Lifelike depiction of landscape grand master
Biography: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of JMW Turner, Franny Moyle, Viking, hdbk, 444 pages, €31.50
A new biography of the British painter JMW Turner doesn't shy away from his imperfections.
Biographies often gloss over their subjects, turning complicated figures into easily digested characters whose rough edges and sleazy episodes have been rounded and sweetened. Not so this new biography from Franny Moyle, the former BBC Commissioner for Arts and Culture. She offers an earthy, warts-and-all depiction of the Romantic master JMW Turner (1775-1851) that is shaped by the dogged realism of a low-born man who had an exceptional artistic vision.
For those who know little about Turner's life, it might be a shock to accept that the creator of those paintings of genius was an imperfect man with an intermittently rude manner, a tendency to grunt and a contradictory attitude towards women. It is hard, on one level, to believe his sublime canvases (including the 31 watercolours that our own National Gallery puts on show every January) come with a character attached at all. But Moyles tells the human story well in a book of rigorous scholarship and beauty.
Celebrated in his own time as "the only perfect landscape painter whom the world has ever seen", Turner was such an important figure in British art that it might seem nothing more can be said about him. He was the son of a London barber and a mother who was psychologically unstable (committed, ultimately, to St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics in 1799). He was an only child after his younger sister died at the age of four, but also something of a child prodigy. Turner attended the Royal Academy Schools, hitched a ride on the era's lucrative landscape-painting trend, then settled comfortably into a public image of a genius.
Turner worked entirely within the system. He was admitted to the Royal Academy in London in 1789, at the age of 14, and he taught and exhibited there until his death in 1851. Yet if his résumé is not exactly iconoclastic, his working methods and private life definitely were.
"To the Victorians, Turner was an artist who was reclusive, squalid, seedy and eccentric. He was the gruff, unfriendly genius who had lost his mind and lost his way."
Moyles sets out to rescue the man from this myth, presenting Turner instead as a brilliant social strategist who enjoyed living his life publicly, at least until the final few years of his life. "In terms of his work, he can be redrawn less as the misunderstood genius, and more as an arch manipulator and central player in the great game of art that evolved across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries," she writes, "A man praised to the hilt by a great many of his contemporaries."
Moyles looks at Turner's career through the focus of his work in watercolour, a medium in which he achieved a spontaneity he never quite matched in oil. Perfect for conveying subtle atmospheric changes, Turner watercolours set new levels of sophistication. Not one to idly watch the paint dry, early on he set up production lines, working in one tone across multiple sheets before introducing another. This helps to explain his hefty output, demanded by aristocratic patrons who would order paintings just on the basis of thumbing through sketchbooks from Turner's travels.
By the mid-1810s, Turner was creating his radiant skies and diaphanous colours with a whole bag of tricks: dumping entire drawings into buckets of water, dropping down wet colours that would diffuse on the page, using anything from stale breadcrumbs to scalpels to fingers to manipulate paint into ethereal approximations of nature. Turner's private life is largely unknown except for those details that resonate in his work.
He travelled abroad in the summers to sketch, holed up in the winter to realise them on large canvases. He liked spending time with his father, fishing, and, later in life, visiting his mistress Sophia Caroline Booth, who lived in Margate, which was itself suspiciously attractive to him as a painting destination. Moyle's research has uncovered unpublished letters by John Ruskin Senior that reveal how Turner's death, at his mistress's home in Chelsea, was so scandalous that his body was moved in secret.
Throughout the book Turner is travelling, always in search of new scenes to paint, new mixtures of light and air and water. His sketchbooks are water-stained from a choppy afternoon on the Med, or sprinkled with ash from Vesuvius. At the age of 69, on yet another solitary European tour, he was still cruising on the Rhine with his watercolours. A biographer can only struggle to keep up.
Later on in life, the gallery that he built just off Harley Street to display his paintings became a place of retreat and secrecy. Here, Turner had a house and studio, where he was attended only by a housekeeper, the niece of another mysterious lower-class mistress, by whom he had a (perhaps neglected) daughter. The few who were allowed visit remembered musty decay and gloom: glowing landscapes peeling and smothered in dust; gaps in windows blocked by one or other of his luminous watercolours and a troop of cats.
This is well written and meticulously researched, but as I read of every restaurant he lunched in and every argument he had, there were times when I found myself wondering, a bit guiltily, how much of this great blizzard of information really meant anything.
I think it could have been a better book if it was half as long. If Moyles discarded some of the trivia, the essence of her subject would be appear with greater clarity. Peter Ackroyd has written a life of Turner, which is less than 150 pages, that gets closer to the heart of Turner than a book more than twice as long. We might be over-saturated with Turner with more than 30,000 of his works around, but we shouldn't ever forget that the sublime cannot exist without some mystery, too.
Still, all we once had left of Turner were his paintings, now we have another vibrant biography to commemorate his art, and where it took us.