Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner

Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner

by Franny Moyle

Hardcover

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735220928
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 543,379
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Franny Moyle studied Art History at St John's College, Cambridge. She enjoyed a career in arts programming at the BBC that culminated in her becoming the corporation's first Commissioner for Arts and Culture. She is now a freelance executive producer and writer and lives in east London. She is the author of Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde and Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Read an Excerpt

1. Admiral Booth

A wet, wintry day in mid-December 1851. The man from Mrs Foord's frame-makers stood in the rain and knocked on the door of 47 Queen Anne Street in Marylebone, the professional address of the most famous living British artist, J. M. W. Turner RA. Foord's man had work to do there.

'Turner's Den', as it had become known, looked more like the premises of a painter long dead than the workplace of a living legend. The quiet classical frontage, which once sat respectably alongside the street's other examples of Georgian restraint, had been let go. The windows were filthy, their cracked panes patched with paper. The paint on the front door had blistered and the iron palisades were rusty.

A short hag of a woman answered the frame-maker's knock. Her large head was draped with a piece of flannel, striving to conceal a nasty skin affliction. This was Hannah Danby, Turner's long-time housekeeper. She led Foord's man into a square vestibule barely illuminated by the neglected arched windows to either side of the door, which had become caked with dust. The hall was an empty brown space, bereft of ornament.

As he followed Danby upstairs, the gothic adventure continued. The tradesman was led into the top-lit custom-made gallery where Turner's paintings were displayed. The rain was 'flooding in by the skylight', Foord's man would later remember. 'Turner would not pay for plaster - so they had to put paper as well as they could - several pictures damaged.'

Foord's man saw nothing of Turner himself the day he worked in his rain-soaked gallery. This was not unusual. The old painter had become increasingly retiring in his dotage, and over the last twelve months or so had even begun absenting himself from his business engagements at the Royal Academy.

For Hannah Danby, however, it was less her master's absence from his professional commitments that was of concern. It was his absence from his own home that was causing her considerable anxiety in December 1851. The seventy-six-year-old Turner had not set foot in Queen Anne Street since June. This was not entirely out of character for a man who for the last five years had, clearly, been keeping a second home, and from whom she was used to receiving instructions via the postboy. But as Christmas approached, Hannah Danby was beginning to fret. She did not know exactly where her master's second home was, and she sensed something was wrong. She began to search for anything that might suggest its location. A letter discovered in a coat pocket with a Chelsea address was what she needed.

And so on 16 December Hannah Danby sought out a friend, probably Maria Tanner, the woman who assisted her in the care, such as it was, of Queen Anne Street, and the two of them headed south to Chelsea. They found themselves on the stinking Cremorne New Road, a small lane along the Thames that ran from the old wooden Battersea Bridge to the Cremorne Jetty, where penny fares brought revellers by steamboat to the Pleasure Gardens of the same name.

Skirting a muddy foreshore, smelling of the open drains that spilled into the river and peppered with dogs and chickens picking their way through the flotsam and jetsam of the river, Cremorne New Road presented a sharp contrast to the grandiose streets of the West End. Nevertheless, here, facing the timber yards and chemical works of Battersea, was a row of cottages that made up Davis Place. And at No. 6, between Alexander the boat builder and a couple of beer sellers, she found a modest yellow brick house, dating from the 1750s.

Despite the seedy location, it was charming enough in its own way - a three-storey, mid-terrace house, fronted by a low wooden picket fence and gate that contained a cottage garden, it betrayed the personal touches of domesticity that accompany a lengthy tenancy. A wooden lattice porch over the front door housed potted plants and a caged starling. The property's three front-facing windows all had lovingly planted window-boxes, and creepers had been allowed to grow up from one of them and crawl over the uppermost reaches of the fa?ade. But most significantly, in contrast to the neighbouring houses, No. 6 had been customized, at no little expense, to accommodate a high-level balcony or viewing platform, which, cut into the roof and contained by wrought-iron rails, offered an artist a bird's-eye view of London's river stretching out below.

But Turner was not on his platform the day Danby called. And though she quickly ascertained from neighbours that a man fitting her master's description was at home, she also discovered from the hushed tones and shaken heads that they believed he was dying. On hearing this news, Hannah could not bring herself to go in. Instead, distraught, she determined to seek the assistance of Turner's cousin and solicitor, Henry Harpur.

