Turner: High Ambition for Deep Truth

J.M.W. Turner: The Fighting Temeraire, 1839
National Gallery, London
J.M.W. Turner: The Fighting Temeraire, 1839

Here are two books of great value on the painter whose likeness has been chosen, after a recent public consultation, to appear on the Bank of England’s £20 notes. Nominations for J.M.W. Turner as a national figurehead for the visual arts were no doubt boosted by the success of Mike Leigh’s 2014 film Mr. Turner. This biopic, focused on the twenty-five years before the artist’s death, aged seventy-six, in 1851, offered an affectingly physical impersonation from Timothy Spall of a driven obsessive, a would-be law unto himself—his eyes set on the horizon, his back half turned on human society.

But what equally gratified viewers were lush recreations of what those eyes sought out, such as the clever transfer from canvas to camera of The Fighting Temeraire’s evening skies, under which a shimmering sail ship that had seen action at Trafalgar is towed by a coal-black steam tug to a Thames-side breakers’ yard. The Great Britain that defeated Napoleon; the Great Britain that led the Industrial Revolution; presiding over both, the poetry of sunset and moonrise, and the pathos of time’s passing; all these remain stirring refrains, even without the furious brushwork that originally orchestrated them, and no wonder the image will reappear behind Turner’s self-portrait on the forthcoming banknote.

The Temeraire’s appearance at the Royal Academy in 1839 came almost fifty years after Turner first placed an exhibit on its walls. During that half-century he must have been as hardworking as any painter in London—the nation received over 19,000 of his drawings and paintings in the bequest he left it—and he also received as high acclaim as any: “the first artist in the world in the powerful and brilliant style peculiar to him,” as one of his many reviewers put it in 1819. Such a copious career would seem a gift to biographers, and there have been many. Now Franny Moyle has written a 508-page book for the general reader, while Eric Shanes publishes the first of two volumes of a far longer text that will be invaluable to more dedicated students. Both authors write lucidly and levelheadedly, and while their interpretations naturally differ, both as far as I can see are reliably informative. And yet each faces a common problem. That back is so firmly turned, those eyes so given over to the canvas and the view. Do painters typically have lives that are amenable to narration? Their raison d’être is hand-and-eye, rather than social interaction.

This is particularly so in the case of Turner. “He lived to paint. Nothing else mattered,” Shanes declares in the very first line of his text. Moyle agrees: “Art was the sole motivation in his life.” She notes that from his mid-teens onward, Turner passed most of the daylight hours of his long and highly profitable career…

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