The Magazine

Varnishing Days

England's 19th-century artist-revolutionary.

May 22, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 34 • By HENRIK BERING
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J.M.W. Turner

by Peter Ackroyd

Doubleday, 192 pp., $21.95

THE SENSATION AT THE 1824 exhibition of the Royal Academy was J.M.W. Turner's Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus from his fast-escaping galley, while the blinded giant is roaring in agony on top of his rock island. The painting is a golden vision, a tour de force of light effects with just a touch of operatic vulgarity in all its splendor. "No other living artist comes close to the magical powers that Mr. Turner reveals with such ease," wrote the Times enthusiastically. It is told that, during the Academy's formal dinner, Turner was sitting next to an art-loving bishop, who started rhapsodizing on Homer's felicities, going on and on. Upon which Turner, with a sly smile, interrupted the learned man and told him that his painting was not based on Homer at all, but on the popular music hall lines: "I sing of the cave of Polypheme / Ulysses made him cry out / For he ate his lamb, drank his wine / And then he poked his eye out!"

Which, come to think about it, was very rude of Ulysses.

The greatest 19th-century British painter, Turner is a biographer's dream and an obvious choice in Peter Ackroyd's admirable Brief Lives series. Turner was an arch romantic with the required penchant for the sublime in nature, for catastrophe, for man's fight against the elements. His paintings could be pessimistic and deeply misanthropic, with the shipwreck as a favorite symbol. Or they could be light pastoral idylls, like those of Claude Lorrain, his own favorite painter. About one of Turner's Venice paintings the novelist Edmond de Goncourt later wrote, "To me it seems like a painting by a Rembrandt who was born in India." He freely mixed genres, history painting with landscape painting, and ranged from classically inspired landscapes to paintings of the Industrial Revolution to apocalyptic dreamscapes, which explains why, at various times, he has been called the first impressionist, the first symbolist, and the first abstract painter.

Turner was also a cockney character. Short and compact, with a beaked nose, bright eyes, bandy legs, and huge feet, he looked like a pilot or coachman. Having started out as a watercolorist and painter of theatrical scenery, he emerges here as both a groundbreaking artist, who does new and unknown things, and a shrewd businessman who knows what his costumers want--and delivers. One of his specialties was topographical paintings of country houses, which allowed him to travel all over England and made him a wealthy man.

He was extremely secretive. He never married, but had a penchant for widows, first a Mrs. Danby and then Sofia Caroline Booth, a landlady in Margate, with whom he lived for the last five years of his life in a Chelsea cottage, where he pretended to be a pensioned naval officer and was known locally as Admiral Booth. His tightfistedness has been often remarked on. According to Mrs. Booth, "With the exception of the first year, he never contributed one shilling" to the household.

Like most artists, Ackroyd notes, Turner was no intellectual, but he was very well read in the self-educated fashion. His long titles--one of them contains 51 words of contorted, self-made poetry--were one of his ways of lending literary weight to landscape painting, then considered a lesser genre. As a professor of perspective, he was hard to follow, muttering away, not altogether coherently, in his cockney accent. But his accompanying illustrations made up for such deficiencies. As the Academy librarian noted, though he couldn't hear him, "there is much to see at Turner's lectures."

His behavior on the Academy's varnishing days is legendary. "Varnishing Days" lasted five days and were instituted to allow the artists to make final adjustments to their paintings. For Turner, they became show-off occasions where he challenged both the dead masters and his contemporary colleagues.

If Turner felt threatened by another painting, he would ratchet up the odds, as in a celebrated instance in 1832 where John Constable was putting the finishing touches on his The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, which was hanging next to a Turner marine. Turner entered, took one look at Constable's work, got his palette, "and putting a round daub of red lead, somewhat bigger than a shilling, on his grey sea, went away without saying a word." The red spot sucked up all the attention in the room. "He has been here, and fired a gun," Constable commented. The next day Turner came back and transformed his red spot into a water buoy.