J.M.W. Turner is a rich subject for biography. A barber’s son, he rose through the class-bound ranks of late 18th- and early 19th-century Britain to become the nation’s most celebrated and controversial painter. And yet he ended life in scandal, living with a secret mistress under the assumed identity of a sea captain.
With “Turner,” Franny Moyle delivers on the promise of her subject, offering a textured portrait of a complex artist. Beginning with an eager boy whose fingers were never far from a sketch pad, Moyle traces Turner into the youth who blazed through the Royal Academy with precocious success, and on to the secretive old master, famous but critically maligned for his experimental work.
Turner approached his art with missionary zeal — his life was consumed by it. Appropriately, Moyle recounts Turner through his artistic development, charting the intellectual and social networks that advanced him, the travels and influences that moved his painting from topographical landscapes toward his first oils, then into Romantic, dramatic, historical subjects and seascapes and ultimately toward the bright-colored, loose-brushed luminescence of his later paintings, which in their imaginative subjectivity anticipated modernity.
Turner was “one of the most ambitious, inventive, technically brilliant and popular artists of his time,” Moyle writes. But he wasn’t easy to live with. In Mike Leigh’s 2014 biopic, “Mr. Turner,” Timothy Spall played him brilliantly as a grunting snuffler. Moyle describes Turner spitting and wiping at canvasses with his sleeve, “scratching away paint with his nails,” dropping friends and patrons, and ignoring family for art. Perhaps most egregiously, Turner didn’t show up for his daughter Evelina’s wedding, preferring instead to chase a commission.
But Moyle balances out the historical caricature, revealing a man of intellect, generosity and feeling beneath the famously crude exterior. She traces Turner’s intersecting groups of friends and patrons, showing a man truly loved by a small circle of intimates. And she depicts an innovative businessman who deftly negotiated Royal Academy politics and won commissions from the aristocracy and, later, the Industrial Revolution’s nouveau riche.
Moyle is good at locating the artist and his work within broader historical contexts, too. As Turner’s career began, art in Britain was the preserve of hereditary wealth — no public galleries, paintings locked up in great houses. Over the course of Turner’s career, though, art was democratized, becoming accessible to consumers and the public, with British painting embraced as a subject equally worthy of critical and commercial interest as the European Old Masters. Turner, Moyle argues, was central to this, lifting the reputation of British watercolors and boldly establishing his own gallery in a time when this was rare.
Democratization was rather more violent in continental Europe. Moyle reinforces the significance of French politics for British artists: the revolution, Napoleon and periods of peace between Franco-British wars variously allowing them to see art at the Louvre for the first time. Turner’s European and British travels were vital for his work. He sketched swiftly and prolifically, often using drawings made decades earlier to inform new paintings. Moyle’s assiduous re-creation of Turner’s adventures present a man willing to risk his life for art. We find the artist sailing violent seas, pioneering through snowy Alpine passes and sketching in war-torn regions where an artist might be mistaken, fatally, for a spy. Ultimately, Turner discovered the shimmering light and color of Italy that “changed his palette irrevocably” and imbued his late works with a dreamlike luminescence.
Turner’s focus on light was also influenced by the 19th century’s burgeoning scientific culture. Having earlier charted how Romanticism and the Gothic influenced Turner’s move from classical topography to more dramatic subjects, Moyle traces the artist’s engagement with the new age of science. Turner discussed storms with Faraday, and new discoveries about color and light, magnetism, and electricity influenced his later paintings.
Moyle draws on these historical contexts to offer nuanced readings of Turner’s works. In doing so, she proves herself a critic whose erudition stems from countless hours smelling the paint and gazing at brushstrokes, as well as a biographer who’s spent time in the archives, analyzing sketchbooks and hunting down letters.
It is, then, a shame that Moyle’s referencing is so patchy. The vast research behind “Turner” and Moyle’s exceptional command of her subject should have made this book one of the rare crossover biographies: a study appealing to scholars as well as general readers. Notwithstanding 30 pages of notes, the lack of consistent referencing for facts asserted robs “Turner” of its academic potential and contributes to numerous moments where Moyle over-eggs conclusions, stating too firmly what Turner thought and felt.
But as a general biography, “Turner” is excellent. Moyle’s background as a television producer comes through in her engaging narrative structure, and her beautiful prose conveys Turner’s glittering work and the sheer scope of his achievements. “Today,” Moyle writes, “we see Turner sunsets and sunrises.” Not many artists can “claim an oeuvre so potent that it has come to define experience.” How true that is.
James McNamara has contributed to the New York Times Book Review, TLS and Australian Book Review.
By Franny Moyle
Penguin Press. 528 pp. $35