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4.5 2
by James Hamilton

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The magisterial treatment of light in his celebrated paintings puts J.M.W. Turner squarely in the pantheon of the world's preeminent artists. His prodigious talent revealed the personality of British and European landscapes and the moods of the surrounding seas. His character was a tangle of fascinating contradictions, and in his lifetime he was recognized not only


The magisterial treatment of light in his celebrated paintings puts J.M.W. Turner squarely in the pantheon of the world's preeminent artists. His prodigious talent revealed the personality of British and European landscapes and the moods of the surrounding seas. His character was a tangle of fascinating contradictions, and in his lifetime he was recognized not only for his art but also for his entrepreneurial cunning, as he demanded and received the highest prices for his work.

Now acclaimed biographer James Hamilton takes advantage of new material discovered since the 1975 bicentennial celebration of the artist's birth, paying particular attention to the many sketchbooks with which Turner narrated his life. This volume features sixteen pages of illustrations, including many color reproductions of Turner's most famous landscape paintings. Seamlessly blending vibrant biography and astute art criticism, Hamilton has written a marvelously textured portrait that A. S. Byatt has called "a pleasure to read."

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Why J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) appeals to such a sizable but discerning audience is not a topic that particularly interests James Hamilton, a respected British curator and author of this 1997 biography of the artist, which has now been published in the United States. He isn't given to wide-ranging speculations about layers of meaning, shifts in taste or many other extra-pictorial issues. In this otherwise very satisfying and ably written book, he works like a realist portrait painter himself, more Gainsborough than Manet -- detailed, judicious and confidently grounded in the period. If we aren't offered any new insights about cultural history or aesthetic experience, we are given a credible, useful image of a life, a career and a body of work. — John Loughery
The New Yorker
Showered with honors from the time he was in his teens, J. M. W. Turner had few setbacks in his long career as England's finest Romantic landscape painter. But the secret of his success, Hamilton suggests in this lively biography, had almost as much to do with an outsized gift for self-promotion as with artistic talent. From cocksure student to arrogant academician, Turner emerges as a greedy, status-obsessed egotist whose revolutionary treatment of light and color was offset by a good deal of bad poetry, not to mention bad manners. If the artist's self-avowed ambition was to surpass Claude Lorraine, he showed equal aptitude for dealing real estate, playing off patrons, and neglecting his family -- his mentally disturbed mother died forgotten in an asylum. Still, for Hamilton no personal flaw can mar a world-class talent, and Turner escapes with his legacy intact, remaining, as he described himself, "the great lion of the day."
The Los Angeles Times
As described by James Hamilton's richly detailed biography, Turner's life combined the canny entrepreneurial spirit of any businessperson promoting a brand within a cut-throat market and a profound engagement with the sheer physical labor of his craft. With this in mind, Hamilton's opening quotation from Turner, "The only secret I have got is damned hard work," is in some ways the ultimate refinement of his subject's story — like Warhol's pronouncement that all there is to know about him can be found on the surface of his paintings. — Michael Bracewell
Publishers Weekly
