Maritime Art of Joseph Turner

Joseph Turner was brought up near the Thames River and he was fascinated by the water and ships all his life. The restless water of the Thames, with the fog and mist and light permeating the ships sails and riggings were scenes that were part of his being. His first exhibited oil painting was called “Fishermen at Sea”, and shows a dramatic scene with the fishermen struggling in a gale just outside of the Needles off the Isle of Wight. In 1802, soon after the treaty of Amiens, Turner went to Calais and painted the dramatic “Calais Pier: An English Packet Arriving 1803″. It shows the boats landing in a messy sea and his inscription says” “Our landing at Calais. Nearly swampt.”

Joseph Turner’s passions for ships and the sea was a lifelong passion. He sketched HMS Victory carrying the body of Nelson home as she entered the Medway in 1805. He was given a royal commission to paint the battle of Trafalgar and he did so putting his love of the sea into the accurateley nautical painting but it was not well received. The last phase of his life produced many of his finest paintings such as The Fighting Temeraire and Peace – Burial at Sea.

The Thames near Walton Bridges (1806-7) is an oil sketch of the Thames in Surrey. The Slave Ship (1840) shows Turner’s love of the sea and its violent intensity. This picture is based on a true story of a slave trader that threw his slaves overboard so that he could claim the insurance. Turner was interested in all types of ships and boats and was proud of his nautical knowledge. In his famous “Snowstorm” painting he uses a swirling vortex composition to portray the fury of the storm.


In 1838 Joseph Turner watched the warship Temeraire being towed up the river on her way to the scrapyard. The 98-gun Temeraire had fought bravely at Trafalgar. Turner made a number of sketches of the scene and created the painting “The Fighting Temeraire”. The painting was received with great acclaim and was symbolic of the end of an era for the ship-of-the-line battleship under sail. In the painting “Peace – Burial at Sea” (1842) Turner arranges the composition of the ship around a vertical column of light. Into this shaft of light the dead man’s coffin is lowered into the sea.

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