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Standing in the Sun: The Life of J. M. W. Turner

Standing in the Sun: The Life of J. M. W. Turner

by Anthony Bailey, A. Bailey

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Britain's greatest and most mysterious artist, was the son of a Convent Garden barber and a woman who died in Bethlehem mental hospital. During his lifetime (1775-1851), Turner achieved fame and fortune for a range of work encompassing seascape and landscape, immensely powerful oil paintings and intimate watercolors. His friend


Joseph Mallord William Turner, Britain's greatest and most mysterious artist, was the son of a Convent Garden barber and a woman who died in Bethlehem mental hospital. During his lifetime (1775-1851), Turner achieved fame and fortune for a range of work encompassing seascape and landscape, immensely powerful oil paintings and intimate watercolors. His friend and colleague C. R. Leslie remembered him thus: "Turner was short and stout, and had a sturdy, sailor-like walk. He might be taken for the captain of a steamboat at first glance; but a second would find more in his face than belongs in any ordinary mind. There was the peculiar keenness of expression in his eye that is only seen in men of constant habits of observation."

For this new biography, the first comprehensive narrative of Turner's life in a generation, Anthony Bailey has searched through the archives, studied the scholarly literature, made use of much research done in the last thirty years, and looked at almost all of Turner's sketchbooks as well as many of his paintings and watercolors. He has uncovered fresh material and put together other facts, previously known, to shed new light on those complicated and secretive man.

Anthony Bailey has set out to write a biography of the man, not a book about his paintings, and J.M.W. Turner comes vividly to life in theses pages. Both reclusive and gregarious, private and vainglorious, tough and vulnerable, a long-tern bachelor who fathered two daughters, Turner was full of contradictions, and Anthony Bailey rises masterfully to the challenge of describing them here.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This is a remarkably balanced look at one of the most contradictory personalities in British art. By keenly appraising primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, New Yorker writer Bailey has painted a vivid image of a man who could be generous or mean, outgoing or withdrawn, flamboyant or precise, but always a keen observer of the world around him. The book is a delight to read, combining meticulous scholarship, vibrant description, and a wonderful sense of place and person. From the opening's splendid evocation of the London of Turner's birth through the trips to later descriptions of the harbors and ports of his inspiration, his secretive domestic arrangements, and the final days of his life, this work well serves the artist and the reader. Highly recommended.--Paula Frosch, Metropolitan Museum of Art Lib., New York
Kirkus Reviews
A thorough, careful biography of a talented, deeply evasive English painter whose own contemporaries knew little of him. Bailey, a former staff writer for the New Yorker and author of some 20 books (The Coast of Summer, 1994, etc.), undertook a difficult task in writing this. For even during the artist's lifetime, Turner took great pains to deny his past, ignoring or obliterating his various tragedies. Nonetheless, Bailey has created a convincing portrait of the man by plowing assiduously through historical records, archives, and earlier biographies. The painter who appears in these pages is anything but a sympathetic character: After his mother was committed to the notorious Bethlehem Hospital for the insane when Turner was just 26, he never spoke of her again. Upon her death just two years later, his secretiveness intensified. Given his subject's lifelong elusiveness, Bailey has done an admirable job of refracting Turner's personality through detailed and lively descriptions of his social milieu and the writings of his peers. Apparently, even his contemporaries found this small, bandy-legged, and homely man perplexing. His friend and colleague David Roberts, while acknowledging Turner's "profound greatness," for example, also wrote that he was "selfish to an extream [and] cunning, penurious & sensual." Few ever knew that Turner first lived with one widow, fathered two daughters by her, and subsequently took up with another; he never married either. Of his artistic life, by comparison, much is known: Turner's talents were recognized in childhood, were fostered in the Royal Academy, and they remained the subject of much debate. Bailey balances each aspect-the personal and theprofessional-well, and even manages to convey his own compassion for his paradoxical subject. "His contradictions have puzzled many," he writes, "but they endear him to me." Without ever denying Turner's quirks and petty cruelties, Bailey gradually illuminates the artist's character. .

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HarperCollins Publishers
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From high above, the river winding through the city looked like a shining snake sliding under three bridges. The spring sun struck the tiles and slates of a hundred thousand damp rooftops and shimmered on the lead of spires, steeples, domes and belfries. Pigeons and seagulls circled in the hazy air, and a few spiralled down towards a large rectangular space among the buildings crowded on the north side of the river — a paved piazza where market stalls and barrows stood empty. Because it was Sunday, the only clamour came from the bells pealing in the broad-roofed church that stood at the west side of the Piazza: St Paul's, Covent Garden, London. On the path leading through the churchyard, a man and a woman carrying a well-swaddled baby walked towards the main door.