Henry Harpur lived in Lambeth. He was seventeen years his cousin's junior. The Harpurs and the Turners were strongly entwined. They shared not just blood, but plenty of family business, not least the final revisions Turner made to his will. They had also travelled together on the Continent. On 17 December he visited Chelsea at Hannah Danby's request.

The interior of the little house in Chelsea was modestly furnished, though its few contents reflected the interests of its occupant. The Art Journal and Illustrated London News were on the parlour table; the walls were hung with engravings. Here, on the uppermost storey, Harpur found the old painter in a soporific haze, having been spoon-fed for the past few days a diet of milk and brandy. He had lost all ability to talk. The bird-like man, whose intense gaze and beaky nose had once complemented a robust, if short, square frame, was now a mere waif, ebbing away. He was being nursed by plump and homely Sophia Booth, the woman who shared his life at No. 6 Davis Place. She was a widow, more than twenty years the painter's junior.

Harpur grasped the seriousness of Turner's condition immediately and knew that he must begin to prepare the world for the departure of one of its most eminent men. The very next day, 18 December, he wrote to Turner's long-time family friend, the architect Philip Hardwick, warning him that Turner's demise was imminent. Hardwick, now turning sixty, white-haired and balding, was the spitting image of his own father, who had known Turner as a boy. Like the Harpurs, the Hardwicks had shared a long history with the Turners.

A day later another note from Harpur was in Hardwick's hand. Turner was dead. He had passed away at 10 a.m. on 19 December. Hardwick had been deprived of the opportunity of saying goodbye to a friend who had known him man and boy. But on 19 December Harpur, no longer constrained by his eminent cousin's instructions, furnished Hardwick with the details of the whereabouts of the body. Hardwick alone was afforded this privilege and he went straight away to Davis Place to say his goodbye.

Harpur met Hardwick at the little house in Chelsea. It must have become immediately clear to both men that the circumstances of Turner's death could, if not properly managed, erupt into a national scandal that would eclipse the plaudits for his extraordinary work and compromise his ardent desire to be buried in honour in St Paul's Cathedral. After all, Turner had not only been discovered in an insalubrious location, in an undisclosed second home, he had also been discovered living in what much later would be described as a state of 'moral degradation'. Taken alongside his recent reclusivity, and the state of affairs in Queen Anne Street, this new twist in Turner's story was an unwelcome one. Were it to become public knowledge, it would only add fuel to the persistent theories in circulation that the old painter had lost his mind during the course of the last decade.

These allegations of madness had been prompted by what his public considered the increasingly bizarre and indecipherable paintings Turner had produced across the 1840s, works that critics were not afraid to condemn as utter 'abortions'. For the last decade he had turned out canvases that explored light, and the elements, in unique and highly experimental ways. Ships rocked, whales thrashed, and trains sped through raging storms and whirling mists that were unlike anything that had been presented to the public before. In what often felt like dreamscapes, the sunsets and sunrises he had once been so famed for painting with delicate luminosity had become substantive. His ghostlike characters were no longer bathed in light but swept up by it, in a parallel world of fog and fiery chaos.

Harpur understood only too well that if the true circumstances of Turner's death were to become widely known, it would be all too easy for the public to dismiss his final decade of toil and experiment. How convenient for Turner's critics to be able to confirm that the exquisite painter had indeed departed some ten years previously, leaving just this Chelsea relic to finish his career. A reputation already much dented was on the cusp of being roundly destroyed. Turner's fame was on the point of tipping into infamy.

As Hardwick left Davis Place he took with him a letter he saw that Turner had written to the stockbroker Charles Stokes. Apart from being a close friend, Stokes, a man now well into his sixties, had been both a dedicated collector of Turner's work for many years, and a business associate who oversaw some financial matters for him.

'Dear Stokes,' Turner had written. 'Enclosed is a wish for Mr F Marsh to advance on my account £100. I do not like the debts of Mr Woods - not paid. Have the goodness to do it.' These were almost certainly the last lines the artist wrote.

