J. M. W. Turner

J. M. W. Turner

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by Peter Ackroyd

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In this second volume in the Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd brings us a man of humble beginnings, crude manners, and prodigious talents, the nineteenth-century painter J. M. W. Turner.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in London in 1775. His father was a barber, and his mother came from a family of London butchers.


In this second volume in the Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd brings us a man of humble beginnings, crude manners, and prodigious talents, the nineteenth-century painter J. M. W. Turner.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in London in 1775. His father was a barber, and his mother came from a family of London butchers. “His speech was recognizably that of a Cockney, and his language was the language of the streets.” As his finest paintings show, his language was also the language of light. Turner’s landscapes—extraordinary studies in light, colour, and texture—caused an uproar during his lifetime and earned him a place as one of the greatest artists in history.

Displaying his artistic abilities as a young child, Turner entered the Royal Academy of Arts when he was just fourteen years old. A year later his paintings appeared in an important public exhibition, and he rapidly achieved prominence, becoming a Royal Academician in 1802 and Professor of Perspective at the Academy from 1807–1837. His private life, however, was less orderly. Never married, he spent much time living in taverns, where he was well known for his truculence and his stinginess with money.

Peter Ackroyd deftly follows Turner’s first loves of architecture, engraving, and watercolours, and the country houses, cathedrals, and landscapes of England. While his passion for Italy led him to oil painting, Turner’s love for London remained central to his heart and soul, and it was within sight of his beloved Thames that he died in 1851. His dying words were: “The sun is God.”

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the second volume of his Brief Lives series, which commenced with a biography of Chaucer, Ackroyd presents another major cultural figure, the English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). In straightforward fashion, Ackroyd outlines the career of this remarkable man, who progressed rapidly from his early years as a student at the Royal Academy to prominence as one of England's foremost painters, creating dramatic works in which he explored the glowing effects of light fused with air, water, fire and steam. Turner's paintings, which often approach abstraction, astounded and shocked his critics, causing some to say he was a madman, an assessment reinforced by his eccentric, irascible character. Ackroyd shows how the artist, who never married and lived all his life with his father -though he had secret liaisons and two illegitimate daughters-was obsessed with his art, but was also an astute businessman, opening his own gallery in London when he was only 29, cultivating prosperous patrons and speculating in land and houses, all the while turning out a multitude of dazzling oil paintings, watercolors and engravings. This is a short but intriguing introduction to the life and output of an artist who claimed that he knew of "no genius but the genius of hard work." Illus. not seen by PW. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An acutely limned miniature of J.M.W. Turner (1775-51), whose watercolors, engravings and spectacular oils mark him as England's greatest painter of air, earth and water. Whether the culmination of the Romantic period or the harbinger of Cezanne and van Gogh and all we've come to call modern, Turner invented a new pictorial language that baffled contemporaries-except, perhaps, for the preternaturally incisive John Ruskin. Ackroyd (Chaucer, 2005, etc.) comments smartly on the art but focuses on the man, a genius peculiar to London, comparable to Blake, Hogarth and Dickens. Descended from a line of barbers and butchers (his mother was committed to an insane asylum) and raised amid the clamor of Covent Garden, Turner escaped anonymity through his father's encouragement, his talent and his unremitting hard work. Elected to the Royal Academy at an astonishingly young age, he conducted most of his career as England's best known and best paid painter. An awkward poet, a halting public speaker, an avid angler and sailor, Turner was highly secretive and protective of his work. He traveled widely throughout Britain and the continent, admiring particularly the charms of Venice and the canvasses of Rembrandt, Canaletto and, above all, Claude Lorrain. Taciturn and brusque, he single-mindedly pursued his art and reserved any affability for small children and a few close patrons. On the condition his paintings be kept together, he willed a large portion of his work to the nation, and today the shipwrecks, fires, storms and atmospheric chaos Turner so brilliantly captured constitute the chief ornament of London's Tate Gallery. A short biography, but one no less satisfying for the wide-ranging eruditionAckroyd brings to the task.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner was a child of London. His father owned a barber's shop in Maiden Lane, off Covent Garden, having migrated to the city from a small town in Devon. His mother came from a line of London butchers. Turner himself appeared to all who knew him to be a quintessential citizen--short and stocky, energetic and pugnacious. His speech was recognizably that of a Cockney, and his language was the language of the streets.

