JMW Turner’s Energy Transition

Human culture is and has always been inexorably connected to the ultimate source of light and warmth, the sun.

Maria Popova, 2016

Following up on my first post of 2021 – about an epic hand-embroidered tapestry that illustrates humanity’s 5,000-year relationship with fossil fuels – I want to broaden the focus of this ongoing Renewable Energy series (four years already!) by including occasional musings on the larger context in which we currently find ourselves: an energy transition.

There have been at least 12 energy transitions since the beginning of human civilization. To state the obvious: humanity has managed to survive and prosper through each of the previous energy transitions, and we will undoubtedly do so again as our energy mix shifts inexorably from fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) to renewable sources of energy (wind, water, solar, geothermal).

We are fortunate to be living witnesses to, and participants in, this historic shift to a post-carbon future. If history has taught us anything, it is this: what was once considered a dominant and irreplaceable energy source can suddenly find itself playing second fiddle to a disruptive new energy source or technology.

A section of the 220 foot long (67 meters) Black Gold Tapestry, by Sandra Sawatzky, described in my previous post.

A common feature of energy transitions throughout history, including the current one, is that multiple energy sources can and do co-exist for decades, sometimes even centuries – e.g., wood is still burned in all corners of the world for cooking and heating. But eventually, the disruptive energy source becomes mainstream and dominates all aspects of our lives and economies, ushering in a new era of cultural values and meanings uniquely associated with that energy source.

“New energy sources are very much like new art,” wrote Barry Lord in his extraordinary 2016 book, Art & Energy: How Culture Changes. Like avant-garde art, cutting-edge energy “introduces new values yet never invalidates the masterworks of the past.” He explains:

Because our sources of surplus energy are so basic to everything we are and do, the values and meanings associated with those that have been with us for a long time seem to be fundamental – the sense of collective identity or the values of domesticity and urbanism, for instance. Almost all of these old values stay with us, continuing to inspire and sustain meaningful works of art. But the new values and meanings that come with each energy transition in turn form a cutting edge, changing our perception of ourselves, of others and of what matters most in the world around us at that time.

When the energy source is new, cutting-edge artists work with a (mostly unuttered) awareness of it. As the source of energy becomes more dominant, all the rest of us come to share that awareness, whether we express it or not. It is the artists who help us see it (emphasis added).

Throughout 2021, I will return frequently to Lord’s book to muse about this reciprocal relationship between energy transitions and art. Let’s start by looking at a 19th century British artist whose avant-garde, pre-impressionist landscapes captured the global transition from wind (for tall sailing ships) to coal (for steam-powered ships and trains) at the height of the industrial revolution.

James Mallord William Turner, also known as JMW Turner, was practically alone among his Romantic contemporaries to treat industrial technology (including the energy transition) as a subject worthy of artistic consideration. According to the TATE Britain, Turner “lived and worked at the peak of the industrial revolution. Steam replaced sail; machine-power replaced manpower; political and social reforms transformed society. Many artists ignored these changes but Turner faced up to these.”

Turner, JMW Turner, transition, energy, Temeraire, shift, wind, coal, steam
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839. Oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm, Turner Bequest, 1856 NG524. Downloaded from the National Gallery.

Accepted into the Royal Academy of Art at age 15, Turner had a long and prolific artistic career that lasted more than 60 years. In the last two decades of his life – which overlapped with many profound technological, social and political changes – Turner’s work became increasingly abstract. (As an aside, I find it interesting to note that half a century later, in the context of the disastrous first word war, the Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky was quoted as saying : “The more frightening the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.” The same would be true today…)

Two of Turner’s most famous paintings were created in the context of this rapidly changing world in the middle of the 19th century. Both of these paintings explore Turner’s fascination with technology, notably the transition from wind to coal-powered steam for “modern” transport.

The Fighting Temeraire (above), completed in 1839, is one of Turner’s most famous paintings. At first glance, we imagine a calm marine landscape on the river Thames in London. But the genius of Turner is that behind this placid scene, a dramatic historical event is unfolding as a metaphor of the global shift from wind to coal, an energy transition that ultimately would transform the world. Here, the aging hulk of the once mighty Temeraire, a veteran 98-gun warship (pale, ghostly, weak: stripped of its sails) is being pulled by a small steam-powered tugboat (modern, strong, polluting) on her last voyage – at sunset no less – as the age of sail gives way to the age of steam.

