Joseph Mallord William Turner was born on or around the 23 April 1775 in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, England. His father, William Turner, was a barber and wig maker, his mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. A younger sister, Mary Ann Turner, was born in September 1778 but died aged four in August 1783.
In 1785, as a result of a "fit of illness" in the family the young Turner was sent to stay with his maternal uncle, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford, which was then a small town west of London on the banks of the River Thames. From this period, the earliest known artistic exercise by Turner is found, a series of simple colourings of engraved plates from Henry Boswell's Picturesque View of the Antiquities of England and Wales. Around 1786, Turner was sent to Margate on the north-east Kent coast. Here Turner produced a series of early drawings of the town and surrounding area foreshadowing his later work. Turner would return to Margate many times in later life. By this time, Turner's drawings were already being exhibited in his father's shop window and sold for a few shillings each. His father boasted to the artist Thomas Stothard that: "My son, sir, is going to be a painter". In 1789 Turner again stayed with his uncle, who by this time had retired to Sunningwell in Oxford. A whole sketchbook of work from his time in Oxford survives, as well as an early watercolour of Oxford. The use of pencil sketches on location as a basis for later finished paintings would form the basis of Turner's essential working style for his whole career.
Many of the early sketches by Turner were studies of Architecture and/or exercises in perspective and it is known that the young Turner worked for several architects including Thomas Hardwick (junior), James Wyatt and Bonomi the Elder. By the end of 1789 he had also begun to study under the topographical draughtsman Thomas Malton, whom Turner would later call "My real master". He entered the Royal Academy of Art schools in 1789, when he was only 14 years old, and was accepted into the academy a year later. Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, chaired the panel that admitted him. At first Turner showed a keen interest in architecture but was advised to continue painting by the architect Thomas Hardwick (junior). His first watercolour A View of the Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth was accepted for the Summer Exhibition of 1790 when Turner was only 15.
As a probationer in the Academy, he was taught drawing (not painting) from plaster casts of antique sculptures and his name appears in the registry of the Academy over a hundred times from July 1790 to October 1793. In June 1792 he was admitted to the life class to learn to draw the human body from nude models. Turner continued to exhibit watercolours each year at the Academy – travelling in the summer and painting in the winter. He travelled widely throughout Britain, particularly to Wales, and produced a wide range of sketches for working up into studies and watercolours. These particularly focused on architectural work, which utilised his skills as a draughtsman. In 1793, he showed a watercolour with the title The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent's Rock Bristol (now lost) that foreshadowed his later climatic effects. Cunningham in his obituary of Turner wrote that it was: "recognised by the wiser few as a nobel attempt at lift in landscape art out of the tame insipidities...[and] evinced for the first time that mastery of effect for which he is now justly celebrated."
Turner exhibited his first oil painting at the Academy in 1796, Fishermen at Sea. A nocturnal moonlit scene, the image of boats in peril contrasts the cold light of the moon with the firelight glow of the fishermen's lantern. Wilton has said that the image: "Is a summary of all that had been said about the sea by the artists of the eighteenth century." and shows strong influence by artists such as Horace Vernet Philip James de Loutherbourg and Willem van de Velde the Younger. The image was praised by contemporary critics and would found Turner's reputation, both as an oil painter and as a painter of maritime scenes.