He had another direct inheritance. His father was short, also, and his famous son was said to resemble him. According to a family friend William Turner was "spare and muscular, with small blue eyes, parrot nose, projecting chin, fresh complexion." His son boasted, if that is the word, the same nose and chin. The friend added that William Turner "was more cheerful than his son, and had always a smile on his face." His happy disposition no doubt assisted in the success of his barber's shop, where the most important duty was to please the customer, and in any case he seems to have been a proficient businessman. He passed on his economical habits to his son. "Dad never praised me," Turner once said, "except for saving a shilling." It was a lesson he recalled for the rest of his life.

Mary Turner was a considerably more difficult character. She was prone to fits of violent temper, and in the end her rages became so uncontrollable that she was eventually consigned to an asylum. A lost portrait of her suggested "a strong likeness to Turner about the nose and eyes . . . she stands erect, and looks masculine, not to say fierce." Turner seems to have inherited something of his mother's temper, but it never passed beyond the boundaries of sanity.

His parents had married at Inigo Jones's church of St. Paul's in Covent Garden in the summer of 1773 by means of a "special licence," which suggests haste or circumspection. Two years later their first-born son entered the world by way of the family house at 21 Maiden Lane. The infant was baptised at the same church in Covent Garden, with his trinity of Christian names apparently being taken from his maternal grandfather and great-grandfather. Joseph Mallord William Turner's date of birth, 23 April 1775--otherwise known as St. George's Day--was shared with Shakespeare's traditional birthday. There was another omen. Four days after his birth, a phenomenon of "three suns" was observed in the afternoon sky--a fitting prelude to the career of an artist who is supposed to have declared on his death-bed that "the sun is god."

It was a busy, and noisy, household. William Turner's shop was on the ground floor, where he could be seen busily lathering the genteel with his soft badger brush, and the basement next door was occupied by a cider cellar described euphemistically as a "midnight concert room." It is an interesting coincidence that 21 Maiden Lane had been used as an exhibition room by the Free Society of Artists, and then later as a school by the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain. London is full of such fortuitous associations.

At a later date the Turners crossed the road to 26 Maiden Lane, where they lived on the north side. The sun would in any case have scarcely penetrated this narrow thoroughfare in the heart of what was even then known as the "West End."

It was a fashionable area filled with actors and painters and prostitutes. Covent Garden itself was notorious for its bagnios and brothels--it was called by one contemporary "the great square of Venus"--and in their vicinity there were of course many taverns and gaming houses as well as expeditious thieves and pickpockets. If you wished for a quick education in the ways of the London streets, then Turner's neighbourhood was the place to come. It has often been observed that in Turner's sketches the children have alert and watchful faces; they have what was once called an "old-fashioned" look. In one sketch he has added the notation, "Children picking up Horse Dung, gathering Weeds." These children were all around him.

In the area, there were respectable establishments vying for trade, among them jewellers, print-shops and wig-makers. It was also a distinctive venue for the fashionable theatre-goers of the day, bisected as it was by the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden. It was perhaps not coincidental that the young Turner earned part of his living as a scenic painter; theatricality was in the London air.

When Turner walked through the market of Covent Garden he seems to have been entranced by the energetic variety of its life and by the sheer spectacle of its multifarious colours. His great nineteenth-century interpreter, John Ruskin, noted that "he particularly enjoyed and looked for litter, like Covent Garden wreck after the market. His pictures are often full of it from side to side." In Ruskin's company Turner once extolled "that litter of stones" in his painting of an Alpine scene. In later life, too, he loved to paint oranges as if in some instinctive reversion to the market world of his childhood.

