Spotlight on: Turner’s Yellow

Turners Yellow colour

During the industrial revolution, as steamships took over from sailing ships and machines replaced manpower, innovation and technology were taking place in many areas, including discoveries in new art materials. Depending on one’s perspective this was either the end of an era or the dawn of a new one, with natural light about to be replaced by Edison’s electric light at the end of the nineteenth century. It is in JMW Turner’s paintings that we see the embers of this era merging with the new industrial age.

Until Turner and Constable, “history painting” was regarded by the Academy as the superior genre in painting, with landscape painting holding a lesser value. Part of Turner’s legacy is in the way he utilised landscape and seascape, elevating them to a higher genre, and using painting as a platform to document the changes taking place in society at that time. Take for example The Fighting Temeraire (1838), tugged to her last berth to be broken up, in which an older decommissioned ship is towed by a new steamship. Through this genre he was able to narrate aspects of technological, political and social reforms taking place in society, capturing, in particular, the magnificence of natural sunlight. So obsessed was Turner with his palette of bright whites and burning yellows that one critic even suggested he had “yellow fever”.

Paintings such as The Fighting Temeraire, read ambiguously as a sunset or sunrise, reflecting the pivotal changes taking place. Turner frequently used Gamboge and King’s Yellow to capture sunlight in its many forms: as an ethereal quality, in its abundance, in its lack, as a vapour, and as a physical quality soon to be replaced by the artificial rays of Edison. In Gombrich’s words, Turner “had visions of a fantastic world bathed in light and resplendent with beauty, but it was a world not of calm, but of movement, not of simple harmonies but of dazzling pageantries”.

JMW Turner

Turner was born in London’s Covent Garden in 1775. The son of a barber and wig-maker, his father was so proud of his son’s artistic talents that he would display his work at his barber shop. Unlike other painters at the time climbing a professional ladder, Turner remained a “Cockney” and kept his accent. There is a scene in the movie Mr Turner (2014) where we see Turner on the day of vernissage (when artists would add finishing touches to their works or varnish paintings before an exhibition opening), frantically working on an unfinished painting. Turner, played by Timothy Spall, spits repeatedly at the canvas and proceeds to blow pigment into its facia, as if in the middle of a dirty fight in which he will not concede defeat, attacking his work like a nineteenth century “action painter” and forcing a loaded hog hair brush into the painting’s surface in a manner which would have no doubt shocked his counterparts and fellow Academicians.

Turner, however, was a child prodigy, a Mozart of painting. Receiving his first commission at the age of 11, he began exhibiting watercolours at the Royal Academy in his teens. Having joined the RA Schools when he was only 14, he was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy by the time he was 24, and at 27, a point when most artists today might be contemplating post-graduate studies, Turner had already become a full Academician.

Turner’s genius was matched only by his appetite for the latest innovation in artist materials of the day. It is easier to imagine him in Mr Turner as an enfant terrible fantastically channelling muses, forgetting that painting is a technology. Contrary to his reputation on screen, for insights into the science of new developments and the latest technology Turner would have been a frequent visitor in 1832 to a new establishment set up by chemist William Winsor and artist Henry Charles Newton, otherwise known as Winsor & Newton.

Turner, whose practice was highly experimental from the outset, would have kept an ear to the ground for new revolutionary materials. A friend and frequent visitor, he would often pop into Winsor & Newton’s new establishment and was one of the very first to try our new watercolour “pan paints”, making full use of them by painting outdoors in every kind of weather and ever the cavalier, carrying an umbrella and a sword for whatever trouble might be along the path.

Today our Professional Watercolour Turner’s Yellow is made with pigments to closely resemble the Gamboge and King’s Yellow frequently used by Turner to capture the sun’s light, although the name actually comes from James Turner, the chemist who patented Lead Chloride Oxide in 1781. This innovative modern colour is a nod to Turner’s legacy and the ongoing dialogue between sciences and the arts that was begun by William Winsor and Henry Newton at 38 Rathbone Place, around the corner from Covent Garden where Turner himself was born.