Seascapes and a Blue Ocean Strategy

The artist William Turner painted some of the greatest sea scapes ever, but it was a blue ocean strategy the gave him success.

May you live in interesting times

The celebrated English artist JMW Turner certainly lived in interesting times. He was in his early twenties when the French revolution took place, and later saw the rise and fall of the Napoleonic empire. In his lifetime he also witnessed immense technological changes from the industrial revolution and right through the steam age.

While on holidays recently, I read a wonderful biography of William Turner by Franny Moyles. This book considers not just Turner, but also the wider times in which he lived. Turner had an extraordinary awareness of his place in the world, and the impact of changes going on around him. And his strategy for developing his art reminded me of the ground-breaking ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ developed by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, in 2005.

In the late 18th century professional artists relied almost solely on patronage to fund their work. Their success depended largely on the whim of eccentric aristocrats. Turner and his peers were seen more as tradesmen than artists, and their work was often directed in great detail by whoever was paying for it.

Turner had an extraordinary awareness of his place in the world, and the impact of changes going on around him.

William Turner's Blue Ocean Strategy

Turner looked at political change and technological advances as opportunities rather than threats. Reduced Aristocratic power and influence, was replaced by the ‘nouveau riche’. Wealthy industrialists not burdened by traditional tastes and protocol.

Also, he was quick to see the opportunity that advances in printing and engraving offered in reaching a wider audience. He altered his style and partnered with engravers to mass produce his works which he then hand coloured.

Give the customer what they want

Nearly 200 years before Turner, the Italian artist Caravaggio was commissioned to paint St Matthew writing the Gospels for a church in Rome. His original painting (sadly destroyed during WWII) was a very human study of a humble man, awkwardly sitting and struggling to write. With an equally human Angel directing his hand.

This work was rejected by the church, for showing a lack of respect to the Saint. And so Caravaggio learned the hard way, that the customer is always right, and he had to paint a new canvas with more traditional features and composition.

Turner was no different in this regard, and had plenty of experience of intrusive direction from patrons, and knew that this was simply part of being an artist. However, he also realised that giving them what the wanted was the best way to establish relationships. And strong friendships and respect would help sell paintings, but also give him the standing to move art thinking in a new direction.

Forging these personal connections required would need a  substantial effort. Turner by all accounts was a gruff, impatient and solitary figure. Yet despite this, he managed to charm some of the wealthiest and most powerful art collectors in England. This tells me that Mr Turner was a seller, he forced himself out of his comfort zone and into public life. Turner was no doubt ambitious and competitive, and he knew how to develop trust with the buyer, he was tuned to their tastes and willing to give them what they wanted.

Selling is not selling out

Gaining financial stability was just as important as artistic autonomy for Turner. His upbringing in the company of ‘starving artists’ showed him the precarious nature of this profession. He witnessed very successful painters selling off their works and dying penniless, he knew that making a living was going to be more important than making a name, at least to begin with.

Turner’s visits to the fine homes of London gave him an opportunity to assess the tastes of potential clients. His keen observations of their existing collections gave him insights into the subject matter and styles they preferred. And in some cases, he deliberately painted a work to match or complement a favourite piece already hanging. He knew what his customers craved, and for each annual Royal Academy exhibition, he would submit something targeted to catch their eye.

Experimentation follows sales

Having gained monetary freedom, Turner could travel widely and afford the luxury of setting up his own studio and country home. He knew how to play the game of patronage and the essential shop window of becoming part of the Royal Academy.

He gave the buyer what they wanted and in turn, this gave him the freedom to paint what he liked. Over a long career William Turner changed the direction of art, eh introduced mood and atmosphere to his works, and documented the rapid change that the world was experiencing.

What we learn from Mr Turner is that while you must be good at what you do, you don’t always have to compete with the other guys. Look around for another market, a niche or opportunity to tweak you product and reveal yourself to a new audience. Two hundred years after Turner Henry Ford found his Blue Ocean, he took the exclusive idea of the motoring, and refined it to the Model T.  He didn’t reinvent the car, he just altered it to make it affordable for the masses.

  • Photo: Tramore Beach, Ardara, Co Donegal, Ireland.


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