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 with a brush or pencil in hand, a commitment from which no public call to action could wrest him: “He was never going to fight for king and country and he was never going to march against slavery. He was too busy satisfying his own constant compulsion.” The tale both she and Shanes have to tell is of a consummate professional who combined huge powers of observation with steely self-management. While as a picture producer he could bend if necessary to the cultural wind, he kept an unusually consistent course, heading for reaches where no one had previously ventured.

The personal relationships of this hard bargainer were likewise subordinated to a single purpose, as far as possible. Turner certainly found it expedient to cultivate patrons and art-world colleagues, but family and sexual partners were brushed aside to the margins of his attention. Most who met him remembered a mumbler, a grunter, a torturer of syntax. Although he not only read poets and art theorists but attempted to join their number, the garbled results only serve to confirm that the verbal was not his element.

It follows that the danger both authors confront is monotony. Moyle brightly parries it by leaning away from her subtitle’s debatable promise of an “extraordinary life” toward its much more certain claim of “momentous times.” Having situated the wigmaker’s son born in 1775 within a Georgian London dominated by lordly patronage, she rolls along the backdrop until he is surrounded by the traders and industrialists of early Victorian Britain, newly presented to a mass public in his sixties by his self-appointed apostle, John Ruskin.

Moyle plays a little fast and loose with her scene-setting: irresistibly drawn to the banquet put on in 1800 by the profligate grandee William Beckford for the equally glamorous Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton, she can only add that “though there is no documentation to support the idea, it is nevertheless just possible that Turner was there too.” But her history flows attractively—rather like the source she mentions for one of Turner’s patrons’ fortunes, “a miracle cordial made from morphine and treacle that Victorian families bought, unsurprisingly, in their droves.”


Turner the traveler also brings out Moyle’s curiosity. For those hours of his waking life that were not spent drawing or painting were largely spent walking, riding, or borne by coach or boat, in search of vantage points that would add to his landscape repertory. Tracking his gradually lengthening forays from London—first to Margate down the Thames estuary; then to wherever in mainland Britain there was a promise of water or gothic stonework; eventually to France, the Alps, and Italy—she fleshes out the itineraries, alert to tensions that were at most implicit in the artist’s arresting compositions. Georgian England’s insecurities emerge: a sixteen-hour coach ride to Bristol costs the needy, pushy young petty bourgeois dearly because its price covers a guard armed with a blunderbuss to protect travelers against “the very real threat of highwaymen.”

Class conflict on another scale concerns Moyle when Turner first crosses the Channel at the age of twenty-seven. She gives a formidably vivid impression of the post-Revolutionary France that English gentleman visitors encountered once the Peace of Amiens was signed in 1802. Their nerves were ruffled, not only by guillotines in the public squares but by innkeepers who presumed to converse with them as equals. And beyond this her text keeps us aware of the Europe-wide wars in which this peace was a fourteen-month interlude, and which kept Turner from reaching Italy till his forties. These wars and the meteorological melodramas devised on his easel seem to complement one another, each shining a lurid stormlight on what Moyle dubs an “epic” era. Her book stirs with its suggestions of the interconnections.

Shanes does things differently. On page 133 of the 538 that his Young Mr. Turner devotes to the painter’s first forty years, he puzzles over the summer of 1796, a period poorly accounted for in the chronological sequence of production that the book considers. What was his man up to? Was this, Shanes wonders, when Turner first acquired the detailed knowledge of ship-handling that informs his nautical scenes? Yet no large ship would have taken him on board in 1796, “because Britain had been at war since 1793.”

This reminder slightly jolts. Fifty-eight pages have passed since war with France was last mentioned, in the course of an illuminating interpretation of an allegorical landscape painted at the time of its outbreak. But for Shanes this is proper: the international situation is off the page because for Turner it was off the stage. The spotlight of Turner’s attention fell chiefly on the watercolors and canvases that his tours of Britain’s coasts, mountainsides, and medieval ruins gave rise to and that Shanes’s huge and magnificently produced volume allows us to pore over in detail. If we wish to understand the artist’s mind, Shanes argues, its substance lies there, inside the art itself. Thus he tries to throw as sharp a light as possible on the circumstances surrounding the landscapes’ composition.