Employing newly available sketchbooks, Hamilton (Turner and the Scientists) contends that painter J.W.M. Turner (1775-1851) was a prodigy who first exhibited his work in his father's barber shop and owed his fame to innate opportunism as much as to matchless talent. The sketchbooks reveal a young man anxiously seeking institutional favor, painstakingly preparing his 1811 lectures on perspective in the hopes of defeating his famous inarticulacy. They trace Turner's charge through the English countryside, where he scaled improbable heights and expertly sketched scenes (many later completed from memory). Hamilton attributes this frenetic activity to Turner's obsession with the preciousness of both money and time, and suggests that the latter concern eventually prevailed. Once at home in the Royal Academy and convinced of his genius, Turner could afford to flout public opinion and devote himself to quixotic pursuit of the colors and tones churned by "the engine of the air." One critic, fearing Turner's influence on younger artists, dubbed him "over-Turner," while scientists esteemed his Prospero-like light effects. Somewhat dismayed by the discomfiting details of his subject's life-Turner apparently disregarded his children, enjoyed pornography and consigned his mother to an insane asylum until her death-Hamilton downplays them. His affectionate, dignified study is designed for scholars who will relish Turner's travel itineraries, housing plans and overwrought poems-trivia that serve less to illuminate Turner's work than to selectively humanize his myth. Three 8-page color photo inseres not seen by PW. (On sale June 3) Forecast: Published in the U.K. in 1997, this title's release is pegged to a Turner exhibit this summer in Williamstown, Mass., but the book's U.S. appearance now may have more to do with setting up Hamilton's forthcoming Random title, a biography of scientist Michael Farraday. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This first U.S. edition of a work published in 1997 in the U.K. is a fine example of biography and art history. Turner scholar Hamilton (Turner and the Scientists) has put to good use newly discovered material, which helps to dispel some myths and reveal more about the private life the artist kept hidden from his public. The origins and subtexts of many of Turner's most important paintings are examined with a fresh insight, and although the suppositions may be the author's own, they do serve as a stimulus to further inquiry. A man of many faults, often rude and ill tempered, shrewd and manipulative, Turner was also an enormously hard worker. This biography is filled with details of private life, public persona, and artistic images, presented in an elegant and fine scholarly style. Anthony Bailey's Standing in the Sun is also an excellent and perhaps a fuller treatment of Turner's life, but this new biography is a useful contribution to the extensive literature on Turner and should be added to all art and academic library collections, as well as to large public collections.-Paula Frosch, Metropolitan Museum of Art Lib., New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A splendid, masterful portrait of the master painter. England's greatest landscape artist, J.M.W. Turner, born in 1775 into humble but comfortable circumstances, had a talent for drawing that revealed itself early. Owing to his proud barber father's gregariousness, he was made known to and subsidized by the prosperous and well-connected. Admitted to the Royal Academy at the astonishing age of 14, Turner blossomed and was exhibiting within a year. He emerged from that institution a fully developed artist. Never shy of self-promotion, Turner vigorously cultivated the aristocracy and well-to-do, thus establishing a reliable base of patrons and influential friends. While Turner had a high opinion of himself, it wasn’t unearned. He was an extraordinarily gifted artist, especially in the use of color and light, unequaled to this day. In this admiring account, Hamilton (Curator/University of Birmingham) posits that the artist, despite his flaws, was that rarest of creatures: a truly gifted but overall decent man, generous to younger artists and loyal to his friends as well his beloved Royal Academy. Hamilton does a fine job assembling the large cast of characters, places, and details of this long life. If all these particulars at times begin to feel drawn out or tedious, the purpose eventually becomes clear as Hamilton relates them to specific paintings. (He also quotes extensively, perhaps too much so, from Turner’s own rather pedestrian verse, making attempts to link it to specific paintings, while noting that when it came to poetry, Turner did not know "when—indeed, how—to stop.") The thoroughness of research and facility in its application here are gratifying. The luciddescriptions of Turner's paintings are extensive but easily accessible. Belongs in every art lover's library. (3 color photo inserts, not seen)
From the Publisher
“James Hamilton is an outstanding biographer. He reveals Turner’s world for all its wild contradictions and, like Turner, brings to life what the eye cannot see.”
—Amanda Foreman, author of the Whitbread Prize–winning biography Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