Now Hardwick scribbled his own postscript. 'Knowing the interest you have taken in all matters connected with Mr Turner,' he wrote, 'I thought you should be informed that we have lost him.' The letter reached Stokes's rooms at 4 Verulam Buildings, Gray's Inn Road, the very next day, 20 December.

As Stokes grieved in Gray's Inn, the news of Turner's death spread further through his closest circle. On 21 December, a stormy Sunday, another black-bordered envelope found its way to Denmark Hill. John James Ruskin returned wet and wind-swept from church to find correspondence from Thomas Griffith, Turner's agent. Griffith explained that he had not wanted Ruskin to discover news of Turner's demise in print.

John James Ruskin was exactly the same age as Charles Stokes. Both had been born in 1785, and were ten years Turner's junior. Like Stokes, Ruskin considered himself a friend of the artist. Ruskin had built a considerable fortune as a wine merchant, and with it he had indulged his son John's passion for Turner's work. John Ruskin junior had adored Turner's painting since he was a boy. As an undergraduate at Oxford he had written a defining defence of the artist's work that had launched his own career as the most pre-eminent art critic of his generation. Thanks to his father's generosity, he now had twenty-five watercolours as well as two oil paintings by the artist - a collection that at this stage still hung in the family home.

From the elder Ruskin's point of view at least, the timing of Turner's passing was somewhat ironic. Just three days earlier he had been bidding at Southgate and Barrett's Christmas sale for a watercolour by Turner, of Carisbrooke Castle, on the Isle of Wight. That evening, the Fleet Street sale-room had been packed to the brim with dealers and collectors. But Ruskin, a man who had not become rich by spending his money freely, had sent his picture framer to bid for him, under express instruction not to pay above fifty guineas for the work, only to see it go to a dealer prepared to pay £80.

On reading Griffith's note John James now sat down solemnly, in front of another of Turner's watercolours that hung at Denmark Hill. It was The Red Rigi, painted nearly a decade earlier, a depiction of the mountain that dominates Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, bathed in a fiery red evening glow. And then he picked up his pen to write to his son, who had been in Venice since September:

I have another loss to announce ... Mr Turner - I can say no more till I go to Norwood and see Griffith who kindly sent me a note this forenoon during Church ... a suitable day for the intelligence - the shortest and darkest - wet & tempestuous ... I thank you for ... a liking for the Red Rigi for the solemnity of that picture has fed & soothed me like a dead march all this evening. It is the only picture I care for tonight - I earnestly hope you will not let this hurt your health - There is no power gone exactly with his Life for his power had already departed - & you seemed to be prepared for this event.

Once unburdened of its grave intelligence, John James's letter revealed another reaction to news of Turner's death - a commercial one. He had recently put aside £650 for the purpose of enlarging his collection of Turner's work further. Now John James was regretting letting Carisbrooke Castle go. But he realized that with the artist's death a huge amount of new work would most likely come on to the market with the sale of his estate. It would be an opportunity that the Ruskins must be prepared for.

'I do not think you need distract your arrangements to acquire any remains,' he suggested. 'There is little chance of Executors bringing anything to sale till ... May or June - but please tell me all you want. There will be excitement & high prices as in Wilkie's case in the period of his Death which will afterwards give way.'

Over the next few days Ruskin continued to ponder the market ramifications of Turner's death, news of which had not yet broken in the press. Despite the imminence of Christmas, he was impatient to find out more about the disposal of Turner's estate.

On 22 December he wrote to his son again, this time explaining: 'Mr Griffith ... has gone to a meeting of Executors ... No one at present knows where he died but they promise to let us know particularly and there will be plenty of time for you to say what you wish.'

Harpur and Hardwick, meanwhile, had been busy making sure that despite the increasing curiosity as to the place of Turner's departure from mortal life, no one would find out. They had been swift in removing Turner's body from Chelsea and installing it where Turner should have died, in his professional premises at Queen Anne Street. A lavish hearse had arrived in Davis Place along with a large, expensive and heavy coffin, lined with lead and satin. Bemused locals watched as the undertakers, more used to the spacious homes of wealthy clients, could barely get the coffin through the door, and when it failed to go up the narrow stairs, the men were forced to bring the body down to it.

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