Separate figures lie in the penumbra. Shadowed and in the wings, Turner’s father, put out of work by a tax on wigs, ended up as his son’s employee and may well have had to open up “Turner’s Gallery,” a West End showcase for new canvases, on the day after the death of the painter’s mentally ill mother in 1804. But more nearly abutting the artist’s easel are the patrons and Royal Academicians whom Turner was cultivating. This British social world, as Shanes presents it, comes across as extraordinarily well resourced and self-sufficient: throughout the Napoleonic Wars, this class was able to relish “the joys of life on a virtually untouched island.” Grandees went on squandering while artists went on squabbling. We are told a great deal about these battles of the brush, though hardly with a sense that aesthetically vital issues were at stake.

In Turner’s chosen domain of landscape painting there was no rival to confront him with anything like his combination of technical and imaginative powers—what he and Constable had to say to one another when they met remains tantalizingly unrecorded—and while Shanes pays patient attention to Turner’s six lectures on perspective, he makes it clear why audiences soon deserted them. Turner was a convoluted theorist and no sort of rhetorician, and to keep pace with him in the unflagging manner of this text—month by month, disputatious committee meeting by sojourn with patron—can be hard work.

Yet this scarcely constitutes a relevant criticism of Shanes’s investigations, which vie with Turner’s own in their eye for detail. For instance, keen awareness of those points of seamanship that the painter had somehow acquired enables Shanes to demonstrate why Turner’s 1801 masterpiece Dutch Boats in a Gale ought to be read as a patriotic allegory, showing an enemy nation’s boats about to collide as a storm coming “from the direction of [Turner’s] native land” blows them onto a lee shore. An equally precise examination of his watercolor technique shows this determined self-improver superseding the use of “eighteen” tones by a predecessor to arrive at “no fewer than sixty-one” by the age of seventeen.


Shanes enjoys numbers. When the painter drafts an “unsystematic reckoning” of his assets and earnings in 1810, muddling his currency systems, his biographer elbows him away from the ledger: “of course, we can be bothered to sort out the guineas from the pounds.” The net worth Shanes arrives at—£12,012—he deems “not bad for the son of a humble wig-maker and barber.” The “not bad” shows the way in which Shanes enjoys words also, drafting trenchant, droll prose. Alert to academic discussions, he is often justly skeptical of them—he dismantles the hackneyed patter about “the sublime” that tends to dog discourse on Turner—and he never himself falls back into academese.

The objective is to lay before us as much of the oeuvre as can be encompassed, both visually and with respect to its social, aesthetic, and intellectual contexts. That ambition comes at a cost. While Moyle’s hardback, with its fifty illustrations, is good company for a journey, the only place for Shanes’s massive tome, with its 437, is a tabletop: it will be more referred to than raced through. Nonetheless, library users may come to love a monument of scholarship that is not only free from pretension but full of fresh iconographical insights and authorial character.

J.M.W. Turner: Slave Ship, 1840

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

J.M.W. Turner: Slave Ship, 1840

The question remains: What is there to love about the human being around whom both authors’ books revolve? While each finds a way to be occupationally partisan and recounts various small kindnesses that Turner was able to afford, both agree that in at least one instance, his money-chasing way of looking after number one is simply inexcusable. The painter who would eventually congratulate abolitionist consciences with his Slave Ship of 1840 invested money in a Jamaica slave farm in 1805, at a point when he would not have been innocent of the moral issues at stake.

It is Moyle who puts in more effort to lend Turner a rounded and sympathetic persona. With her coverage of the later years, when he kept two separate women, unbeknownst to one another, at separate addresses, she can at least present him as a man in need of affection. How much he in turn ever gave out is unclear, but she likes to think that what had detained him from his sketching in 1796 was an ill-fated love affair, while an 1802 travel watercolor featuring two muzzily drawn figures lying amid tumbled bed linen prompts her to imagine Turner spending a jolly night with two Swiss girls. The scene “conveys nothing but warmth and happiness.”

