British artist Charles Turner was one of the greatest engravers of the early 19th century. Over the course of his career, he would translate the works of many fine artists and the visages of many a notable personality into gloriously rendered prints. He remains a stalwart of a craft seen far too often, and unfairly, as a lesser skill than painting.
The young Turner grew up in the glorious surroundings of Blenheim Palace. His mother had worked for the Duchess of Marlborough, whose residence Blenheim was, until she had married Turner’s father. However, upon the elder Turner’s death she re-entered the Duchess’ service and was given residence on palace grounds. This allowed Turner the ability to explore the great pieces of art which furnished Blenheim’s fine walls and cultivate a curiosity and passion for art.
In about 1789, Turner would move to London to pursue his passion. He worked, initially, in the workshop of eminent engraver John Boydell (1720-1804). Boydell has been credited with cultivating a British engraving scene and was a crucial figure in the development of the medium in the 18th century.
Engraving is a print-making process, used at this time primarily to disseminate images widely. The works of great artists or the images of prominent public figures were translated by engravers, through numerous methods and processes, onto a metal sheet which would then be covered in ink and printed upon paper.
Engraving was a painstaking process, with hours often consumed only by the preparation of the plate. It was seen as a lesser form of art to painting at this time, although was incredibly crucial to artists if they wanted their works to be seen more widely. An engraver was a translator, not just a copier, and had to get a feel for the artist's hand as well as the physical process of their craft.
Whilst obtaining lessons under Boydell, Turner would also enrol in the classes of the Royal Academy to further his education. Here he would meet two artists with whom he would become very close and whose work would become pivotal to his career: J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) and John James Masquerier (1778-1855). He would also befriend fellow engravers such as George Dawe (1781-1829), someone whom Turner’s biographer Alfred Whitman thinks pivotal in firing his passion for engraving.
Indeed, Turner is said to have been an amiable man who kept contact with fellow engravers and artists. Such friendliness clears up a historical discrepancy over Turner’s training. Often it has been said that he trained with the engraver George Jones (1786-1869). However, Jones was younger than Turner, and in no position to act as teacher. Instead, the two men were good friends, and it is likely Turner received training from Jones’ father, John Jones (1755-1797), an accomplished engraver himself.
Connections were a crucial part of Turner’s career, aiding him immensely in receiving commissions from artists and publishing houses. Indeed, Turner first began to make a name for himself through his friendships with Masquerier and J. M. W. Turner. His translation of Masquerier’s portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte was received favourably (although there is an indication that the two men had been duplicitous, and that Turner painted as much of the painting as Masquerier did).
It was his engravings of J.M.W. Turner’s works, however, which brought Turner the most acclaim. He was the first engraver to tackle this giant of British painting’s work, publishing in 1806 an engraving of ‘A Shipwreck.’ His painstaking work to capture each whipping wave that tosses the struggling boat asunder is extraordinary. How he makes a delineation between the frothing crests of those waves and the undulating leviathan mass of the sea is incredibly skilled. With this image, Turner used mezzotint engraving, a process involving scoring lines onto a metal plate and then using a small tool to mark the image through these lines.
This was his predominant method of choice throughout his life and works well to bring a rich velvet texture to the print. Following the success of ‘A Shipwreck,’ the two Turners would collaborate on the painters’ project ‘Liber Studiorum.’ Here, J.M.W. Turner intended to set forth his ideas concerning landscape painting, to which he would become such an innovator. To disseminate these ideas widely, Turner would have to utilise his engravings skills with intense technicality and refinement, in order to convey the images as Turner intended. In the examples that remain Turner’s velvety touch infuses the prints with atmosphere, conveying the artist’s romantic predilections. He marks the metal sheet with varying intensity, creating delineations between the foreground and the background and setting out the composition admirably.
Unfortunately, the task remained uncompleted when the two Turners fell out over a dispute involving pay. The two would apparently not speak for the following 19 years, although Turner did continue to make engravings after the painter’s work, and by the time J.M.W. Turner died in 1851, Turner was an executor of his will.
This conflict was not detrimental to Turner’s career. By this point he was the most sought-after engraver in Britain, with numerous prestigious painters on his doorstep, eager for his translation skills. With his workshop of apprentices and his ambidextrous ability, Turner was able to churn out an average of 45 prints per year. Considering the painstaking process engraving involves, this is an incredible amount.
Turner was also keen on producing portraits. Of the many notable figures depicted by him, the list includes bishops, composers, hymn writers, and the newly crowned Queen Victoria. Indeed, Turner would produce the image of the queen used on coinage upon her ascension to the throne. In these images, Turner uses his cunning craft to capture the character of his subjects with buoyancy and liveliness. There is exquisite detail in hair which curls and crimps around faces, in clothing which folds and flatters. Turner’s ability to capture shadow and shade, which in turn defines the features of a face, is extraordinary.
All these successes brought Turner great acclaim in the eyes of the grand art institutions. He was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy in 1828, quite an accomplishment for an engraver, whose craft was so often seen, in the Academy’s eyes, as of less merit than painting. He would also be appointed ‘Mezzotinto Engraver in Ordinary’ to King George III, earning him near-universal acclaim in the eyes of the British upper classes.
Upon his death in 1857, George Turner left behind a legacy which would exalt the craft of engraving for generations to come. His work was crucial to artists of the early 19th century and his hand was much sought after. His biographer, Alfred Whitman, cites Turner’s ability to ‘change and vary’ his hand with each varying piece as the key to his success. Indeed, if an engraver is a translator, then Turner was fluent in many artistic languages. His works are not simply copies, but fascinating insights into the 19th-century art world.
Born in Old Woodstock, Oxfordshire.
Moved to London.
Began studying at the Royal Academy.
Began work on J.M.W. Turner’s ‘Liber Studiorum.’
Exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy.
Appointed ‘Mezzotinto Engraver in Ordinary’ to his Majesty to King George III.
Elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.
Died in London, Britain. Buried in Highgate Cemetery.