colours and sketches, tracing from boyhood to death.
Today, the Turner rooms at Tate Britain are always busy: even on a weekday many people mill about, and not all of them are students and tourists. In a 2005 BBC poll, people voted The Fighting Temeraire Britain’s greatest painting. But it wasn’t always so.
As Turner experimented with technique and his work became more abstract, his popularity faded even though his prestige remained. ‘‘ So, I am to become a nonentity, am I?’’ he asked bitterly on his deathbed. He had been eclipsed by the hard-edged neoclassicism evolved by his contemporaries, the French history painters such as Jacques-Louis David and JeanAuguste-Dominique Ingres. By the end of the 19th century, with the similarly hard-edged pre-Raphaelites all the rage in Britain and the impressionists not yet fully understood, Turner’s bequest of more than 300 works of art to the nation languished in basement of the National Gallery, unappreciated.
When some of them were transferred to the Tate and put on show in 1906, it was a revelation. ‘‘ By that stage, people had understood Monet,’’ says Ian Warrell, who curated the Adelaide show, standing before one of Turner’s masterpieces at the Tate. ‘‘ It took British art collectors a long time to assimilate the impressionists. When they saw this thing, they thought, ‘ Oh, Turner got there first!’’
It was not until the American abstract expressionists returned large-scale gesture and emotion to the visual arts repertoire, some say, and drew the art world’s gaze away from continental Europe, that Turner’s fortunes