JMW Turner’s Paintings That Defy Preservation

English painter JMW Turner created ethereal painting and watercolors throughout his lifetime. However, his technique and tools let his paintings decay rapidly in different ways. How do you restore a painting with challenges like these?

Jun 25, 2020By Julia Margaret Lu, MA Professional Studies in an Art and Technology, B.Arch w/ History-Theory Concentration
decline carthaginian empire turner
The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire by JMW Turner, 1817, Tate


Joseph Mallord William Turner, or JMW Turner, was born into a lower-middle-class family in London in 1775. He is known for his oil paintings and watercolors that involve landscapes with glorious and complex color palettes. Turner lived in an age before the invention of paint in tubes and was forced to make the materials he needed. However, he also had to prioritize cost and availability which meant using low-durability pigments that would fade and deteriorate quickly. 


Waves Breaking against the Wind by JMW Turner, 1840


Turner’s work is undoubtedly remarkable and is revered and displayed around the world. However, his paintings may not resemble their original state over 200 years later. As pigments fade and his paintings suffer decay and damage throughout their lifetime, restoration projects are necessary to save these works of art. However, this brings up a challenging debate on the nature and authenticity of a Turner piece that faces restoration. Restoration is no doubt a valuable art and science but there are several concerns in Turner’s practice that make this debate more complicated, including pigment and Turner’s own painting technique. 


Who is JMW Turner?

Cote House Seen through Trees by JMW Turner during his travels to Bristol, 1791, Tate


Turner was trained as a painter at the Royal Academy of Art starting at the age of 14 though he showed an early interest in architecture. Many of his early sketches were drafting exercises and perspectival views and Turner would use these technical skills to earn a wage during his early life.


Throughout his childhood and early life, Turner would travel throughout Britain to Berkshire where his uncle resided, and to Wales in the summer during his academy years, among other places. These rural destinations served as a foundation for Turner’s penchant for landscape which would become the main spectacle of his oeuvre. As a student many of his work was completed in watercolor and in sketchbooks that he could travel with.

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Eton College from the River by JMW Turner, 1787, Tate


Turner documents his life’s travels in sketchbooks and watercolors that show bright and lively representations of the places he visited. Throughout his entire life he would be focused on capturing landscape scenes and the different colors of each destination.


Turner’s New Medium: Advancing to Oil Painting

Fishermen at Sea by JMW Turner, 1796, Tate


At the academy, Turner exhibited his first oil painting, titled Fishermen at Sea in 1796. As noted previously, painters of this era were forced to manufacture their own paint. Turner, having been raised in an urban lower-middle-class household was cost-conscious when selecting pigment. He also needed to procure a range of colors to fulfill the rich colorations he aimed for, which would have meant a great cumulative cost. 


Turner was also primarily concerned with present-day color quality rather than longevity. Though he was advised to use more durable pigment, much of the pigment in Turner’s paintings even faded slightly in his own lifetime. Colors including carmine, chrome yellow, and indigo shades were known to have low durability. These pigments, mixed with others, leave behind discolored landscapes as they decay.


Another Turner Challenge: Flaking

East Cowes Castle by JMW Turner, 1828, V&A


Turner would start a painting by making wide brush strokes across the canvas. His tool of choice was often a hard-bristled brush that would leave brush hairs behind in the paint. Turner’s painting technique involved constant revisiting. Even after the paint dried, he would come back and add fresh paint. However, fresh oil paint does not bond well to dried paint and later leads to paint flaking. Art critic and colleague John Ruskin reported that one of Turner’s paintings, East Cowes Castle, required a daily sweep to clean up the paint fragments that had settled to the floor. After the painting had been cleaned decades later, evidential gaps throughout the painting proved this to be true.


Restoring JMW Turner Paintings

Wreckers, Coast of Northumberland by JMW Turner, 1833-34, Yale Center for British Art


All artworks age over time and may require some amount of repair or restoration in its lifetime. This is especially true of Turner’s paintings that suffer flaking and faded pigments. Paintings also age from sunlight and light exposure, smoke, dust and debris, moist environments, and physical damage.


Restoration techniques and technologies have advanced since the 18th century and restoration experts find themselves undoing past restoration work on a work of art. Historical restoration practices include cleaning, revarnishing, and overpainting a painting. In the case of Turner’s paintings, it might be the case that his own overpainting and varnish layers were kept intact which contributed to a deeper loss in clarity on top of additional overpaint and varnish layers.


Crossing the Brook by JMW Turner, 1815, Tate


In painting restoration practices today, conservationists clean the painting by using solvents to remove all the varnish that had been applied throughout the lifetime of the painting. Once the original paint payer is exposed, they apply a new coat of varnish to protect the paint and carefully touch up aberrations throughout the painting on top of the varnish so as to not alter the original painting.


When East Cowes Castle was being analyzed for restoration, conservationists discovered several layers of discolored varnish that were difficult to distinguish. Turner greatly looked forward to the varnishing process because it saturates hues and would enliven and brighten his paintings. However, because he is known to revisit his paintings, it is likely that he made additions after a varnishing stage. This complicates the restoration process because those additions are likely to be lost when all the varnish is removed.


The Real Deal: Revealing Turner’s Intention

Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water by JMW Turner, 1840, The Clark Art Institute


In 2002, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, began a significant restoration process for a Turner painting that was once formerly considered an “ill picture” by a former art director at the Clark. This painting, titled Rockets and Blue Lights, was acquired by the patrons of the museum in 1932. Before this acquisition, the painting had already undergone several restorations that radically changed its visual and structural properties.


Prior to starting the restoration process, an extensive analysis of the composition of the painting was performed in 2001. This analysis revealed that of the present state of the painting, about 75% of the image was completed by previous restoration efforts and was not done by Turner himself. 


Rockets and Blue Lights before it was restored by the Clark Art Institute, by JMW Turner, 1840


The process of removing multiple layers of discolored varnish, then layers of overpaint on top of the original Turner piece took eight months to complete. This not only removed the overpaint from past restorations, but layers of Turner’s own overpaint as well. However, the only way to reveal Turner’s original painting and intent was to remove everything and expose the original colorations.


After a fresh coat of varnish and light overpainting to fill in paint lost over the centuries, Rockets and Blue Lights is indistinguishable to its former state. Turner’s quick brushstrokes are legible and the color is brighter and clearer. 


The Authenticity of Restored JMW Turner Paintings

The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa by JMW Turner, 1842


For the Clark Art Institute, the risk of restoring Rockets and Blue Lights paid off. The entire process took place over at least 2 years and by its end revealed an undeniably majestic Turner. The decision to pursue restoration is complicated by the fragility and instability that Turner paintings are known for. And though the restoration was considered successful, the conservation process also lost Turner’s own layers of overpaint that can never be replaced. At that point, is the restored painting a true work belonging to Turner? 


For an artist who is renowned for subtle complexities in color, hue, and tone, does a painting start to lose value when it begins to decay? Questions of authenticity and intent play a huge role in the restoration debate but it is also widely agreed that longevity is the ultimate goal. Even though the restoration process loses parts of a painting’s life history, it aims to save the artist’s original intent for the picture. In Turner’s case especially, it must be accepted that his pigment will no longer look as it did when he applied it. Such must be the case when an artist acts intentionally.


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By Julia Margaret LuMA Professional Studies in an Art and Technology, B.Arch w/ History-Theory ConcentrationA native New Yorker, Julia earned her B.Arch from the City College of New York with an architectural history and theory concentration, and an MPS from ITP at NYU.