We all have moments in our lives that are turning points that would take our lives in different directions. (I remember listening to Bible readings at school about the stony path of righteousness and the primrose path of dalliance and hoping desperately that I would have the strength to take the one of righteousness. Now at 64 I think I’ve travelled both.) Artists have such moments, and two were crucial in the artistic development of J M W Turner.
The first was the burning down of the Houses of Parliament in 1834. Turner sat on the other side of the river and painted sketches of the scene, which was unusual for him. Lawrence Gowing in his insightful essay Turner: Imagination and Reality wrote: “A drama of flame and water on which he had brooded all his life was being acted out in reality in front of him…The Burning of the Houses of Parliament released a fantastic force in Turner’s work. A barrier between reality and imagination had vanished; they were never distinct again.”
The second event was being caught in a snowstorm at sea in a trip from Harwich when Turner was 66. He had the sailors lash him to the mast, was there for four hours, and wrote afterwards: “I did not expect to escape.” So he was alongside death. He once wrote: “Thou [the ocean] dreadful and tumultuous home of Death.” John Ruskin thought that death was Turner’s deepest subject.
Gowing wrote about the picture “Snow Storm was the result of an event in Turner’s life as crucial as the fire at Westminster. Again, a fantasy on which he had been brooding all his life became real….He treasured the experience like a private possession…his imagination was again convulsed by the reality.”
Certainly the two events led to great pictures as well as deeper inspiration for Turner.