A man born for all time, more appealing for his very ordinariness

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The Independent Online

To put J M W Turner, England's greatest artist, on the web is an important act of democratisation on the part of the Tate.

To put J M W Turner, England's greatest artist, on the web is an important act of democratisation on the part of the Tate.

At last the breadth and the depth of the extraordinarily wide-ranging works in the Turner Bequest, held in the somewhat intimidating upper rooms of the Clore Gallery annex, will be available to every child who chooses to go to the website.

Why is Turner so important? Because he was the great revolutionary among English artists. As Ben Jonson famously said of Shakespeare, he was a man born not for his age alone but for all time.

At the beginning of the 19th century, while still a fairly young man, he and Thomas Girtin transformed the art of watercolour painting from a genteel profession fit for gentlemen alone – and Turner himself, being the son of a London barber was, refreshingly, no gentleman at all – into a serious art form in which he continued to innovate for the rest of his life. Indeed, some of his last watercolours, depicting the loosely expressive wave formations he could see from his lodging house in Margate in the mid-1840s, were among his greatest works.

At this period he was also innovating by adding dabs of gouache to his watercolour surfaces in order to highlight particular effects of light. The technical innovations of this period, and the quality of indefiniteness of some of these later works, make him a forerunner of much later experimentation by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. As well as painting watercolours, he was an expert at architectural drawing; he turned book illustration into an art form; he helped to revive the rather stiff and moribund art of historical and narrative painting.

But it is his character quite as much as the prodigality of his talents that make him such an inspiration to us all, whether artists or not. He was quite unfazed by the changes that were happening to modern communications during his lifetime. His paintings abound in bold, fierce representations of steamships and railways. He saw beauty in thick gouts of steam. Everything was grist to the extraordinary mill of his talents. He was also a canny, pushy operator, a man who understood his own worth, and who could stand up for himself against the aristocracy of his own day when the need arose. All these qualities make him a good role-model for children of all ages.

There is something admirable too about his sheer ordinariness – as if this fact alone could make clear to us that absolutely anyone with talent, drive, energy and determination, no matter how humble their origins, can rise to the top. Let us hope that the images of some of the personal effects that prove to us just what an appealingly ordinary man he was are also shown on the Web – that 10-part fishing rod, for example, or his travelling watercolour set. The only thing he couldn't do was draw people. And that too is refreshing. Like the rest of us, and in spite of his towering genius, he was also a mere man.

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