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by Peter Ackroyd

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Ackroyd’s short biography of perhaps the greatest and most original of all English painters, J.M.W. Turner.
James Mallord William Turner was a Londoner through and through. His father had a barber’s shop in Covent Garden, his mother came from a line of London butchers. He was brought up in Maiden Lane. He was short and pugnacious and, as Peter

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Ackroyd’s short biography of perhaps the greatest and most original of all English painters, J.M.W. Turner.
James Mallord William Turner was a Londoner through and through. His father had a barber’s shop in Covent Garden, his mother came from a line of London butchers. He was brought up in Maiden Lane. He was short and pugnacious and, as Peter Ackroyd writes: “His speech was recognizably that of a Cockney, and his language was the language of the streets. His language was also the language of light, as exemplified in his most innovative of paintings, which caused the critics of the day to come to blows . . . His dying words were: ‘The Sun is God.’”

He entered the Royal Academy at 14 and a year later was exhibiting. His first loves were architecture, engraving and watercolours, and the country houses, cathedrals and landscape of England; he came to oils through his new passion for Italy. He was mean with money, never married, and spent a lot of his life living in taverns. When he died (within sight of his beloved Thames) he was living under the name of Booth in the Chelsea lodgings of one of his mistresses, a Mrs. Booth.

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Product Details

Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
Publication date:
Brief Lives Series
Product dimensions:
5.39(w) x 7.48(h) x 0.71(d)

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Chapter One
1775 - 1799

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 recognisably 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 practice 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.

He was asked to sketch a self-portrait by one of the Narraways but replied, 'It is no use taking such a little figure as mine, it will do my drawings an injury, people will say such a little fellow as this can never draw.' That has the ring of authentic speech, and emphasises Turner's extreme self-consciousness. He could be shy and nervous, concealing his anxieties beneath the carapace of gruffness or rudeness.

Nevertheless, it seems he was persuaded as one self-portrait of this period has emerged, although its authenticity has been questioned; it shows a pretty young man with long curled hair and attired in fashionable dress. It reinforces the report that, in his youthful days, he was something of a dandy. And why should he not be? He wished to make an impression upon the world. That may be the reason also for the somewhat idealised self-portrait of 1799 (see colour section).

The niece also reported that he would 'sometimes go out sketching before breakfast, and sometimes before and after dinner'. He was at work all the time, in other words, and he was nicknamed by his hosts the 'prince of rocks' because of his constant clambering over the cliffs that overlooked the Avon. The sketchbook he took with him was filled with drawings of that riverscape. He was beginning to find his way as a topographical artist, and in the purlieus of the Avon he came upon evidence of the picturesque (to use the fashionable late eighteenth-century term) and intimations of the sublime. The water-colours he fashioned out of that experience were soon hanging on the walls of the Royal Academy.

When he returned to that school he soon graduated from Plaster Class to Life Class. He was permitted to draw only nude male models, who were set in graceful or demonstrative attitudes derived from the examples of the Old Masters. He remained in the Life Class from 1792 to 1799, a long apprenticeship in fashioning the human form. The results are perhaps seen to best advantage in the few so-called 'pornographic' sketches that were rescued from the misguided zealotry of his executors. He specialised in erotic female nudes, and even at the end of his life he was sketching female genitalia; most of them were burned after his death as a shocking example to the art lovers of the nation. Yet his more significant interests surely lay elsewhere. His drawings for the exhibitions of 1792 and immediately subsequent years are of ruined towers and monastery gates, of chapels and churches and abbeys. In 1793 he was awarded the 'Greater Silver Pallet' for landscape drawing, a silver medal donated by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. It was a sure sign that his immense abilities in that field were being noticed. It proved to be, in fact, the only prize he ever received.

Out of term-time he roamed abroad, looking for landscapes and monuments. He already had clients who would purchase his work, and periodicals that would publish it. One drawing was engraved, for example, in The Copper-Plate Magazine; it was a signal achievement for so young an artist, and alerted him quickly to the commercial possibilities of his gift. Over the next few years his work would appear in many illustrated magazines, introducing his name to the public. In 1792 he travelled to Wales and, in the following summer, he was ranging from Hereford to Worcester and Evesham. He also found the time and opportunity to visit Sussex and Kent, where the ancient towns of Rochester, Dover and Canterbury were available for artistic inspection. He regularly walked twenty-five miles a day, sketching quickly as he went; he carried all his effects bound up in a handkerchief at the end of a stick and, in this easy manner, he observed everything that passed above and around him.

In 1794 he was touring the Midland counties; he kept a list of interesting places, appending remarks such as 'fine' and 'romantic', as well as careful notation of the distances between them. He had with him two sketchbooks bound in calf, with brass clasps, that looked suitably professional. In the following year he returned to Wales, and then travelled southward to the Isle of Wight. His sketchbooks now had a title, 'Order'd Drawings'. He was working to the demands of his clients, whether private or professional. On the Isle of Wight, however, he was also indulging his private passion. He sketched the sea and the coastline, with the waves beating against the shore; he drew rocks and boats. The marine world enthralled him.