And then of course there was the Thames, a few yards south of his home in Maiden Lane. It was down a court, across the Strand, and then at the bottom of a riverside alley--no more than two or three minutes away. He has become known as the great painter of the Thames in all its moods and localities, and his first vision of it was by the dockside of London with the wharves and the barges, the cargo-boats and the wherries. It was a dirty and noisy marine world, where sea and city collided in an embrace like lovers. It was a world of trade and barter, but Turner also noticed the rush of the tide and the boats "shooting" London Bridge when the ebb tide was at flood. He knew the sailors and the merchants, the labourers, and the "mud-larks" searching for pickings along the dirty shore. It was his world. It was the landscape of his imagination. He lived by the Thames and eventually he died by the Thames. It was an inseparable part of his being.

London could be fatal as well as benign. At the age of five, in 1786, his younger sister died of some unknown ailment. All at once he acquired the solitariness and intensity that are often the characteristics of the only child. Three years later Turner himself was sent away from the city by his parents to the more salubrious atmosphere of Brentford by the Thames; it seems that he had suffered from "a fit of sickness" and was therefore despatched to the care of his maternal uncle, John Marshall, who followed the family profession of butcher. Turner lived above the shop with his relatives, on the north side of the market square, and became thoroughly acquainted with the riverside about Brentford; his childhood haunts of Putney and Twickenham, Kew and Hampton Court, all feature in his later work.

He was sent to the Brentford Free School in the High Street, where he acquired the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic to fit him for a trade. But he began to display his interest in another career altogether. He once claimed that he had amused himself, on the way to school, "by drawing with a piece of chalk on the walls the figures of cocks and hens." His aptitude for drawing did not go unrecognised for long, and it seems likely that his first employment as an artist was in hand-colouring the engravings in Henry Boswell's The Antiquities of England and Wales. In that solid volume he encountered pictures of cathedrals and abbeys, castles and monuments; his impression of them must have been particular and profound, since in later life he returned to many of the same subjects.

After a period in Brentford he was sent with friends of his uncle to the seaside town of Margate where he seems to have remained for several months. Once more he attended the local school but his real education took place outside the classroom, beside the open sea. He never ceased to be entranced by the world of the fishermen--their nets, their boats and their catch.

His earliest drawings, dating from 1787, are of conventional scenes. The twelve-year-old boy copied or adapted views of bridges and castles from engravings. His first sketches from nature rather than from art were taken at Oxford, to which neighbourhood his uncle had retired from the butcher's trade. Yet it also seems likely that in this period Turner returned to London. There are repeated references to the fact that his father pinned up Turner's sketches in his barber's shop, for sale at prices ranging from one shilling to three shillings. In this period William Turner is said to have remarked to one customer, the artist Thomas Stothard, that "my son is going to be a painter." He may have wanted advice or encouragement from the famous man, but his son had enough energy and determination of his own.

The young Turner also found work at an architect's practise that instilled in him a lifelong interest in, and knowledge of, that art. He once told a friend that "if he could begin life again, he would rather be an architect than a painter." In later life he even designed one of his own country retreats.

So for a short time he sketched and painted for Thomas Hardwick, a London architect who was working on the reconstruction of St. Mary the Virgin church in north-east London and who was rebuilding part of Syon House in Isleworth. For four years, in fact, he was involved in architectural drawing as something of a speciality.

Turner's early training instilled in him a deep love and respect for human dwellings. He seems to enter the very stone and structure of the buildings that he represents with pen or brush, as if they had some deep life with which he could commune. In the same period he studied under another master, Thomas Malton, a perspective draughtsman and Covent Garden scene-painter. The general impression is of a young artist busily imbibing knowledge and practice from whatever quarter he could find.

