Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), the outstanding British landscape painter, was arguably the greatest British artist of all time and possibly also the most prolific. He deserves a thorough twenty-first century biography, and Franny Moyle has provided an excellent one.

The most interesting aspect of the book is her account of Turner’s rise to pre-eminence in his own lifetime, followed by vicissitudes when he came under bitter attack from critics who neither liked nor understood his later, most innovative work. In his last great years, even John Ruskin, who had always been his champion against all detractors, could not follow where he was going. Ruskin saw Turner’s completed pictures as unfinished and spoke of Turner’s mental decline. If anyone was in mental decline, it was Ruskin, who was now well into his trajectory from being the master art critic, who excited Marcel Proust to translate him into French, to being the buffoon who ignorantly attacked Whistler.

Turner was a born artist.

Turner was a born artist, and as a young painter he was totally committed to his work and to learning from others. He made a great deal of money, first from his aristocratic patrons such as Lord Egremont and later as England’s most popular artist, but he was as frugal as an Aberdonian. Many successful artists spend their fees on luxuries even faster than they can earn, but Turner was a saver, an accumulator of capital who put his money into Consols, interest-bearing bonds issued by the British government. He was one of the British state’s creditors. Turner had always been an innovator, but as a creditor he could paint to please himself. He was Britain’s avant garde, the morning star of Impressionism and Abstraction. He was a master of the imprecise, the indistinct, and the insubstantial, of all that was incomprehensible to the critics. The Times called one of his later works, a “wretched mixture of trumpery conceits.” It is telling that the scientifically minded Turner was a friend of the physicists Michael Faraday and Mary Somerville,who were bringing science to bear on the insubstantial.

Franny Moyle relates how Francis Beckford, long one of Turner’s admirers, complained in an interview with the New Monthly Magazine in 1844 of the huge gap between his early and his late work. Beckford said: “He paints now as if his brains and his imagination were mixed up on his palate with soap suds and lather.” Turner read the interview when staying at the home of the Ruskins. John Ruskin records him as sitting in an armchair close to the fire after dinner, muttering to himself: “Soap suds and whitewash! What would they have? I wonder what they think the sea’s like? I wish they’d been in it.” Turner was quite right. I have been trapped in a small boat in just such a storm off the coast of the Antarctic. It is not Rembrandt. It is not Hokusai. It is Turner.

It was Turner’s good fortune that his father, who was a barber in London’s Covent Garden, recognized his son’s artistic talent from the start and strongly encouraged him. The father sold his son’s juvenilia to customers coming in for a haircut, and he paid for his son’s expensive training at the Royal Academy of Arts. Far too much is written about uncomprehending fathers who thwarted the creative ambitions of their sons, mainly because such sons in later life were resentful, vociferous, and in need of a scapegoat. Their outpourings are a gift to those addicted to the occult theses of psychoanalysis who write turgid tomes about oppressive fathers. On the contrary, for most men, in most societies, most of the time, the father-son tie, so vital to the social order, is one of harmony and affection and of quiet loyalty and encouragement. This was Turner’s experience, according to Moyle. Turner’s father went on to become his business manager and even, when called upon, to be his butler, and he was always loved and respected by his son. Fathers matter.

Turner, who spoke like a Cockney, spent his early years in Covent Garden in a central London filled with smoke and fog. There were also frequent respites in the breezy fishing port of Margate, one of London’s earliest and nearest seaside resorts. Margate was a place of mist, storms, and spray. It is no wonder that Turner was to become a master of the indistinct. It had been imprinted on his brain early. It comes out in his seascapes and even in his portrayal of a heat-hazed Venice.

Turner, the young artist who had begun as the talented delineator of Britain’s medieval Gothic buildings and then a master of the picturesque and of the sublime, was to become the great painter of a pioneering industrial Britain, the world’s first industrial nation, a country driven by steam and covered in smoke. We can see it in his masterpiece Rain, Steam and Speed, The Great Western Railway (1844) and with the powerful, dogged little steam tug with the tall smokestack towing the great warship The Fighting Temeraire (1839) to the breaker’s yard. Moyle reminds us that Turner regularly toured Britain seeking subjects for his best-selling book of engravings, Picturesque Views in England and Wales, and came with his watercolor sketchbook to the town of Dudley in Britain’s aptly named Black Country. Picturesque it wasn’t. Think of rust-belt America before it rusted. Think Pittsburgh in 1946. Dudley was a town of furnaces and iron works, a marvel of fierce fieriness seen through gray-black smoke and white steam.

