JMW Turner and sex: exhibition offers insight into private life of artist

JMW Turner is revered as a genius landscape painter, the king of the turbulent maritime scene, but much less is known about the more private side of the artist. Specifically: Turner and sex.

The curators of a new exhibition, Between the Sheets, Turner’s Nudes, hope to change that by displaying rarely seen erotic watercolour drawings that he made over the course of his career.

The works will go on display in his former home in Twickenham and shine a different light on the artist.

“I think he was very interested in sex, and why shouldn’t he be?” said Franny Moyle, Turner’s biographer and a co-curator of the project. “He was a human being like the rest of us.”

Some of the drawings are from life classes; others are more erotic, intimate bedroom scenes. “Parental or guardian discretion is advised,” the organisers of the display are telling visitors.

A number of the drawings were made during Turner’s frequent visits to Petworth House in West Sussex in the 1820s and 1830s. Petworth was the home of Lord Egremont, an enthusiastic art collector and patron to Turner. Egremont is thought to have fathered at least 40 illegitimate children.

Jacqueline Riding, another co-curator of the show, said Petworth seemed to have had “quite a free and easy environment. There was certainly no discouragement to a relaxed atmosphere.”

It was important to remember also, said Riding, that Turner, who lived from 1775 to 1851, was essentially a Georgian artist. “I know he is often seen as Victorian because he lived into the Victorian age, but he was a Georgian with Georgian appetites.”

Riding was an adviser on Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner, which brought home to her how little was known about the artist’s private life. “We almost know minute by minute what Turner was doing in terms of sketching and travelling and exhibiting,” she said. “The one thing we really couldn’t find a lot of information about was his private life, and even more so his relationship with women.”

The drawings going on display offer tantalising glimpses of that private life. The subjects are thought to include his lover Sophia Booth, who ran a guesthouse on Margate seafront and secretly lived with Turner in Chelsea.

The later sketchbook drawings include sex scenes populated by otherworldly figures. “They become looser, more experimental, sometimes much more explicit,” said Moyle. “Is that Turner exploring a form of art he thought he could never publish, or perhaps only publish between friends? Is this his own private collection, in the way we might take intimate photographs or write a diary?”

The drawings are from the Turner Bequest, the vast treasure trove looked after by Tate that includes about 30,000 sketches and watercolours. Only 100 of those are listed as intimate or erotic.

The works – which were made for Turner’s eyes only and never meant for public consumption – will be displayed in a bedroom at Sandycombe Lodge, the house in which Turner designed and lived.

Curators hope the display offers something new about Turner. Riding said: “I don’t think Turner is known for his paintings of women; you always think of him as the painter of landscapes and seascapes, the broader view. Both of us hope that the display will make people think again about Turner.”

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