Turner was born near Covent Garden in London. His first job was as an assistant to an architect, and his early works reveal the influence of many eighteenth-century topographical artists. At the age of fourteen he decided to become an artist, and began to study at the Royal Academy Schools in 1789. His early oeuvre consisted of drawings and watercolours on paper, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1790; it was some years before he felt ready to start painting in oils. Turner exhibited his first oil painting, Fishermen at Sea, at the Royal Academy in 1796, when he was twenty-one. Success came relatively early, and in 1803, at the age of twenty-seven, he began work on the spacious gallery in his house in Harley Street, which not only advertised his achievements but provided a more sympathetic setting for his pictures than the crowded walls of the Great Exhibition Room at the Royal Academy. Nevertheless, he continued to exhibit at the RA and, unlike a number of other British artists, remained involved with the Academy throughout his career. He become an Associate Member in 1799, aged twenty-four, and a full Member in 1802, as well as being elected Professor of Perspective in 1811, and appointed acting President in 1845. In 1840 Turner met the critic John Ruskin, who became the great champion of his work, writing: “'We have had, living amongst us and working for us, the greatest painter of all time”.
Turner travelled extensively throughout Europe, especially to France and Italy, and gathered inspiration for some of his finest works.
In his later life, Turner began sending to the Academy exhibitions unfinished canvases which one contemporary described as being 'without form and void, like chaos before the creation'. He would then complete them in the exhibition room on Varnishing Days, virtuoso performances which soon became legendary.
Turner became interested in contemporary technology, as can be seen from his works The Fighting ‘Temeraire’ and Rain, Steam and Speed. At the time his free, expressive treatment of these subjects was criticised, but it is now widely appreciated.
Throughout the 1830's and '40's Turner kept up a steady flow of masterpieces in
both oil and watercolour. However, his health began to break down in 1845. After displaying four last works at the Royal Academy in the late spring of 1850 it appears that Turner was too physically feeble to paint any more.
Turner died on 19th December 1851. Turner bequeathed much of his work to the nation. In addition to nearly two thousand paintings and watercolours in private hands, he left an immense body of work in his Queen Anne Street and Chelsea studios - some 282 finished and unfinished oil paintings and 19,049 drawings and sketches in watercolour, pencil and other media. The great majority of the paintings are now at Tate Britain.
J.M.W. Turner is represented in a vast number of collections worldwide, among others: Art Institute of Chicago; Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, UK; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Louvre Museum, Paris; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; National Gallery, London; Pinakothek, Munich; Royal Academy of Arts Collection, London; Tate Gallery, London; Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Frick Collection, New York City; Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro; National Gallery of Victoria, Australia; National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; National Portrait Gallery, London; Philadelphia Museum of Art; The British Museum, London; The Huntington Library, California; The Wallace Collection, London; Victoria and Albert Museum, London.