Book Review: Turner
The Extraordinary Life & Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner
by Franny Moyle
Penguin Press, 2016
There are two formidable obstacles confronting any would-be biographer of the great 19th century painter J. M. W. Turner. These obstacles confronted Antony Bailey in his absorbing 1998 book Standing in the Sun:A Life of J. M. W. Turner, and they confronted James Hamilton fifteen years ago when he wrote his own book about the artist, and, unmoved and immovable, they confront biographer Franny Moyle in her new book Turner: The Extraordinary Life & Momentous Times of J. M. W. Turner, new in a handsome hardcover edition from Penguin Press.
The first of these obstacles is personal: Turner was a crabby, compulsive, and almost pathologically unlikeable person to almost everybody he knew throughout his threescore and ten years on Earth. Moyle opens her account of those years with the now-standard declaration that the myth of her subject has tended to obscure the man – “Looking back at his full life, one can in fact see Turner not so much as a man out of his time, but profoundly a product of it” – but all the Turner biographies of the last 100 years have made similar declarations, and all have done a similar job to the one Moyle does of sifting through the contemporary records in order to find the man underneath the myth. The myth itself is of course attractive: born to a tradesman in 1775, admitted to the Royal Academy of Art at age 15, a financially successful artist before he’d reached the age of 20, an evolving artist whose genius for the movement of light grew more vivid and impressionistic as he grew older.
But the man beneath the myth is unpleasant company for all the pettiest of reasons, and although Moyle is a sympathetic biographer and quite often in the course of this book a magnificent one, there’s only so much she can do with the kinds of anecdotes that keep cropping up. One brief example will do fairly accurate stand-in duty for the rest:
Turner’s meteoric rise and healthy financial position had not come without sacrifice. Stephen Rigaud relates an amusing story from this time [circa 1798] that reveals the combination of ceaseless graft and Spartan lifestyle that lay at the heart of Turner’s success and mounting wealth. Turner was staying with Revd Nixon in Kent when the young Rigaud joined them for a sketching weekend. Rigaud was acutely aware that on the Sunday, when he and Nixon attended church, Turner remained ‘shut up in his little study … diligently painting in Water colours’. The next day the party went on a lengthy walk to sketch. But when they stopped for lunch, Turner’s frugality amazed them. ‘Some chops and steaks were soon set before us which we ate with the keen relish of appetite, and our worthy friend the Clergyman … proposed we should call for some wine .. but Turner, though he could take his glass very cheerfully at his friend’s house, now hung his head, saying – “No. I can’t stand that” … so we did without wine.’ Rigaud was particular to point out that ‘at that time he was the richest man of the three; Mr Nixon having them but a very small Curacy, and I having little more than the pocket money allowed me by my father.’
This is the pattern: Turner penny-pinching during the same years when he had close to £10,000 in the Bank of England, roughly ten times the amount of money a craftsman like his father could expect to earn in a lifetime. Moyle is handy with phrases like “hardening of his professional resolve,” but that doesn’t make the prospect of spending 700 pages with this man any more palatable. It’s possible that many of the less savory aspects of Turner’s personality may have had genetic components – Moyle’s book does a clearer and more sensitive job than any previous account in describing the mental disease that afflicted Turner’s mother in the second half of her life – but even so, the uphill reading that forms so predictable a part of the biographies of so many artists is a prominent feature here as well, for all the colorful details that surrounded Turner’s years of fame.
The second obstacle confronting books like this one derives directly from those years of fame: what to do with the paintings? How fair is it of readers to expect that the same author who’s mastered the daunting craft of biography, the ferreting out of sources, the balancing of events, the historian’s art necessary to bring a broader time to life, to also master the art historian’s skill at analyzing paintings, the connoisseur’s skilled eye for visual nuance? This can be less of an obstacle if the non-painting side of the artist’s life formed a near-equal counterweight – half a dozen first-rate biographies of Leonardo da Vinci have been written by historians who wouldn’t have known a Watteau from a panel of Asterix – but in Turner’s case, art was very nearly everything in his life; if you’re not good on the paintings, you’re not going to present a good life of JMW Turner.
Luckily, Moyle is good on the paintings. She traces her subject’s phenomenal and at times famously opaque development as an artist, and her passages on that development are almost always evocative and thought-provoking, as when she tries to characterize the changes taking place in Turner’s art during his time spent in 1827 on the Isle of Wight:
These images reveal the distance Turner had already travelled from the meticulous, less populated, and highly detailed interiors he had made at Farnley. The Georgian classicism and no-nonsense honesty associated with Farnley is replaced by something far more flamboyant. There is an abandon in these sketches, evocative of rooms resounding with laughter and games of hide and seek. The lack of attention to actual detail, and Turner’s reliance on the turn of his brush simply to suggest, is indicative of the route his art was now travelling.
Moyle begins her biography with a vivid account of the desperate, bitter squalor into which the artist had fallen by the very end of his life. It’s an intentionally grubby introduction to a life that would go on to have its moments of grandeur – it’s a warning, of a kind, that Moyle is firm in her man-beneath-the-myth convictions. Most readers will be pining to have a little myth back by the time the book is in full swing, but there’s nothing any honest biographer can do about that.