Turner’s retelling of the historic Temeraire being tugged to its last berth to be broken up for scrap is absolutely magnificent in its subtlety. And yet, art historians to this day are still debating whether Turner embraced the industrial revolution as a progressive path towards a new world, or whether he was expressing melancholy for the inevitable loss of a perceived golden age. Or perhaps both.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844. Oil on canvas, 91 x 121.8 cm, Turner Bequest, 1856 NG538. Downloaded from the National Gallery.

Five years after the Temeraire, Turner produced his masterpiece Rain, Steam and Speed (1844). While both paintings explore the tension between the pre-industrial and the modern, Rain, Steam and Speed vibrates with energy and excitement compared to the more placid Temeraire. Seven years before his death, Turner created the impression of dazzling speed as a modern coal-powered steam train hurtles towards the viewer diagonally across a rainy landscape.

Rain, Steam and Speed is considered an allegory of man against nature: it is impossible to distinguish which steam is produced by the train (man) and which is produced by the rain (nature). Turner is purposely ambiguous; he never divulges his opinion about the breathtaking speed, noise and pollution of coal-powered steam trains. He leaves that up to the viewer. But his metaphoric treatment of the energy transition, subsumed by light and color, suggests that Turner, in his last two decades, must have seen the writing on the wall and embraced the implacable march towards a coal-powered future. This was prescient: nearly 200 years later, coal may no longer be “king” but it still generates almost 40% of the world’s electricity.

Barry Lord reminds us in Art & Energy: How Culture Changes that energy transitions are also engines of cultural change. For example, he explains how the age of coal created a culture of production; how the age of oil and gas created a culture of consumption; and how the age of renewables is presently creating a culture of stewardship. According to Lord, it is artists who help us “to see” and make sense of these overlapping and constantly evolving transitions, even though the historical pace of past energy transitions has been longer than the lives of the artists living through them.

So while Turner’s avant-garde abstract landscapes “were mockingly dismissed by his critics as ‘the fruits of a diseased eye and a reckless hand'” – and then later acclaimed to be masterpieces – the same volte-face awaits the frequently maligned renewable energy industry so despised by climate deniers. But history is on our side. Lord explains:

When an energy source is incipient, the cultural values that it engenders are seen as innovative and open to dispute, just like cutting-edge art. Once the new energy source becomes dominant, the values that it brought with it become mainstream. With the renewable energy culture of stewardship, that process is happening in our own time. This movement from marginal to mainstream is directly duplicated in the arts. Performance art, for example, based on stewardship of the body, has moved from a marginal activity to a mainstream art form.

Artists and creatives of all stripes and colors, it’s time to choose your creative weapon! Over the next nine years, I challenge us all to stay razor focused on this beautiful concept of the age of stewardship – to will it into existence! No more fire-and-brimstone. Our goal, at the end of the second decade of the third millennium, is to look back and “see” how we have changed history by relentlessly drawing attention to the many positive, regenerative, and socially just cultural values associated with the current energy transition. Like JMW Turner.


Two major Turner gallery exhibitions planned for 2020 were postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Tate Britain, Turner’s Modern World is on exhibition until March 7, 2021. On the other side of the big pond, Turner and the Sublime is on exhibition at the Musée national des beaux arts au Québec (MNBAQ) in Quebec City, Canada until May 2, 2021. Tickets are required for both exhibitions. À qui la chance!

For a fascinating gallery talk about Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, check out the UK’s National Gallery video.

For a preview to Mike Leigh’s award-winning 2014 biographical drama based on the last 25 years of JMW Turner’s life, see this link.

(Top image: Close-up of JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, downloaded from the National Gallery, licensed for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons agreement.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her grief about climate breakdown. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

10 thoughts on “JMW Turner’s Energy Transition

  1. Iam myself a creatively romantic painting, i have been called Turner of the 21st century, Even in Turner time there was climate change, this time the little ice ages was coming to a end, its was natural, not man make like know.A another reason why Turner sunset and sunrise were so Vivit because of Volcanic eruptions. !which though dust in into the High atmosphere,or Stratosphear. Kind regards Mark painter of light

  2. Thank you Joan Sullivan for this excellent piece. You have my mind and heart buzzing with these connections of emerging art and emerging energy technologies. I am very keen on reading Barry Lord’s book. I also will reach out to you about the possibility of creating an audio version of this essay for The Art House podcasts here on Artists and Climate Change.

    • Thank you Peterson! Strongly recommend Barry Lord’s book: it has changed the way I think about and write about the historic transition that we are all living through. I’m more comfortable with a pen than a microphone, but I’ll give it a try. Talk soon.

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