On the bend of the river at St Marys Battersea you see the picture he painted nearly two hundred years ago. Similarly on top of Richmond Hill you see the exact same field going towards Ham which he and so many others painted.
As you go up the steps at the Royal Academy there is his stout confidant statue. The boy may have had an innocent face but the man was master . His childhood was spent in his father’s barber shop in Covent Garden, his gallery studio was in Harley Street and he spent time with his mistress in one of the capital’s seaside resorts Margate. He died as artist must in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.
And now at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich, surely Britain’s finest museum, his exhibition Turner and the Sea dazzles as it razzles, shocks as it awes and humbles every creative instinct in the viewer. No one does sea like Turner.
The first room alone with its early pictures of shipwreck and danger is so powerful that the excellence of the rest is almost blown away. As Ron my neighbourhood pal said moving into the other rooms was like going on the big dipper and then playing shove halfpenny.
But of course in the other rooms is the nation’s favourite painting the picture Turner called “my darling”. The Fighting Temeraire. The sad and beautiful ship, number two in Nelson’s line at Trafalgar being taken to the breakers yard by a steam driven tug. The sun sets as it should. Interestingly the ship was never nicknamed Fighting by its sailors but Saucy. But Turner the highly successful artist knew what sold. In fact he refused to sell it even when offered a blank cheque. It was only good enough for the Nation.
In that first room The Wreck of the Transport Ship is so atmospheric and ghastly that after a minute or so you become sea sick. Elsewhere Horace Walpole talks of having to step back from a sea scape for fear of getting wet. When you look at Turner’s The Wreck your mind’s eye is looking for a hand rail and a life belt. For 19th century Britain who so triumphantly ruled the waves Turner expressed so creatively a far more profound relationship with the deep. He heard when it cried he heard when it sighed.
He knew so well the effect of light on water. His last words were The Sun is God.