A Century of British Painters

By Samuel Redgrave; Richard Redgrave | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIX
JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER

HIS birthplace, and the scenes among which Turner passed his childhood, may be thought not the best fitted to form a landscape painter, or to fill his youthful mind with images of beauty. Born 23 April 1775, the son of a hairdresser of small means, and bred in Maiden Lane, in the heart of this great metropolis, he could enjoy very little of the sight of 'fresh fields and pastures new'. In the hovels and sheds of the Covent Garden of that day, he might make acquaintance with a few specimens of roots and flowers, and, strolling down to St. James's Park in the summer evenings, get a glimpse of trees and greensward. But even the park was far less foliated than in the present day. Many of the old trees were stagged and dead, and new ones were not yet planted.

But, straying down a set of winding lanes and alleys, young Turner might, and no doubt often did, wander away to the strand of the broad river, a river unequalled in the world for its picturesque variety, and not then spanned by so many bridges, or cumbered with steamboats and steamboat-piers; not then quite so muddied and thickened with the refuse of the extra million dwellers on its shores. Here his love of rivers and river scenery, no doubt, was fostered. The first drawing he exhibited was a view on its southern bank, as was also the first oil picture--' Moonlight', a study at Millbank, now in the national collection; and his last days were passed in an obscure dwelling by its side, whence he could see its broad bosom gleaming under the western sun. The quaint picturesqueness and curious relics of architecture in the streets of his own neighbourhood may also account for his love of cities, and of architecture. It is not very clearly stated by any of his biographers when young Turner began to show a love for art; but it is most probable that it was developed early, since in 1789, when only fourteen years of age, he was admitted a student in the Royal Academy, and in 1790 he exhibited on its walls for the first time, ' A View of the Archbishop's Palace at Lambeth', and there are some sketches which must be prior to either of these periods.

Turner was from the beginning diligent in the pursuit of his profession, and soon began to turn it to profitable account: it is said that

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