Shanes defends Turner to the hilt when it comes to the rights and wrongs of arid art-world quarrels, but he is having none of this. He reckons that the watercolor in question shows “a moralising artist” commenting on “the alienation, hopelessness and loneliness generated by prostitution,” whereas he dismisses the rumors of a 1796 romance as mere fantasy. Various sketchbook sheets of Turner’s depicting sex acts relate in Shanes’s view to the speculations of his patron the classicist Richard Payne Knight about pagan cults of Priapus: the artist himself, he judges, had “a fairly low sex drive.”

Reluctantly, I find this colder interpretation the more credible. What we know of Turner’s covert liaison with Sarah Danby, a widow who bore him two daughters, points chiefly to thrift and a concern with appearances: he seems to have had as little as possible to do with the children. Yet Shanes’s deeper defense might be that this was the lovelessness of a man who considered his own person unlovable. The Turner he presents regards himself as an ill-spoken “little fellow” hobbled by origins that are humble and shameful. To quote a remark that provides one of the book’s epigraphs, “No one would believe, upon seeing my likeness, that I painted those pictures.”

This dovetails with a further defense that Shanes puts forward, concerning the fumbling representation of human bodies that typifies those pictures. Turner made his figures “seem as imperfect as possible,” Shanes contends, in order to express “his awareness that most people in his day were uneducated, underfed and unwashed.” This empathetic impulse, yoking “the physically unrefined” to “the psychologically raw,” stemmed from the artist’s own petty bourgeois upbringing in a rough metropolitan quarter.

Here we get a kind of access to Turner’s distinctive pictorial world. It is one in which shakily structured “little fellows” are thrown, almost as afterthoughts, into vast expanses of space and time. The latter, by contrast, are rhythmically dynamized—on one level by impersonal forces such as light, weather, geology, and history, on another by a driven handiwork that seeks to mimic the actions of that cosmic nexus. Despite this personal boldness of facture and the hard-earned professional pride that went with it, Turner repeatedly returns to the thought that the individual can never be the master of his fate. The implication of Shanes’s argument is that this thought, played out across oceans and panoramas, is rooted in personal urban experience.

Turner’s approach to figures sets this painter of limitless ambition in a strange relation to the tradition he was intent to join. Fine art—painting as a vehicle for the imagination, painting as sister to poetry—was still, in the London of 1790, partly a matter of Continental travelers’ hearsay, partly an open program for the British future. That was the year the fifteen-year-old Turner listened to the final public lecture of Joshua Reynolds, the theme’s great English-language advocate, and took his teachings to heart. Reynolds exalted Italian history painting as “the great style”—an art par excellence of finely structured, self-determined figures—but the aspirant teenager was already committed to the seemingly alien technical language of topographical observation. What Turner developed as a result was an art in which “place” was fully as much a matter of time as of space. In his elegiac gothic ruins, in his North Sea nautical allegories, in his eventual confrontation with the age of steam, the “history” for which history painting had been a vessel was radically redefined, becoming in effect a meteorological force that transcended the personal.

Turner had already been for several years committed to this approach before a Claude Lorrain canvas on a patron’s walls made him realize he had a daunting predecessor to emulate in the field of historical landscape. No such challenge presented itself when Turner first visited the Paris Salon in 1802: the cold correctitude of the school of Jacques-Louis David underwhelmed him. (Shanes notes him commenting that in contrast to their French contemporaries, “We [British] may justly claim to be Painters.”) If British viewers choose a more or less fatalistic vision, which dethrones the human protagonist, as a touchstone of their national values, it surely affects their choice that this vision was formed in an era when the Channel seemed at its widest, and that the period during which Turner reached the heights of his fame in London—between 1805 and 1815—was one in which, as Moyle expresses it, “the Continent…had once again disappeared.”

