Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The vision of a visionary: JMW Turner RA

JMS Pearce
Hull, England

JMW Turner. Self-portrait c. 1799, Tate Gallery, London. Photo Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images via Biography.

“The artist who could most stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature.”
– John Ruskin

The preeminent artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, the only son of William Turner, a wigmaker, and Mary Ann Marshall.

He entered the Royal Academy schools aged fourteen and soon began to exhibit his watercolors. A compulsive sketch-maker, notebook in pocket, he traveled widely, drawing and painting in Wales, Yorkshire, the Lake District, and Scotland, and frequently toured Italy, France, Denmark, Germany, Bohemia and Switzerland. Filling his sketchbooks with drawings, he painted landscapes, seascapes, and historical scenes in watercolors and oils, always dramatizing the brilliance of natural light with vibrant colors.

Color blind?

His unorthodox choice of colors led to allegations that he was color-blind or had cataracts. Much ingenuity has been expended in relating the colors and details of his paintings to his eyesight. The Morning Herald had described his paintings in 1829 as “coloring run mad,” and the Athenaeum in 1842 observed: “This gentleman had, on former occasions, chosen to paint with cream, or chocolate, or currant jelly—here he uses his whole array of kitchen stuff.” James McGill, an ophthalmologist, was reported in The Guardian in 2003 to state that Turner was “slightly colour-blind…The blues are all wrong, either too dark or too bright, and the reds get stronger and stronger, which is exactly what you would expect. And I have no doubt that later in life he had untreated cataracts.”


Richard Liebreich, a German ophthalmologist, wrote an article in 1872 asserting that JMW Turner suffered from cataracts to account for his increasingly non-representational style and an intense use of yellow.1 Trevor-Roper suggested that some of the orange-red hues, particularly in Turner’s later pictures, might have resulted from cataracts.2 However, when he was only twenty-three, the diary of Joseph Farington, RA, recorded Turner’s painting was “too much to the brown.”3 When Turner was thirty-one, Sir George Beaumont also criticized his pictures for their jaundiced tone. His choice of colors, therefore, was evident long before senile cataracts were likely. An alternative view is that his choice of red could have resulted from aesthetic factors aimed to create a sense of drama.4

Another ophthalmologist, Marmor, prudently commented that it is hazardous to diagnose eye disease from an artist’s work, because artists have license to create as they wish.5 He said that Turner consciously described yellow as light and blue as darkness. His paintings were bathed in yellow light throughout his career.3 Marmor found no evidence that his vision was failing and thought it extremely unlikely that he had cataracts. Perhaps because Turner believed light was a sign of God’s spirit, in his later paintings he left out fine detail, concentrating on the brilliant play of light on water, storms, skies, and fires. Many authorities interpret his vibrant style as a striving for expression of spirituality6 rather than caused by alleged color-blindness or cataracts. His late paintings are often said to be forerunners of the French impressionists.

His spectacles do not assist this unresolved diagnostic dilemma. Obtained by contemporary art dealer Phillip Mould, they show slight astigmatism. Two other pairs of spectacles, +3 and +4 (presumably for close work), were presented in 1861 by John Ruskin to the Ashmolean Museum.

Deteriorating health

In the winter of 1849, Turner became ill. Often gloomy, he dreaded his physical deterioration, calling “Mr. Time” his “Enemy.” In the winter of 1850, he found it increasingly difficult to walk. He complained of “Gout or nervousness…having fallen into my Pedestals.”7 His creativity never diminished, though critics mistakenly attributed his abstract style to senility.

He survived a severe attack of cholera, but by October 1851 he was bed-bound, attended by a surgeon, Mr. Bartlett, and Dr. David Price from Margate. Dr. Price diagnosed a heart very extensively diseased. Informed that his life was “fast ebbing,”7 he turned to his doctor, “looking hard at him with his little lustrous eye” and said: “Had you not better take a glass of sherry?” He was understandably anxious, but ever eager to see the sun from his bedroom window. He died on 19 December in the house of his mistress, Sophia Caroline Booth, in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. The locum Dr. William Bartlett described, just before 9 o’clock: “The sun burst forth and shone directly on him with that brilliancy which he loved to gaze on.” His last words allegedly were: “The sun is God.” His body was taken to his former house at Queen Anne Street before the funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral where his remains were interred in the crypt, close to Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) and Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), according to his wish “to be buried among my Brothers in Art.”