Both Covent Garden and Margate were centers for Britain’s flourishing sex trade. As a barber in the middle of Covent Garden, Turner’s father would have done a steady trade in prophylactics. Barbers’ shops, like the whores of Covent Garden, had an exclusively male clientele. I remember as a very young boy sitting in the barber’s, reading a comic book, waiting for a haircut. Customer after customer would get up to sit in his chair, and the barber would say, “short back and sides, sir?” “Yes.” At the end, the barber would say, regardless of what day of the week it was, “something for the weekend, sir?,” and get the reply “packet of three,” never a quartet. A nondescript package would be slipped to the newly short-back-and-sided one. Adult male secrets but ones well known to the boy Turner.

Margate was a place where professional ladies could cry out “hello sailor” to those who went down to the sea in ships and came back up again. They could also entice anonymous trippers from London, escaping the observation of those who knew them back home. Moyle shows that Turner was a customer of these flourishing strumpets of Margate and also of the ones he met on his extended foreign tours, and that this is reflected in his erotic art, the materials that after his death a shocked Ruskin considered burning, lest their presence pollute the back rooms and cellars of Britain’s sacred National Gallery. Ruskin did not do sex, as his wife testified when she sought an annulment. The erotica remains today a small but important part of Turner’s bequest to that institution.

The erotica remains today a small but important part of Turner’s bequest to the National Gallery.

The connection between prostitutes and the allied trades of actress and artist’s model is an obvious one, but one that when publicly stated leads to outrage and feigned outrage. What all three have in common is that they involve deception, the need to act out a kind of falsehood. Physical attractiveness helps. They all belong to a floating world in which nothing is fixed or permanent. The talented British painter Walter Sickert always preferred prostitutes as his models because they cheerfully adopted poses that respectable women found objectionable. Turner, when painting erotica in Venice or Switzerland, such as his Nude Swiss Girl and Companion on a Bed (1802), probably agreed with Sickert. It was at least a more straightforward and moral way of proceeding than seducing and discarding respectable models after they had been coerced into unwanted indecent positions, which was the way the vile Auguste Rodin operated.

Turner’s relations with women were irregular, but his life was not—as the title of Moyle’s book suggests—“extraordinary,” nor were his times “momentous.” He had two illegitimate daughters by a Mrs. Danby, the relict of the musician John Danby, but it should be stressed that she was dependent on a widow’s pension from the Society of Musicians, which would have ceased to be paid had she married Turner. This was by no means an unusual situation at that time, particularly among the widows of soldiers and sailors who had died serving their country. A secure, independent income and quiet cohabitation were preferable to Victorian respectability. Besides, as Franny Moyle stresses, Turner was not a Victorian. His formative years had been in the much more raffish eighteenth century. Lord Melbourne, Victoria’s first Prime Minister, may well have been the illegitimate son of Turner’s important patron Lord Egremont, a patron for whom Turner very likely provided erotic drawings.

As Turner lived on into the Victorian era, however, he had to be more and more circumspect, particularly after he had formed another secret household with a Mrs. Booth of Margate, where his weather-beaten appearance earned him the nickname Admiral Booth, though the local street urchins called him Puggy. She bought him fresh fish, which Turner painted accurately and exquisitely before they were cooked, as in his Study of Fish: Two Tench, a Trout and a Perch (1822–24). Yet another of his artistic talents.

Today, the revelations that came out after Turner’s death would merely make ribald headlines in Britain’s notorious yellow press: “Famous Artist Had Secret Love Nest.” But Turner died in 1851 at the height of Victorian moralism. Such revelations might have stood in the way of his grand funeral in St Paul’s cathedral.

A very welcome and fascinating biography of the “great witness of sunshine and sky.”

Needless to say, Turner’s will was contested by his relatives and those with whom he had had carnal connection. The lawyers wheeled in the sky. It was not settled until 1856, when inter alia the court decreed that not just Turner’s finished pictures but all the unfinished work in his studio should be bequeathed to the nation. Imagine the scholarship needed to differentiate between his finished work that the critics thought unfinished and the truly unfinished work he had set to one side. I can hear the murmuring of innumerable Ph.Ds.

Franny Moyle has provided us with a very welcome and fascinating biography of the “great witness of sunshine and sky.” My only problem with it is that it is five hundred pages long. It would have been a better book at three hundred and fifty.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 9, on page 73
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