“A pleasure to read.”
—A. S. Byatt, Sunday Express (London)

“Turner was a phenomenon, a one-man artistic revolution whose energy can be felt through the pages of this inspiring biography almost as much as through his own canvases....Hamilton’s descriptions of the paintings are deft and considered....You do not have to be an artist or art historian to enjoy this book.”
—Alan Judd, The Daily Telegraph (London)

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st US
Product dimensions:
6.44(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.54(d)

Read an Excerpt

maiden lane and brentford

William Turner, the baby's father, had rural, distant roots. He had come, no more than ten years earlier, from the deep west of England, from the small country town of South Molton, at the foot of Exmoor, in Devon. His own father, John Turner, had been a wigmaker and barber in South Molton, and one of sufficient status to be entrusted with the care and teaching of boy apprentices by the church wardens and the justices of the peace of the parish. When John Turner died, in 1762, he left tidy provision for his wife and seven children. Two sons at least, John and William, were grown up by this time. The eldest son, John the younger, was bequeathed all of his father's working tools; his best suit, hat, and wig; and a guinea, with the expectation that he would follow in his father's footsteps. In the event it appears that John Turner the younger became a saddler and, later, a wool comber and poorhouse guardian. William, who was born in 1745, received only "my white coat" and a guinea payable when he became twenty-one. The five other children-Eleanor, Price, Mary, Joshua, and Jonathan-were also bequeathed a guinea each, payment to be delayed until their twenty-first birthdays. South Molton was suffering a serious population decline in the late 1760s and early 1770s, through the gradual weakening of the market for the heavy cloths, such as serges and felts, that were a specialty of the town. This may have been the spur that prompted William to take his white coat with the guinea in its pocket and make for London. He settled just off Covent Garden and, following his father's example, set up in business as a barber andwigmaker.
Mary Marshall, J.M.W. Turner's mother, came from a family of London butchers. They can be traced as far back as her maternal great-great-grandfather, John Mallard, a skinner from St. Botolph-extra-Bishopsgate. His son Joseph Mallard (died 1688) lived at St. Leonard's, Eastcheap, on the edge of the highway down which the cattle from Essex and beyond were driven for slaughter and sale at Smithfield. Joseph Mallard's son, Mary's grandfather, another Joseph Mallard (died 1741), gained his freedom from apprenticeship in 1697 and was described when he died as a "Citizen and Butcher." At the same time, according to the spelling in his will, he and his family had become Mallord, and this form generally, though not consistently, applied from then on. Joseph Mallord moved with his family north and west out of the City to the clearer air of the salubrious parish of St. Mary's, Islington, and diversified his wealth and invested in property. At his death he owned four houses in Wapping and four acres of marshland at Barkingside, north of Redbridge. His only surviving child, Sarah, who married William Marshall, an Islington salesman, stood to inherit all this and to pass it on in turn to her four children: Joseph Mallord William, Sarah, Mary (born 1738 or 1739), and Ann.
When William Turner and Mary Marshall met, around 1770, William-slim, healthy, chatty, and eager, with an engaging Devon brogue-was in his mid-twenties. Mary has been described as a housekeeper, a sufficiently vague, meaningless, but polite term for a single woman in her thirties. Both were well over the normal age for a first marriage in the late eighteenth century, and for Mary the end of her marriageable and childbearing years was approaching. Her elder sister, Sarah, had already married, and her elder brother had moved away from Islington to follow his grandfather's trade of butcher in the prosperous community of New Brentford.
William and Mary, as proudly named an English coupling as any might be, married at St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden, on August 29, 1773. In applying at Lambeth Palace for a license to marry without banns, William swore that he was a twenty-eight-year-old bachelor, Mary a thirty-four-year-old spinster, and he had lived for the "four weeks last past" in the parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden. Although this was a marriage between property-owning citizens and members of the deracinated working trades, it was a marriage of free choice and optimism. William the barber had landed Mary the solid London citizen's granddaughter; Mary, the older woman with little hope of inheriting any share of her grandfather's estates and with rapidly receding chances of marriage, had found William the plucky, hardworking young man from a far county.
According to the only surviving physical description of him, written after William Turner's death,
he was . . . spare and muscular, with a head below the average standard, small blue eyes, parrot nose, projecting chin, and a fresh complexion indicative of health, which he apparently enjoyed to the full. He was a chatty old fellow and talked fast; and his words acquired a peculiar transatlantic twang from his nasal enunciation. His cheerfulness was greater than that of his son, and a smile was always on his countenance.
If we can rely on the fact that William Turner was a cheerful, smiling gossip, he would have been the right stuff for the barber's trade, which has always required cheerfulness, flattery, and the ability to engage customers' interest for as long as it takes to cut their hair.