Life and art

Turner was a visionary, often known as “the painter of light.” Dr. Thomas Monro, the principal physician of Bedlam, established an academy for watercolor artists at Adelphi8 and influenced his work.6,9 The renowned art critic John Ruskin, a frequent visitor to the Queen Anne Street gallery, described Turner as the artist who could most “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature,” but he harshly vilified Turner’s later works.

In 1799, at the youngest permitted age of twenty-four, he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1802 became a full academician. In 1798 he entered into an affair, which was to last about ten years, with a widow Sarah Danby portrayed in the excellent film Mr. Turner. She probably bore him two children. He was also devoted to her niece Hannah. 

In 1800, his mother was committed to Bethlem Asylum for the Insane under Dr. Monro; ill-treated, she died there in 1804. His father then lived with him and served as his studio assistant at 64 Harley Street, where he opened his private gallery. When his father died in 1829, he became subject to bouts of depression and self-neglect: his clothes, house, and gallery on Queen Anne Street were dilapidated. He was described as short and corpulent, and in later life he dressed badly and spoke with a strong cockney accent.9 He was given to few words and wrote no autobiography or memoirs, but a detailed biography,6 chronology, and account of his major works of art can be found in the Tate Gallery publications.10

Turner appears as a kindly, eccentric man, prone to depression.11 An underlying theme in his art appears as both a glorification of and a struggle against the inexorable forces of nature portrayed in his storms, skies, turbulent seas, fires, shipwrecks, and natural disasters. Depressive tones are obvious in one of his poems, “The Fallacies of Hope:

… Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?

After many homes, he finally lived in Cheyne Walk, cared for by his housekeeper and mistress, Mrs. Booth. In 1845, he was elected Acting President of the Royal Academy, but retired a year later owing to ill health. His eccentricity increased with aging; he often dressed in disguise and used a pseudonym.

Many of his works secured good prices. One of his works sold for 150 guineas, roughly equivalent to £20,000 today. He used his wealth to support those he called “decayed artists.” In his will he left much of his fortune of £140,000 to found a charity for artists, and he bequeathed his finished paintings to the National Gallery with the proviso that they should be kept together, gratis, for the nation. Most of the Turner bequest, comprising 100 finished pictures, 182 unfinished pictures, and 19,049 drawings and sketches, was placed in the Duveen Turner Wing at the Tate Gallery, and in 1987 in its new Charles Clore Gallery. A few paintings remain in the National Gallery in contravention of his wishes. The Turner Society devoted to his art was founded in 1975.


  1. Liebreich R. Turner and Mulready. On the effect of certain faults of vision on painting, with especial reference to their works. Proc Royal Inst Great Britain 1872;6:450-63.
  2. Trevor-Roper PD. The World through Blunted Sight. London: Thames and Hudson, 1970.
  3. Gage J. Colour in Turner: poetry and truth. London: Studio Vista, 1969.
  4. Woodruff AW. JMW Turner and some of his predecessors and successors, from the viewpoint of medical history. J. Roy Soc Med 1980;73:381-92.
  5. Marmor MF. Vision, eye disease, and art: 2015 Keeler Lecture. Eye (Lond). 2016;30(2):287-303.
  6. Turner Biography in Details. Turner: The Complete Works. http://www.william-turner.org/biography.html
  7. Ault, Alexandra, “So I am to Become a Nonentity?” – The Death of J.M.W. Turner. British Library, 19 December 2015. https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2015/12/so-i-am-to-become-a-nonentity-the-death-of-jmw-turner-.html
  8. Hoffbrand B. Dr. Monro, Mr. Turner, and his mother. Hektoen Int. Spring 2016.
  9. Herrmann, L. Turner, Joseph Mallord William (1775–1851), landscape and history painter. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 28 Sept 2006. Retrieved 10 Jan. 2024
  10. “Resources” in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner
  11. Andrew Wilton. Turner in his Time. London: Thames & Hudson, 1987.

JMS PEARCE is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of medicine and science.

Winter 2024



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