It may have been Hardwick who recommended that the young Turner should apply to enter the Royal Academy School. There is a story that he approached William Turner and told him "that the boy was too clever and too imaginative to be tied down to a severe science. He recommended him to be sent as a student to the Royal Academy . . ." This was the place for aspiring young artists, where Blake and Gillray, Stothard and Rowlandson, had already studied. Turner found a sponsor in an Academician, John Francis Rigaud, who had been shown the drawings exhibited in the barber's shop in Maiden Lane. So the young artist began the first stages of his career drawing, as a "probationer," in the surroundings of Somerset House. He worked in the Antique School, or Plaster Academy, where he was asked to produce a technically exact portrait of an antique figure.

His work was deemed acceptable and he was enrolled as a student. He was a model pupil (if the pun can be allowed) and for the next two and a half years he worked among plaster casts and broken statuary, where he drew what lay around him, including the body of the Faun and the fingers of Apollo. No better training could have been granted to him, since in these early years he learned the significance of line and volume. In the Academy there was no interest in teaching topographical or landscape painting. Turner was later to become the master of sea and sky, and while he was still a student he began to pursue these passions. Nevertheless an understanding of how to represent the human figure was an essential step in his training as an artist.

He also learned much from the now elderly president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds. It seems that he was permitted into the great man's house in order to study his portraits. Turner may indeed have had ambitions himself to excel as a portrait painter, but there is little doubt that he was not suited by temperament for such a profession. So perhaps some good daemon or angel steered him away from an uncongenial pursuit. In the artist's house in Leicester Fields Turner would also have seen work by Rubens, and Poussin, and Rembrandt, their canvases haunting him like a passion. He once declared that he spent "the happiest perhaps of my days" with Reynolds, and in later life Reynolds was the only English artist that Turner ever discussed.

In 1790 he exhibited his first water-colour. He was not quite fifteen, and yet already he manifests a firm sense of space and perspective. It was his first foray into a medium which he would dominate. The water-colour is of Lambeth Palace, but since the reverend pile is partially obscured by two friendly figures and a public house it is clear that the young Turner is more interested in the human than the divine world.

He was also occupied in less august surroundings, having been hired to assist the scenic artists at the Pantheon, a combined theatre and opera house in Oxford Street. Here, no doubt, he painted stormy seas and threatening skies for whatever melodrama was currently on offer. It was a way of earning badly needed income, to finance his more serious studies, but in any case he seems to have had a natural aptitude for theatrical painting. It must have been something of a disappointment, therefore, when a year after he had been enlisted in the service of the Pantheon it burnt down. Never at a loss, however, he turned up the next morning at the site of the smoking ruin and proceeded to sketch it. He neglected his figure work at the Academy for ten days as he worked up his conception. He was always fascinated by fire and by ruins; in this early work, the vigour and energy of his invention are already in evidence. In the following spring he exhibited his finished water-colour at the Royal Academy under the title The Pantheon, the Morning after the Fire. He would become more inventive with his titles in subsequent years.

He did not find his inspiration only in London. He seems to have been born for travel, and for the rest of his life he made journeys throughout Britain and Europe. In the early autumn of 1791, during one of the vacations granted by the Academy, he travelled west to Bristol. He stayed in that city with a friend of his father, John Narraway, and, as is the way with incipient geniuses, seems to have made a marked impression upon the Narraway family. One niece later recalled that the sixteen-year-old Turner was "not like young people in general, he was very singular and very silent, seemed exclusively devoted to drawing, would not go into society" and "had no faculty for friendship." Here in miniature lie the later impressions of the mature Turner as brusque when not entirely taciturn.

Meet the Author

PETER ACKROYD is the author of Shakespeare: The Biography, London: The Biography, and Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination. He has also written full-length biographies of T. S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Blake, Ezra Pound, and Thomas More, as well twelve novels. He lives in London, England.

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