The most eloquent assertion of Turner’s importance to the nation’s values came, however, from the twenty-four-year-old John Ruskin, when he published the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843. Volubly and vehemently, Ruskin argued the old man’s case by translating into words everything on which Turner’s eyes—and his eyes alone—had alighted, in their matchless acuity: the organization of a bursting wave; the weathering of a limestone crag; how cirrus clouds lingered high in the evening sky. If Turner was the preeminent “modern painter,” this was not because, late in life, he took on the fresh-arrived railways as a subject, but because he excelled all his European forerunners in a “truth to nature” that his British heirs should cherish.

How far should this loaded catchphrase link Turner to the spirit of scientific inquiry? The issue, as Ruskin was aware, is hard to get right. Turner—and this is why some of us are more drawn to Constable’s paintings—does not love nature phenomenon by phenomenon, object by object: he does not reach out to touch it in the present; distance and time’s passage are his elements. As Ruskin noted, bringing his arguments together, “he never aims at sensual impressions, but at the deep final truth”—a greater purpose that happens to deliver an abundance of local, empirical truths but that, in Ruskin’s view, has transcendental dimensions. Shanes confirms this interpretation by several times noting the fundamentally idealist cast of Turner’s mind.

J.M.W. Turner: Regulus, 1828/1837

Tate, London

J.M.W. Turner: Regulus, 1828/1837

Ruskin takes the quest for “the deep final truth” to legitimate such deviations from everyday truth as Turner makes, not only in a figure-language that collapses into mumbles and grunts, but in the supercharged poetry of his tempests and sunbursts and in the bold and emphatic paint handling that renders them. In the mid-twentieth century—when abstraction was still the acme of high art—it was the fashion to characterize Turner as a prophetically “modern painter,” a kind of proto-Pollock, on account of this gestural freedom. Nowadays savants have turned their attention toward the iconography that may arguably be found in even the wildest of these paint storms—which, for the most part, are works of Turner’s later years and thus beyond the scope of Shanes’s current volume. Moyle, who offers an eloquent account of the oeuvre (as of so much else), writes of Turner giving himself “permission, in the last decade of his life, to be himself.” A little earlier, she mentions the remarkable Regulus, a canvas started in 1828 in Rome (see illustration on page 10). Here, though, I wish she had taken account of a witness who saw him reworking the piece for a British exhibition nine years later:

The picture was a mass of red and yellow of all varieties. Every object was in this fiery state. He had a large palette, nothing on it but a huge lump of flake-white; he had two or three biggish hog tools to work with, and with these he was driving the white into all the hollows, and every part of the surface. This was the only work he did, and it was the finishing stroke…. The effect [was] of brilliant sunlight absorbing everything and throwing a misty haze over every object. Standing sideways of the canvas, I saw that the sun was a lump of white standing out like the boss on a shield.*

The Regulus of ancient history was a captured general whose torturers cut away his eyelids, causing a blinding by dazzle that this canvas actualizes and that has many comparable forerunners in Turner’s work. “The sun is God,” the dying Turner is alleged to have said. (Shanes, who must know more about him than anyone and who notes his interest in Payne Knight’s heterodox religious notions, credits the remark.) By the same token, the sun is inexorable, and the sun is agony.

Art as obsession, art as a strategy for dealing with pain: those are the themes lying in wait that Shanes flags up in another of his biography’s epigraphs. How he will conclude his account in Volume Two I am eager to know, but for the time being, he leaves me most vividly with this about Turner’s mother:

She found herself in a freezing building in one of the coldest parts of the year (it being common for patients to lose their fingers and toes to frostbite during winters spent in the Bethlem). Many of the patients were chained in their cells for months on end…. There were few medications, but anyone who refused them could have their jaws prised open with a specially designed metal key. [It was] extremely improbable that Mary Turner was ever visited in the Bethlem Hospital by her husband and son.

Her madness was a shame that must be kept secret: most likely, four years later the star of the Academy and his father-cum-retainer kept away from her funeral as well. The point (avoided by Moyle, who claims that “the hospital was seen by many as a good place to be”) is not one that Shanes wishes to make cheaply. “We cannot know how hard or for how long they had tried to deal with the poor woman before finally turning their backs on her,” he adds. But if Turner’s life contains an inward story that calls for narration, this is surely where its fulcrum lies.