The Extraordinary Life & Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner
Brian Hannan from Abbey Books in Paisley takes a look at The Extraordinary Life & Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner by Franny Moyle.
One of the biggest benefits of running a second-hand bookshop is that hundreds books pass in across my desk in a week. It’s like watching a conveyor of delights. I’m something of a professional browser. And there are times when I can’t contain myself and I pick one up and start to read.
I can’t claim to be an expert on art but for this book you don’t need to be. In The Extraordinary Life & Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner, not only does author Franny Moyle explain how Turner, born in 1775, changed the face of British art but she provides a fascinating insight into attitudes to painting during one of the country’s most tumultuous periods that spanned the Napoleonic Wars and the explosion of industrialisation.
To make a living, artists like Leonardo and Michelangelo relied on patronage from royalty and the nobility, who, with a degree of entitlement that would be shocking today, often didn’t pay up.
But when Turner started out towards the end of the eighteenth century, that was beginning to change. Newly-wealthy industrialists began to commission art, allowing artists to concentrate more on their work than toadying to benefactors.
Turner was surprisingly good at making money. He was never knowingly undersold and spent a great deal of his time raising his prices. Not one for the restrictions of family life, he had incredible output.
He sketched continuously, literally from morning to night, everything drawn – people, nature, buildings, ships – either forming part of a work in progress or filed away for a future enterprise. He worked with such speed and determination that he was recognised as an architectural authority and naval expert.
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Artists of the time could increase their income substantially by operating in effect as tourist guides. In seeking out inspirational views of nature, they in turn brought, by means of exhibitions and engravings of their works, a shedload (if such a thing existed) of tourists to these often remote locations.
The Napoleonic Wars turned Britain in a “staycation” destination and travellers planning a holiday at home sought out the spots popularised by painters. Turner was an inveterate traveller, Scotland one destination, the Continent another, and when he alighted on Venice the subsequent tourist boom had much to do with his paintings and water-colours.
The art world was engulfed in politics, the Royal Academy of Arts, established in 1790 was soon battling for dominance with other institutions and many owners of collections set up their own art galleries, often open to the public.
Politics was also a problem for the practitioner. Those who saw themselves as the determinants of taste decided the ranking of particular works, oil painting at the top, water-colours (known disparagingly as “drawings”) at the bottom of the food chain.
The powers-that-be also decreed that the best English painters should be in the style of the Old Masters, thus attempting to put a stop to anyone, like Turner, who might have the audacity to invent a new style of painting.
Turner might have reigned supreme in the art world of the period had he not run foul of the makers and shakers of public opinion and if he had not turned out to be a truculent individual. And when he embarked in later life on the stylistic changes that are today are enshrined in greatness, he was considered insane.
“The increasingly bizarre and indecipherable paintings Turner had produced across the 1840s, works that critics were not afraid to condemn as utter ‘abortions’ …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…often felt like dreamscapes…ghostlike characters…in a parallel world of fog and fiery chaos.”
But it wasn’t just his living that was controversial. So was his death. After he died in 1851 it was discovered he was living under an assumed name with a woman, not his wife, twenty years his junior, jeopardising the possibility of him being buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. Luckily, such information was suppressed until after the funeral.
Of course, now that I’m more familiar with this fascinating character I am planning to seek out more of his works. As luck would have it, there sitting on the bookshop shelves are three books about his paintings, roughly covering vignettes, a sojourn in Germany and his attitude to the human figure.
So if I’ve aroused your interest in this great painter you’ll have to bide your time till I return the painting books to the shelves, but in the meantime The Extraordinary Life & Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner will have pride of place in our window, at the modest sum of £6 (a new copy will set you back £14.99).