Fishermen at Sea is on display at the Turner Exhibition, Shanklin Chine Heritage Centre, with permission of the trustees of Tate Britain.
WIGHT LIVING THIS summer there is an exhibition of Island views by the great artist Joseph Mallord William Turner at the Heritage Centre at Shanklin Chine.
The exhibition recalls the late summer of 1795 when the 20-year-old Turner toured the Island making sketches.
One result was Fishermen at Sea, a night scene off The Needles.
This was his first oil painting accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy. When it was shown in 1796 it created a sensation. It launched Turner’s career as an independent artist. When he returned to the Island, aged 52 in 1827, he was a wealthy man.
J. M. W. Turner was born in early 1775 in Covent Garden in the fast-expanding metropolis of London. His father was a barber and wig maker and his mother came from a family of butchers. By the time he was ten, his drawings were being exhibited in his father’s shop window and sold for a few shillings.
His father boasted to the artist Thomas Stothard: "My son, sir, is going to be a painter."
As a lad Turner worked for several architects and learned the skills of draughtsmanship. He entered the Royal Academy of Art schools in 1789, when he was 14 years old, and was accepted into the academy itself the following year.
His first watercolour painting was accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1790 when he was 15.
In the 1790s, he exhibited watercolours each year at the academy. In the summers, he travelled widely in Britain sketching and painted up the results in the winter.
Turner first visited the Island in 1791. Since 1770 there had been a steel-spring stage-coach service from the Fountain Inn at Cowes to the Sun Inn at Newport.
Otherwise the only public transport was on occasional traders’ carts. The growing number of rich tourists, who started touring the Island from the 1770s, hired horses to visit the favoured locations around the Island. A network of inns provided stabling for the horses, hot food and clean beds. In the 1790s, the IW became a favourite for British artists when the French Revolutionary Wars made travel to the continent dangerous.
Turner’s most important visit to the Island took place during August and September 1795. He carried with him an 8ins by 10ins sketch book bound in calf leather with four engraved brass clasps.
The book, now in the Tate Britain gallery, has detailed orders from the engraver John Landseer. Turner was to sketch pictures of Godshill, Colwell and Totland bays, Brading Harbour, Caris-brooke Castle, Chale Farm, Mottistone Mill, Steephill Cove, Newport and Appul-durcombe. Chale Farm was exhibited by Landseer in 1796.
The artwork on the book’s remaining pages indicate Turner travelled from London by stagecoach, stopping at Winchester, Salisbury, Romsey and Southampton.
Arriving at Cowes by sailing packet, he made a sketch that would later be worked up to the watercolour Cowes Castle.
Then he travelled south to work on the sketch that would result in the watercolour Carisbrooke Castle from a Distance.
After sketching Gatcombe Church, he rode south and probably spent some days at Mrs Grove’s Steephill Inn. This picturesque pub, set in the spectacular landscape of the Undercliff, was a summer mecca for visiting artists. He sketched the area from Chale and Niton to Ventnor Bay and Shanklin Chine.
The tour continued via Appuldurcombe, Godshill and Mottistone to Freshwater Bay. Turner probably stayed at the Mermaid Inn at Freshwater Bay, another haunt of visiting artists.
In the 1790s, visitors generally hired longshoremen’s boats to The Needles and Alum Bay. It seems likely Turner sailed with the fishermen at night to assist his grasp of the iconic oil painting Fishermen at Sea.
He also started the later watercolours Freshwater Bay, Colwell Bay and Alum Bay. Then he rode east to make several sketches of Newport town. The final half-complete watercolour is of Bembridge windmill.
Once established as an independent artist, Turner’s work developed in a revolutionary way. He experimented widely. Printmaking was a major part of his output. He developed a distinctive style of painting, mixing watercolour with oil. His 1828 watercolour, Carisbrooke Castle, illustrated his developing obsession with light and the drama of the natural world. The castle shines like yellowed ivory as a vibrant purple sky threatens Newport.
Turner’s later visit to the Island in 1827 was to stay with John Nash. The exuberant Regency architect had built a gothic fantasy, East Cowes Castle. Turner made a series of sketches of the castle in chalk, pencil and oil. He sketched a regatta, probably the four-day Cowes Week. It was then in its second year, already complete with fireworks.
Turner was obsessive about capturing and expressing reality in the raw. In 1834, he rushed to record the burning of the Houses of Parliament and produced several watercolours of this national disaster.
His later works developed his fascination with light. All other form faded into a shimmering pattern of coloured luminosity. His work deeply influenced the emergence of French Impressionism.
Turner’s last exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1850 when he was 75. He died in the house of his mistress in Chelsea on December 19, 1851. He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. Turner left his collection of finished paintings to the nation. In 1987, a new wing at Tate Britain was opened to house the Turner bequest,
Turner’s fame has never dimmed. In 1974, a Turner museum in Florida was founded to house Turner prints.
The Turner Society was founded in 1975. The prestigious Turner Prize was created in 1984. In 2005, in a BBC poll, The Fighting Temeraire was voted Britain’s greatest painting.
In April 2008, Carisbrooke Castle was donated to the Carisbrooke Castle Museum by the government as a gift. In 2010, Campo Vaccino was bought for almost $45 million by the Getty Museum.
The current exhibition at Shanklin Chine shows copies of Turner’s sketches and completed works of the same subject by other artists of the period.
• The Historic Jubilee Exhibition: Turner’s IW Landscapes and the Discovery of Shanklin Chine runs until November 3. A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue is available at the Chine.