He’s Britain’s favourite artist, but is JMW Turner as important as Shakespeare?

Turner's watercolour painting off Orfordness, dating from around 1827.

Turner's watercolour painting off Orfordness, dating from around 1827. - Credit: Archant

Art historian Eric Shanes, who is giving a talk at Southwold Arts Festival on Turner’s east coast tours, spoke to Sheena Grant.

JMW Turner self portrait

JMW Turner self portrait - Credit: Archant

He wasn’t the first artist to be drawn to the vast skies, peculiar light and crashing seas of the Suffolk coast but he is undoubtedly the most famous.

Joseph Mallord William Turner – whose masterpiece the Fighting Temeraire was voted the country’s best-loved painting in 2005 – was a Londoner, best known for his dramatic seascapes featuring man’s interaction with the overwhelming power of nature.

But what many people may not realise is that he was also a regular visitor to the East Anglian coast, particularly the communities of Aldeburgh, Dunwich, Orford, Lowestoft and Yarmouth.

Turner, who died in 1851, aged 76, left a vast legacy of work, including 550 oil paintings, more than 2,000 finished watercolours and 30,000 drawings. He was driven to work in all weathers, often shunning personal comfort in pursuit of his art, says Eric Shanes, a Turner expert who will be in Southwold on June 28 as part of the town’s annual arts festival, to give a talk on the artist’s tours of the east coast.

One of Turner's paintings of Aldeburgh, dating from around 1827.

One of Turner's paintings of Aldeburgh, dating from around 1827. - Credit: Archant

And during those trips to this region two centuries ago, says Eric, Turner worked with his usual intensity, walking up to 30 miles a day, staying in local inns and sketching prodigiously as he went.

Many of his works from his visits to Suffolk show the crumbling cliffs of once-mighty Dunwich, with mariners struggling in the waves against the backdrop of churches teetering on the edge of the land.

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“He would have been fascinated with Dunwich,” says Eric, an artist, art historian and lecturer who has written 11 books on Turner. “It would have appealed to his sense of history and tragedy. We think we are lords of creation, and nature reminds us it is different. That’s the sort of thing he liked to portray and was the reason he was attracted to Dunwich.”

Eric’s latest book, Young Mr Turner, has been a decade in the making and deals with the first 40 years of the artist’s life. Alongside his writing and lecturing, Eric has also been a working artist since graduating from the Chelsea School of Art in 1966. But, curiously, his own paintings couldn’t be more unlike those of Turner.

Eric Shanes

Eric Shanes - Credit: Archant

“I made a decision early on that I didn’t want to be a second-rate Turner,” he says. “So I thought I’d try and be a first-rate something else.”

But his fascination with Turner has never left him. His first book on the great man was published in 1979. Since then he has also been chairman and a vice-president of the Turner Society and in 2000-2001 curated an exhibition to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the artist’s death.

“He was to British painting what Shakespeare was to literature,” he says. “The public realises that but some sections of the media don’t always grasp it. Shakespeare gets endless coverage. I don’t begrudge that, but Turner was every bit as complex and innovative and monumental as Shakespeare.

“His art is phenomenal in range and richness, in invention and beauty, and gives an incredible perspective on life. It wasn’t just about landscapes. He always showed human beings in the landscape. He was always making paintings about the littleness of people, as opposed to the vastness of nature beyond them.

Turner's painting of Dunwich

Turner's painting of Dunwich - Credit: Archant

“Many of his scenes are tragic. They show people against the elements, struggling to survive. His work is about the beauty of nature and people. People often lump him with the French impressionists but he wasn’t one of them. He influenced them but had a completely different agenda, at the centre of which was mankind and our relationship to our surroundings.”

Turner, a rival and contemporary of Suffolk’s own landscape master, John Constable, who is said to have referred to the Londoner as “uncouth”, travelled up the east coast in 1824 and a number of other times throughout his life.

“The paintings and drawings from those trips encompass all his usual themes and show people living, fishing and dying,” says Eric.

One of his visits to the region came from a commercial venture that subsequently turned sour. Turner, then aged in his 30s and already well off thanks to the patronage of several wealthy clients, was engaged to make a series of views of the south coast of England, which would be reproduced in the form of prints and engravings.

“When he was finished, it was planned he would embark on a set of watercolours of the east coast, which would be reproduced in the same way,” says Eric. “However, he had a row with the engraver and the whole thing fell apart, by which time he had already undertaken a major tour of the east coast and made a number of watercolours for reproduction.”

Turner’s sketch books from his 1824 trip to Suffolk contain a wealth of drawings of Orford, Dunwich and Aldeburgh. Although he visited Southwold he did few drawings there, before continuing his travels to Lowestoft, Yarmouth and further north.

“In 1825 he walked virtually all the way from Colchester up the east coast, drawing as he went,” says Eric. “He was a great walker and covered 25-30 miles a day. He wasn’t a person for home comforts. As well as art, his other great passion was fishing and he would fish as he went, carrying a portable rod that screwed together.

“He was also very attracted to Yarmouth and, when there, stayed with Dawson Turner, a banker. Otherwise, he would have stayed in local inns and rented rooms on his travels. He was well known but would have travelled fairly anonymously, staying in pretty rudimentary conditions. Many coastal people then were poor beyond our imagination. He identified with them and did pictures of them pulling in wreckage from the sea – the only way they would have been able to afford canvas and rope would have been by retrieving it from the sea.”

Turner, the son of a Covent Garden barber and wigmaker, may have become wealthy but in many ways he was haunted by the spectre of poverty he had witnessed in his youth, when he was tutored by an impoverished artist.

“Through that he learned what deep poverty an artist could end up in. It shocked him for the rest of his life,” says Eric. “He was 13 or 14, a really impressionable age, when he came into contact with this impoverished artist who tutored him and he saw the depths of squalor and degradation artists could end up in. Later on he came to be known as a terrible miser, but I think that’s unfair – he was saving as much as he could to create a charity for impoverished artists. He was always angling to make money, but it was more complex than is often portrayed.”

As part of his most recent book research, Eric has uncovered Turner’s bank records from the age of 19.

“He was a conservative investor, always putting his money in government stock so it wasn’t at risk,” he says. “He didn’t want to take any chances.”

Although it is often said he grew more eccentric as he aged and had few close friends except for his father, whose death in 1829 affected him profoundly, Turner’s paintings show a love of humanity, for all its frailty and fragility.

“He was a social chronicler of British life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,” says Eric. “He saw it as his duty because he was following descriptions laid down when Joshua Reynolds, who founded the RA (Royal Academy of Arts), said that art should be about something serious. He loved the beauty and majesty of the world and wanted to paint everything he saw that moved him. He had an incredible memory for detail and the scenes he saw on his travels. He once said every glance should be a chance for study. That was a central belief of his life. He lived to paint and nothing else mattered.”

• The Southwold Arts Festival takes place from today to July 2, beginning with a free street party on the opening day. Eric Shanes’ illustrated talk on Turner’s tours of the east coast is free and takes place at 2pm on Tuesday, June 28, at St Edmund’s Hall. For further information on festival events visit the website

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