that is very close to Credit Suisse's entrepreneurial mind-set of today.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was lauded during his own lifetime, but he was also sharply criticized as innovators frequently are. His influence and fame have grown since his death in 1851. The Turner Prize for significant contemporary art is named after J. M. W. Turner; his painting, 'The Fighting Temeraire', was voted Britain's favorite painting in 2005 and the next twenty pound note will have his image on the reverse. He is rightly praised for his adventurous and innovative use of paint to produce never before seen effects of light and color that far outstripped his contemporaries and still have the power to thrill today.

Turner came from humble beginnings. He achieved success as much through force of will as through his innate artistic genius, having once declared that, "the only secret I have got is damned hard work."

Turner was born in 1775 in Covent Garden, London, then a rowdy, ram-shackle district full of theaters, bars and brothels. Throughout his life, Turner's accent was cause for some of his critics to mock him. Turner's mother was confined to Bedlam, the lunatic asylum, when he was a young boy. His father, a barber and wig maker, was always supportive of his son's artistic intentions and exhibited his sketches in his barbers' shop. Later in life he would act as his son's assistant and confidante.

No Stranger to Competition

Turner's first commercial artistic endeavor came when he was only ten and he was paid two pence to color engraving views of England. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy (RA) aged 15, and was elected as a full member of the RA at an incredibly youthful 26. The following year, he exhibited 'Calais Pier' at the RA, a work imbued with movement, drama and tension, in particular through his bravura depiction of the rolling sea. Storm clouds darken the sky and a fierce wind whips up the sea, threatening to push the small boats into each other and throw the sailors into the churning ocean. It is probable that Turner experienced a similar sea on a trip to Calais. Throughout his life, Turner was extremely competitive toward his contemporaries as well as toward the acknowledged previous masters. He and Constable, another great British painter of this era, were committed rivals, also evidenced at a major art exhibition in London in 1833. While Turner made no secret of his debt to painters of previous generations, in particular Claude Lorraine, he was always attempting to produce work that surpassed theirs. In 'Calais Pier', Turner was avowedly competing with works by Dutch artists such as Willem van de Velde and Jacob van Ruisdael.

Calais Pier

Joseph Mallord William Turner
'Calais Pier, with French Poissards preparing for sea: an English Packet' (1803)

© The National Gallery, London

A Gallery of His Own at the Age of 29

Throughout his career, Turner was financially, as well as esthetically, successful. Aged 24 he moved to fashionable Harley Street and, after his election to the RA, he designed and built a picture gallery behind the house from which he would sell many of his most famous works. The creation of his own private gallery at the age of only 29 shows Turner's self-belief and confidence. He continued to invest in property across London and Kent, and it is possible that it was from the pub he owned, The Ship and Bladebone in Wapping, that he first encountered the Temeraire in the breakers yard. In the painting, the hero ship of the battle of Trafalgar is being towed to its final destination to be broken up. It is an almost ghostly apparition, gliding along the surface to the sea, pulled by a dark brooding tug. The sky is shot through with wonderful oranges, yellows, reds and purples, giving the ship a naturally occurring elegy that man has failed to provide. Despite his esthetic adventurousness with 'The Fighting Temeraire', in particular the spectacular light effects of the sun and the sky, his entrepreneurial instinct did not leave him. Turner was well known for working closely with a number of print sellers and engravers to produce successful and widely distributed prints of his works. 'The Fighting Temeraire' was no exception and was published many times.

The Fighting Temeraire

Joseph Mallord William Turner
'The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up' 1838 (1839)

© The National Gallery, London

Last Minute Improvements

Turner's resolve to transform painting, both in terms of content and method, never left him, nor did his determination to produce superior works of art. It was the practice at the Royal Academy to allow artists to "varnish" their works in the five days between hanging and the opening of exhibitions. Turner, and many other artists, used this time to improve their works in relation to their surroundings. Turner never missed the chance to work on his paintings during Varnishing Days and seems to have relished the opportunity to draw attention to his efforts. The artist, then 64, was observed putting the finishing touches on 'Rain, Steam, and Speed' by a nine-year-old boy, George Leslie, who later recollected, "He used rather short brushes, a messy palette, and, standing very close up to the canvas, appeared to paint with his eyes and nose as well as his hand. He talked to me every now and then, and pointed out the little hare running for its life in front of the locomotive." Surely here is Turner showing that although a hare could be fast it could never compete with a locomotive, but also proving his dedication by working to improve his painting up until the last minute. The train is bursting through the rain storm, the landscape little more than a blur, the epitome of man's achievement over nature.

Rain, Steam and Speed

Joseph Mallord William Turner
'Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway' (1844)

© The National Gallery, London

Between Financials and Esthetics

As depicted above and evidenced in many more examples, Turner never lost his will to innovate: from his earliest topographical watercolors to his final experiments with the effects of light and color on perception and meaning. He saw himself as being in the same tradition as artists such as Claude, Rembrandt, Poussin, and Canaletto, and strove to exceed their achievements and those of his contemporaries. He understood the value of his work, financially as well as esthetically, and saw his income boosted through engravings. From humble beginnings, he was not only recognized during his lifetime as one of the greatest British painters, but saw substantial financial rewards for his work. His energy, self-belief, and hard work permeated all aspects of Turner's output and drove him to produce outstanding paintings as well as to achieve recognition and reward. Therefore, and naturally, the National Gallery is a proud ambassador of the painter and the entrepreneur J. M. W. Turner, and Credit Suisse is a proud partner of an institution inheriting artists with such remarkable entrepreneurial drive.

Written by Matthew Morgan,
Art historian and adult learning lecturer at the National Gallery