Artist profile: J.M.W. Turner

Our art collection holds a major work by artist J.M.W. Turner: The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 (1822-24). 

A contemporary British artist

Initially inspired by artists of the 17th century, J.M.W. Turner’s later works can easily be mistaken for being of the 20th century. As the artist developed his practice he began to exceed the art establishment and depart from the conventions of the time. In doing so Turner divided critics and the public alike, and created a unique vision of the overwhelming power of nature.

Turner and the sea

Turner painted the sea more than any other subject. From his transformative Royal Academy paintings of the late 1790s, to the unfinished, experimental seascapes of the 1830s, more than half of Turner’s artistic output depicted life at sea. By the end of his life, Turner had defined an entirely new marine aesthetic in British art.

The Battle of Trafalgar (1824)

Turner’s largest painting and only royal commission, The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, is one of the jewels in the National Maritime Museum’s fine art collection.

The artist embarked on an unusual amount of practical research for this painting. He completed a series of sketches of HMS Victory in 1805, borrowed a ship plan from the Admiralty and made two compositional oil sketches.

The finished painting contains a number of incidents from different times during the battle. The falling mast, is perhaps an allusion to the dying Nelson, while code flags spell out ‘d-u-t-y’, both the last word of Nelson’s signal to the British fleet at the start of the battle, and one of the last words he reportedly spoke. In the foreground British seamen try to save fellow and enemy crew from the bloodied sea.

The frame for the work, one of the largest oil paintings in the collection, was professionally conserved at the Museum in 2009.

Entry to the National Maritime Museum is free, open daily from 10am

Plan your visit

Art and science

In Turner’s lifetime, there was far less separation between the arts and sciences than there is today. Turner moved in the same circles as many other artists, writers and musicians, plus scientists and inventors such as Richard Owen, Michael Faraday, Humphry Davy and Mrs Mary Somerville.

His biographer, James Hamilton, believes that discussions of the latest scientific ideas may well have found expression in his paintings.

Using our collections for research

The collections at Royal Museums Greenwich offer a world-class resource for researching maritime history, astronomy and time.

Find out how you can use our collections for purposes of research