Turner was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, England. His father, William Gay Turner (27 January 1738 - 7 August 1829), was a barber and wig maker. His mother, Mary Marshall, became increasingly mentally unstable, perhaps, in part, due to the early death of Turner's younger sister, Helen Turner, in 1786. She died in 1804, after having been committed to a mental asylum in 1799.
Possibly due to the load placed on the family by these problems, the young Turner was sent to stay with his uncle on his mother's side in Brentford in 1785, which was then a small town west of London on the banks of the River Thames. It was here that he first expressed an interest in painting. A year later he went to school in Margate on the north-east Kent coast. By this time he had created many drawings, which his father exhibited in his shop window.
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 at the time, chaired the panel that admitted him. At first Turner showed a keen interest in architecture but was advised to keep to painting by the architect Thomas Hardwick (junior). A watercolour of Turner's was accepted for the Summer Exhibition of 1790 after only one year's study. He exhibited his first oil painting in 1796, Fishermen at Sea, and thereafter exhibited at the academy nearly every year for the rest of his life.
Although renowned for his oils, Turner is also one of the greatest masters of British watercolour landscape painting. He is commonly known as "the painter of light". One of his most famous oil paintings is The fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, painted in 1838, which hangs in the National Gallery, London. Turner travelled widely in Europe, starting with France and Switzerland in 1802 and studying in the Louvre in Paris in the same year. He also made many visits to Venice. On a visit to Lyme Regis, in Dorset, England, he painted a stormy scene (now in the Cincinnati Art Museum).
Important support for his works also came from Walter Ramsden Fawkes, of Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire, who became a close friend of the artist. Turner first visited Otley in 1797, aged 22, when commissioned to paint watercolours of the area. He was so attracted to Otley and the surrounding area that he returned time and time again. The stormy backdrop of Hannibal Crossing The Alps is reputed to have been inspired by a storm over Otley's Chevin while Turner was staying at Farnley Hall.
Turner was also a frequent guest of George O'Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont at Petworth House in West Sussex and painted scenes from the grounds of the house and of the Sussex countryside, including a view of the Chichester Canal that Egremont funded. Petworth House still displays a number of paintings.
As he grew older, Turner became more eccentric. He had few close friends except for his father, who lived with him for thirty years, eventually working as his studio assistant. His father's death in 1829 had a profound effect on him, and thereafter he was subject to bouts of depression. He never married, although he had two daughters by Sarah Danby, one born in 1801, the other in 1811.
He died in the house of his mistress Sophia Caroline Booth in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea on 19 December 1851. He is said to have uttered the last words "The sun is God" before expiring. At his request he was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, where he lies next to Sir Joshua Reynolds. His last exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1850.
The architect Philip Thomas Hardwick (1792-1870) who was a friend of Turner's and also the son of the artist's tutor, Thomas Hardwick, was one in charge of his funeral arrangements and wrote to those who knew Turner to tell them at the time of his death that "I must inform you, we have lost him".
In 1974, the Turner Museum was founded in the USA by Douglass Montrose-Graem to house his collection of Turner prints. A prestigious annual art award, the Turner Prize, created in 1984, was named in Turner's honour, but has become increasingly controversial, having promoted art which has no apparent connection with Turner's. Twenty years later the more modest Winsor & Newton Turner Watercolour Award was founded. A major exhibition, "Turner's Britain", with material, (including The fighting Temeraire on loan from around the globe, was held at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery from 7 November 2003 to 8 February 2004. In 2005, Turner's The fighting Temeraire was voted Britain's "greatest painting" in a public poll organised by the BBC.
In October 2005 Professor Harold Livermore, its owner for 60 years, gave Sandycombe Lodge, the villa at Twickenham which Turner designed and built for himself, to the Sandycombe Lodge Trust to be preserved as a monument to the artist. In 2006 he additionally gave some land to the Trust which had been part of Turner's domaine. The organisation The Friends of Turner's House was formed in 2004 to support it.
In April 2006, Christie's New York auctioned Giudecca, La Donna Della Salute and San Giorgio, a view of Venice exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841, for US$35.8 million, setting a new record for a Turner. The New York Times stated that according to two sources who had requested anonymity the buyer was casino magnate Stephen Wynn.
In 2006, Turner's Glaucus and Scylla (1840) was returned by Kimbell Art Museum to the heirs of John and Anna Jaffe after a Holocaust Claim was made. The painting was repurchased by the Kimbell for $5.7 million at a sale by Christie's in April of 2007.