He returned to his parents' house in Maiden Lane where he used a 'painting-room' above his father's shop, but very soon after these drawing-tours he rented accommodation and work-space around the corner in Hand Court; his work was now becoming so extensive that he may well have needed the additional space but his mother's uncertain temper may also have contributed to his decision.

He went back to the Life Class of the Royal Academy, but in 1796 he embarked upon a new field of endeavour. In the exhibition of that year he placed his first oil-colour. It was entitled Fishermen at Sea and was a direct result of his sojourn on the Isle of Wight. He had already earned a reputation as a water-colourist but he seemed determined to emphasise his proficiency in all aspects of artistic achievement. He wished to express in oil what he had learned in water-colour. It is a highly atmospheric piece lit by the moon and by moonlight reflected in the water; Turner catches the desolation of the night as the boat is lifted upwards on the swell of the sea. The two reviews he received were favourable, and the painting sold for ten pounds.

He needed other sources of income, too, and during this period he was employed by Doctor Thomas Monro to copy certain water-colours in Monro's collection at Adelphi Terrace. A fellow artist of the same age, Thomas Girtin, drew the outlines while Turner was employed to wash in the light and shade with characteristic tints of blue and grey. Monro is believed to have thereby given both young artists a good education at his own expense, and Ruskin even called him Turner's 'true master'. One Academician noted that 'Dr Monro's house is like an Academy in the evening'. Turner was paid three shillings and sixpence for the evening's work, together with a free supper of oysters. But the work, which some have described as 'hack-work', was of material benefit to him. He acquired his mastery by intelligent copying of great originals. There is no better form of education. He is said to have learned in the process how to wipe out redundant colour with pieces of bread, a useful technique for any artist. When Turner was quizzed about this early employment he replied, acerbically, 'Well, and what could be better practice?' But the strain of work, by day and by night, seems materially to have affected his health. In the late autumn of 1796 he travelled to Brighton, where he might recuperate by the sea, and here he executed a few sketches.

In the following year he exhibited two oil-paintings at the Royal Academy; one of moonlight over the Thames and one of sunset over the sea and shore. The two burning orbs are seen in precise correspondence, lending ethereal warmth and numinous authority to the scenes. They were enough for the critic of the Morning Post to announce that the young artist possessed 'genius and judgement'. With great foresight he went on to say that 'he seems to view nature and her operations with a peculiar vision'. Another perspicacious visitor to the exhibition wrote in his diary that 'I am entirely unacquainted with the artist; but if he proceeds as he has begun, he cannot fail to become the first in his department'. One of his water-colours in the same exhibition was declared by the St James's Chronicle to be 'equal to the best pictures of Rembrandt'. At the age of twenty-two Turner had become one of the foremost artists of his day.

He still did not feel himself to be financially secure - it is in fact arguable whether he ever did - and in this period he took in pupils. He gave lessons in drawing for five shillings an hour, but his classes were conducted in an informal manner. He told one contemporary that his practice was 'to make a drawing in the presence of his pupil and leave it for him to imitate'. He eventually tired of teaching, however; or, more likely, he no longer required the additional income. One of his pupils recalled Turner as 'eccentric, but kind and amusing'. The testimony of those who observed him at close hand tends to reinforce the impression of a friendly and cheerful man; it may temper the later legend of him as a crusty old curmudgeon.

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Meet the Author

Peter Ackroyd, like Turner, is a “cockney visionary.” This is the biography he was born to write. Turner’s Englishness, his temperament and his London background lie at the core of Ackroyd’s lively personal interest and specialist knowledge, all of which make this short life a dazzling read.

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Turner 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Peter Ackroyd is a fine writer and continues his Brief Lives Series with this insightful biography of one of England's greatest painters, J.M.W. Turner. But readers beware - this is a book about the artist's life and is not a book to examine the artist's works. But there are plentiful other resources for viewing the magnificent paintings of light that Turner created. Ackroyd adroitly explores Turner's humble background, elaborating on how this most elegant gentleman of the canvas began as a Cockney lad with little formal education. When he was 14 he entered the Royal Academy and within a year's time he was exhibiting his work! Turner was a man of nature and his misty seascapes and landscapes of England have won him permanent status in the pantheon of great painters. He was fascinated by light and the effect that light has through mists and clouds, storms and tree filtered glades. He had a particular affinity for architecture and his early works are primarily in watercolor and etchings. His experience with oil painting opened with his introduction to Italy. Ackroyd, with a zest for truthful telling, emphasizes that Turner's private life was spent in the taverns, fathering illegitimate children and maintaining a mistress. Apparently a miser, he was not the rarefied 'gentleman' his paintings would suggest. This is a fine little biography, filled with the facts about the personal life of Turner and a bit lacking on his artistic influences, but as an adjunct to other volumes on his work, books that neglect to look at the man holding the brush, this succinct 'life' affords important insights. Grady Harp