Sunday 17 January 2016

Review: Turner, Peter Ackroyd (2002)

Inspired by an exhibition I saw last July in San Francisco—J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free—and by a recent spate of interest in the personality of one of Britain’s most well-loved painters following the release of 2014 bio-pic Mr Turner, I picked up Peter Ackroyd’s concise introduction to the artist, part of his Brief Lives series.

Born in 1775 to a barber and his wife in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, Joseph Mallord William Turner became one of the most high-profile artists of the nineteenth century, known for his incredible use of light, his dramatic sea- and sky-scapes and his embodiment of the Romantic spirit on canvas.

Self-portrait, J.M.W. Turner (c.1799)
Ackroyd’s biography, while slight, gives us some insight into Turner’s (somewhat difficult) personality. What stood out most to me was the intensity of his relationship with his creations—many of which he couldn’t bear to part with, in spite of the high prices his works could command at the height of his career, but kept in his personal gallery, referring to them as his ‘family’.

Turner in some ways fits many of the stereotypes of the lone male genius—in his personal relationships (he remained unmarried), in his mode of speaking (his lectures for the Royal Academy were widely regarded as un-followable) and in his behaviours (often eccentric). But it is also seems that this was a persona he actively sought to cultivate.

Turner wasn’t such a lone ranger. He was supported emotionally and practically through most of his life by his father and assistant (his mother died in a mental institution relatively early in her son’s career). He also had at least two children with a widow, Sarah Danby, and lived as ‘Mr Booth’ with another widow, Sophia Caroline Booth, in the final years of his life, unbeknownst to many of his acquaintances.

Ackroyd is at pains to point out that, despite his mad professor demeanour, Turner was consistently lax in his execution of his duties as Professor of Perspective at the Academy. And, always attracted to myth, Turner was prone to exaggeration about his life. It is unlikely for instance that he really was tied to the mast of a ship to observe the storm that would be immortalised in Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842).

What does hold water though is the picture we’re given of Turner as a man ahead of his time, recommending ‘corrections’ to other artists’ paintings at a glance, making dramatic changes to his works on Varnishing Days, and paving the way for the Impressionists later in the century.

While the biography doesn’t suffer from its brevity, I couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t up to Ackroyd’s usually high standards of execution. The prose is a little sloppy, there are unnecessary repetitions and facts are referenced for a second or third time, without any reference to their earlier inclusion.

With only one small colour insert too, I sometimes couldn’t help but feel that half the story was missing. You’d do well to sit with your laptop to hand to refer to the works described, but not included, in the biography.

As with his life of Wilkie Collins, Ackroyd’s Turner is a great introduction to one of the nineteenth century’s premiere figures, written by a biographer with a good sense of the period. This isn’t one for the art history buffs but provides great context for the casual gallery-goer.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? And are there any exhibitions currently in New York you think she’d like to visit? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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