Turner's life was lived almost wholly through his eyes and hands. His thinking, arguing, scheming and teaching were done by drawing and painting. Travelling, he might seem an ordinary mortal, with his satchel, change of clothes, guide book and umbrella - with a concealed poniard in case of banditry. But all the time he was making visual images: landscapes, seascapes, cloudscapes, castles, rivers, groups of figures, a diligence overturned in Alpine snow.
Short, stocky, weatherbeaten, he looked like a ship's captain or a cab driver, but in his gaze there was that "peculiar keenness of expression that is only seen in men of constant habits of observation". Indeed, it seems he could not stop observing and recording. He could manage 20 sketches in an hour, as the waves heaved or the carriage jolted, and Turner swore that the driver would not pause.
His numerous sketchbooks therefore constitute his day-to-day autobiography. Watercolours and engravings were his regular employment, and the paintings his major public and intellectual achievements. His life was thus his work, which poses challenges to biographers who do not aim to write art history. Son of a Covent Garden barber, Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775, two decades after Blake, whose busy inner city of trade, fashion, entertainment he shared. He was known as William, like his father, the other names being in honour of his uncle, a prosperous butcher. There was a young sister, Mary Ann. Her death, aged five, is confirmed by Anthony Bailey, who has done much devilling in local records. When Turner was 24, his mother was committed to St Luke's mad hospital, and thence to Bedlam, where she died. Apart from a period at school in Brentford - a centre of a progressive education in the 1780s, according to James Hamilton - Turner had little book-learning. He was always going to be a painter. His drawings hung in the barber's shop, and sold. "When I was a boy I used to lie for hours on my back watching the skies, and then go home and paint them," he said later; "and there was a stall in the Soho Bazaar where they sold drawing materials and they used to buy my skies. They gave me 1s 6d for the small ones, and 3s 6d for the larger ones. There's many a young lady who's got my sky to her drawing." Hard by in Somerset House, the Royal Academy offered free training for gifted lads and a prestigious association for artists. Here, from 14 to 75, Turner's professional life centred, his year determined by the summer exhibition season. Thereafter he travelled up and down Britain and across Europe, when peace allowed, for landscape subjects, historic sites, weather effects. Back in London, these were developed into saleable items and new set pieces for the RA. His output was terrific, as any visit to the Turner Gallery at the Tate confirms. And Turner was versatile - latter-day Claudes, grand Roman scenes, the battle of Trafalgar, Fingal's Cave, the Palace of Westminster ablaze, Ulysses mocking Polphemus, Cowes regatta, the demasted hulk of the Fighting Temeraire being tugged to the breaker's yard, furnished by the artist with ghostly spars and rigging in honour of past glory. …