Knowledge of the character and appearance of Turner's mother is even thinner and heavily embellished by hearsay. Turner's first biographer, Walter Thornbury, built his picture of Mary Turner around the sometime existence of an unfinished portrait of her by her son, "one of his first attempts." Thornbury writes:
The portrait was not wanting in force or decision of touch, but the drawing was defective. There was a strong likeness to Turner about the nose and eyes; her eyes being represented as blue, of a lighter hue than her son's; her nose aquiline, and the nether lip having a slight fall. Her hair was well frizzed . . . and it was surmounted by a cap with large flappers. Her posture therein was erect, and her aspect masculine, not to say fierce.
This portrait has not been traced-and Thornbury had not seen it-so we can only take his uncorroborated account at face value. To his description of this fierce, masculine, erect figure, Thornbury adds that Mary Turner had been "a person of ungovernable temper." This was a trait that, in part, her son inherited.
William took Mary to live in rooms at the southwest end of Maiden Lane, number 21, where he had been a tenant since Lady Day, March 25. The house was part of a line of dwellings built on the edge of the site of Bedford House, demolished in 1707. Maiden Lane is about halfway between the Strand and Covent Garden Piazza and runs parallel to both. Unlike their wide, light-filled expanses, it was then narrow, noisy, and dark. Running east-west, it was pretty much in shadow, and quite apart from the rubbish its inhabitants threw out, it collected muck from the market when it rained and backwash from the rudimentary sewers. Its name derived from the fact that it was the place where prostitutes lingered.
The Turners' rooms were rented from the auctioneer Joseph Mooring, who had used the building for sales and exhibitions. In 1765 and 1766, Mooring had let them to the Free Society of Artists, and from 1769 the Incorporated Society of Artists had used it as a school of painting, drawing, and modeling. In the basement was William Wootten's Cider Cellar, a drinking place described in 1750 as a "midnight concert room, to which you descended by ladder to the concert-room, which, in another house, would have been the kitchen, or the cellar; and the fittings of the place were rude and rough."
This rowdy house in Maiden Lane was, nevertheless, a sensible place for a barber and wigmaker to be. One hundred yards to the north, around London's flower and vegetable market, was a community of shops, stalls, coffeehouses, and other businesses selling all the human frame required in the hinterland of two of London's great theaters. These, the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, each attracted two thousand or more people nightly in the season, from the rich and noble to the pecking poor, a great pulsating unremitting throng in search of entertainment, glittering lights, laughter, company, active oblivion, and barbering.
The theaters had their essential and their satellite trades: the managers, the actors and actresses, the scene painters and shifters, sellers of food and drink, porters, drivers, sedan chairmen, sweepers and hostlers-all adding to the vivacious street life. Another hundred yards to the north was Long Acre, a road rattling then with the workshops of coach makers and trunkmakers, the center of Britain's mechanical-transport industry and its dependents: forgers, ironmongers, coach painters, colormen, and print dealers. The same distance to the east, on Bow Street, magistrates sat to hand sentence down to murderers and swindlers who came to court with small armies of chanting supporters. Minor felons, such as Filch, the boy pickpocket in The Beggar's Opera of 1728, were dealt with: "Where was your post last night, my boy?" asks Mrs. Peachum. "I ply'd at the Opera, Madam; and considering 'twas neither dark nor rainy, so that there was no great hurry in getting chairs and coaches, made a tolerable hand on't. These seven handkerchiefs, Madam."
Frightening and potentially violent though it was, London west of Temple Bar was tightly knit and its people interconnected. Though the Incorporated Society of Artists had left Maiden Lane in the early 1770s, having been swallowed up by the new Royal Academy of Arts, artists and architects lived and worked in considerable numbers in the area bounded by Long Acre to the north and the Strand to the south. The area remained the focus of their livelihoods, the place where they met, talked, made friends, fell out, and had their hair dressed.
In Maiden Lane and the parallel Henrietta Street alone, artists were a significant element of the population. Between 1763 and 1777, artists who lived at various addresses on Maiden Lane included William Burgess, James Butler, Thomas Hearne, William James, Henry Jouret, James Nixon, ARA (Associate of the Royal Academy), and the engraver Benjamin Thomas Pouncey. George Burgess had a drawing academy at number 33. On Henrietta Street lived the engraver William Dickenson and the painter Samuel Hieronymus Grimm. Even if only Hearne, Nixon, and Grimm are remembered today, the others all had their ambitions and contributed to the atmosphere of the area. Others on neighboring streets at this time were Edward Dayes, John Flaxman, and Thomas Hudson.
