IF there is one artist the British consider their greatest, it is surely J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), who brought to landscape painting extraordinary dynamics of atmosphere, color, space, and light. He envisioned the world around him with a kind of moody, poetic, weather-filled sublimity. The elements were his element. Yet Turner had enormous respect for the old masters and was a Royal Academician to his fingertips. In our century, Turner's reputation continues to grow. But in spite of the admiration of his own countrymen, it is only now that a permanent gallery unites the nearly 300 oil paintings and 19,000 watercolors, drawings, and sketches comprising the national collection of Turner's work. The new museum, designed by internationally known British architect James Stirling, opened its doors to the public yesterday, after a Royal Opening April 1.
The Turner wing - officially ``The Clore Gallery for the Turner Collection'' - could hardly be closer to the River Thames. Attached to the Tate Gallery on Millbank, it is aptly sited, for the Thames often engaged Turner's brush. Indeed, water in all its natural forms and moods - rivers, lakes, canals, and, above all, the ocean - was virtually his aesthetic habitat.
The new gallery must at last lay to rest complaints by biographers and critics that Britain has ``scandalously disregarded'' the ``instructions of Turner's will'' that his works left to the nation should be exhibited together under one roof.
Britain has, in fact, housed all and displayed many of these works. The National Gallery permanently exhibits nine of his most outstanding oils (seven of them will be lent to the Turner Gallery for six months). The Tate Gallery itself, which houses the national collection of British art, has shown substantial numbers of the oils since 1910. After a Thames flood in 1928 threatened the works on paper, however, they were removed from the Tate to the British Museum.
The new gallery means that all the oil paintings will be permanently hung, and that all the works on paper will be readily available under the same roof.
Mr. Stirling has come up with a colorful L-shaped building. Obeying the details of his brief, he has provided visitors with a glimpse of the Thames. This occurs in a room hung with a dazzling chronology of Turner's paintings of Venice. It is a little balcony-cum-gazebo with window seats and a view across the pleasant garden, through trees, over the main road to the river. It is a nice touch in a building that is Stirling's first significant work in London.
Outside, with a witty progression of materials and colors, the architecture echoes the adjacent buildings - the stonework of the Tate (built in 1897) and the brickwork of the house that was the commandant's lodge for the military hospital that once stood on the site of the new gallery.
Stirling's building is modest in size and is deferential to the Tate. But its exterior still manages to draw attention to itself: It has cheek. Green and blue paint on windows and the main entrance vie with rust-red timberwork in the garden; the facade is checkerboarded with rectangles of ochre-painted stucco, red-orange brickwork, and sand-colored stone.
Inside, its mix of discretion and indiscretion continues. The architect has a last fling before you go upstairs to enter the galleries proper. Colors again catch the eye - an archway surrounded by ultramarine and turquoise, a bright pink handrail, apricot walls in the lecture theater.
Once in the galleries - there are nine on this main floor - you can more or less forget Stirling: He allows Turner to speak for himself.
And Turner is really very different from this rather lighthearted building made to house him. Art historian William Gaunt placed him ``in the heart of the Romantic movement, with all its impulsion towards wild nature, infinities of space, and moments of tremendous violence.''
Andrew Wilton, curator of the gallery, has arranged its hanging to show the artist's many sides - his lifelong progression ``from the dark sublime to the light sublime.'' Mr. Wilton indicates two contrasting works to illustrate: The first, which dates from 1818 (one of several restored and cleaned pictures hardly known before), depicts the battlefield after Waterloo, with women hunting for their men among the carnage. ``Very powerful and novelistic,'' comments Wilton, ``anti-heroic, full of personal emotion - a searing subject.'' The second, which dates from 1845, is the ``antithesis'' of the Waterloo painting. It shows something with which Turner ``very consciously identified'' - the ``Walhalla,'' erected near Regensburg by Ludwig I, King of Bavaria. It was an idealistic, heroic temple of the arts and sciences in a spectacular landscape.
The dark/light contrast between these two pictures, Wilton believes, ``sums up the history of Europe in Turner's lifetime.'' It also ``makes a point about the polarities he was interested in: of military oppression and war on one hand, and of art and peace on the other.''
The only main room not lit by filtered daylight is the watercolor gallery. But even this is not as dim as fashion dictates today. Also, some watercolors have found their way into the daylit galleries, for comparison with the oils. They are contained in ingeniously protective cases.
Oils not shown in the main galleries are (more crowdedly) hung in three reserve galleries. And the print room provides easy access to watercolors and drawings, a photo archive, and reference books. ``The single most important addition to the amenities of London,'' Wilton says.
Back in the main galleries, the curator sums up some of his feelings about Turner. He believes the artist has been much misunderstood. It is wrong, for example, to see his work as in any way ``abstract.'' And far from being solely a painter of isolated landscapes, he was ``passionate about swarming humanity as an organic part of nature.''
Why the consensus on Turner's greatness? ``The answer,'' replies Wilton, ``is in the pictures, isn't it...? His range, his subtlety, his technical mastery - all self-evident - and his consistently high quality.''
He points at the astonishing, wide, radiant oil of Petworth Park at sunset. ``Just look at that. ... Sheer beauty. ... It's ravishing!''