Sometimes, talking in later days about his origins, Turner bemused people by claiming that he was born in the country rather than the city. During a tour of the west of England in the 1810s, he went sailing on the St German's river with the journalist Cyrus Redding, and the names of various West Country artists were bandied about. Turner told Redding: "You may add my name to the list. I am a Devonshire man." And when Redding asked from what part of that county, Turner replied, "From Barnstaple." Others heard him say that he hailed from Kent; one man to whom he made this claim believed that Turner did so simply out of fondness for the Medway valley. Some years on, his affection for Kent's Thanet coast, and particularly for Deal and Margate, was strongly expressed. Then, too, in later life he enjoyed mystifying the curious about his age. Andrew Wilson, a Scots painter, got the impression fromTurner that, like Wilson himself, he was born in 1769, the year when Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington had been born. Causing confusion seemed to amuse Turner. It is perhaps not surprising that when he died in December 1851 his executors let him be buried in a coffin inscribed "Aged 79", though he was most probably seventy-six. His death certificate gave his age as eighty-one, which would put his birth in 1770.

Turner's age remains slightly uncertain because when he was christened in St Paul's, Covent Garden, on that morning of 14 May 1775, the current practice in that parish was not to write a birth-date in the register. We depend on Turner himself, twenty-one years later, to affirm that the year was indeed 1775. In 1796 he exhibited a watercolour he had done of the interior of Westminster Abbey and used a floor-paving tombstone to flaunt his own name: "William Turner, Natus 1775." In a codicil he signed on 20 August 1832 to a will made the year before, he gave the residue of his investments in Government Funds to the Royal Academy, subject to it holding a dinner for its members "every year on the 23rd of April (my birthday)" . So destiny — or the artist — chose the day which was Shakespeare's birthday and — for complete patriotic identification — St George's Day, the holy day of the patron saint of England.

In Inigo Jones's great barn of a church in Covent Garden on 14 May 1775 the presumably still infant boy was held over the font and christened Joseph Mallord William Turner by the Rector, James Tattersall. However, when it came to entering the child's three Christian names in the baptism register, the Reverend Tattersall wrote — misspelling the unusual second name — "Joseph Mallad William, son of William Turner by Mary his wife". The future artist's difficulties with spelling and syntax seem to have a precursor here. But no other child in the register for that year had the honour of three Christian names. Although they were names common in his mother's family, it was as if his parents were declaring, rather than merely hoping as parents will, "Our child is going to be somebody."

It was in this same 140-year-old church that William Turner, bachelor aged twenty-eight, and Mary Marshall, spinster aged thirty-four, had been married twenty-one months before. The celebrant at the ceremony on 29 August 1773 was the curate, Ezekiel Rance; their witnesses were Ellis and Martha Price. Both parties to the marriage claimed to be "of this parish", and had been living in it for at least four weeks. William Turner was indeed a Devon man — which may have inspired his son to claim the same tie. William Turner's father had been a saddler in the Devon village of South Molton, ten miles from the coastal town of Barnstaple, and William was born in South Molton on 29 June 1745. He was twenty when his father died and left him, the second son, his best white dress coat and — like his six siblings — the sum of one guinea when he reached the age of twenty-one. William's brother John, also a saddler, achieved the locally influential position of governor of the Barnstaple workhouse; another brother, Jonathan, was a baker. William became a barber and perruquier or wig-dresser, and at some point made his way to the metropolis, where he met and wooed Mary Marshall. He was described by one who knew him as a shortish man with "small blue eyes, parrot nose, projecting chin, and a fresh complexion". He "talked fast ... [with] a peculiar trans-atlantic twang ... and a smile was always on his countenance".

Six years older than her West Country lover, Mary Marshall had perhaps reached an age when she could no longer wait for a better match. There is a suggestion that, although she too came from a background of artisans and small tradesmen, the Marshalls had grander ideas of themselves than the Turners. Her father, also a William, was a "salesman" of Islington, a village then just north of the city of London. One brother, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, became a butcher in Brentford, a village eight miles west of Maiden Lane.

What People are Saying About This

John Gross
"Anthony Bailey's life of Turner is beautifully written, shrewd in its judgments, equally strong on personality and social setting."
A.S. Byatt
"Standing in the Sun is a pleasure to read."

Meet the Author

Anthony Bailey, a staff writer for The New Yorker for the past thirty-five years, is the author of seventeen books, among them The Outer Banks, Along the Edge of the Forest, In the Village, and America, Lost & Found. He divides his time between the United States and England.

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