On May 14, 1775, William and Mary Turner's child was baptized with his maternal uncle's names: Joseph Mallord William. The tradition begun, and maintained later in his life by J.M.W. Turner himself, puts his birth date exactly three weeks before the christening, April 23, Saint George's Day-a good day for a true patriot to choose, after some reflection, to be born upon. If the traditional birth date is correct, the very cold weather might explain the unusually long gap between the child's birth and his baptism. But there is no good reason why we should accept it, for high infant mortality rates prompted God-fearing parents to have their children christened promptly. The baby's three strong names suggest that his parents had ambitions for the child and wished to signal his firm connection above all to his mother's family. The son of a Devon-born barber he may have been, but he was also descended from a line of London citizens and property owners.
From Lady Day 1776, when the baby would have been barely crawling, the Turners ceased to pay poor rates in Maiden Lane. This has been taken to suggest that they had moved out of the parish, but it is equally possible that they remained where they were and the rate was paid by their landlord. William Turner's name reappears in the Maiden Lane poor-rate register on Lady Day 1795, where he is listed as living on the north side of the lane, at number 26, directly opposite his former address. We know from other sources that by 1795 the family had been living on Maiden Lane for at least five years, and at number 26 for at least four, without having been listed in the poor-rate books. This narrows down their putative absence from Maiden Lane to between September 1778 and April 1790. There is also circumstantial evidence, below, that the family was already living at 26 Maiden Lane by 1782 or 1783, so there are no firm grounds to suggest that the Turners ever left.
William Turner could never have been short of customers if he was any good at cutting and dressing hair. Periwigs, the full-bottomed wigs whose tails flowed over the shoulders of the rich and noble in the early eighteenth century, had long gone out of fashion. Hogarth's satirical engraving The Five Orders of Periwigs (1761) had signaled the killing off of the full-bottomed wig by making it and its wearers into a laughingstock. Although the first layer of Hogarth's joke likens the periwigs to architectural orders, his visual subtext compares them to unarousable genitalia. In their place a fashion for smaller wigs and natural men's hairstyles developed. In Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals, first performed in 1775, Fag, the elegant servant, advised strongly against his master's wearing a wig. "None of the London whips of any degree of ton wear wigs now," he said.
The return to natural hair among men and the fashionable loathing of the hairy chin must have brought plenty of work for William Turner. Barbers shaved their customers, trimmed and curled their hair and wigs, and sold perfumes and wig powder. William Turner may also have been a puller of teeth and a low-grade surgeon, for the trades went together. Serving leaders of fashion in London's center of artistic gathering and display, law giving, and gossip, his customers included a heavy proportion of artists, theatrical people, and men of influence and connection.
Hairdressing was, when J.M.W. Turner was a boy, an item for news and jokey chitchat. New hair fashions brought an influx of foreign hairdressers to London. The Times reported in January 1785: "The friseurs of Paris are pouring in daily; a post coach, with six inside, and ten outside, arrived at Charing Cross a few days ago-without luggage." The trade supplied its most plentiful by-product to a fringe of the art world. Exhibiting both at the Society of Artists and at the Free Society of Artists in the 1770s, regularly enough to make it a significant activity, were a dozen people who made embroideries and pictures out of hair and called themselves "workers in hair." Mary Lane, for example, exhibited thirty various works in hair, including landscapes after Wenzel Hollar and Claude Lorrain, at the Society of Artists from 1770 to 1777. Other practitioners were Mr. Nodder of Panton Street, Mrs. Putland, John Turmeau, and the industrious Passavant family.

Copyright© 2003 by James Hamilton

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Turner 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An excellent study of Turner and his times. A tad jumbled, I felt the author could have done a better job with continuity and flow. In the end, one feels there is much more to Turner as a man, though the book does an excellent job of detailing the painters life works and public cantankerous nature. I did greatly appreciate the detailed discussion of color and how Turner brought his visual impressions of the world to canvas.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An enigmatic gentleman, the great English painter J.M.W. Turner courted secrecy to the point that he is said to have painted with his door locked and, if he were working away from home, he would immediately cover his painting should anyone attempt to see his work. Did he fear that someone would try to take his method of painting, discover how he created such wondrous colors? No concern there as Turner was one of a kind and painted as only he could. Now, in this beautiful volume published in association with Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, England, the world is able to see these masterworks and enjoy them over and over again. They represent Britain as seen through the artist's eyes shortly after the Industrial Revolution. Traveling by foot, horseback, coach or river boat he traversed his country capturing agrarian towns, growing cities, ancient castles, landscapes, churches, and more. Thanks to James Hamilton 'Turner's Britain' is a joy for those who appreciate art and a boon for art historians.