In Turner, his short biography of Joseph Mallard William Turner, Peter Ackroyd tells of a visit the 19th century British painter made to the estate of his patron and friend Walter Fawkes.
Fawkes later recalled that he asked Turner to draw a man-of-war and
he began by pouring wet paint till [the paper] was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrubbed at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos — but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship with all its exquisite minutiae, came into being and by luncheon time the drawing was taken down in triumph.
That, Ackroyd writes, was a fitting description of Turner’s method and talent:
The emergence of form out of chaos, the man-of-war emerging mysteriously from a mist of color…He created a dynamic and fluid space in which to work, quite unlike the more rigidly defined ground of previous artists. His tactile sense of creating shape and form — scratching and scrubbing as if he were dealing with some recalcitrant material — gives his work a texture of inspired improvisation and magical creation.
“The deities of the cosmic order”
Turner has been called the First Impressionist, prefiguring the movement that began to develop in the decades after his death in 1851. He painted light and water, especially mist, in a manner and with a virtuosity that no one before him, or after him, ever approached.
The English critic William Hazlitt, describing Turner’s later landscapes wrote:
[T]hey are pictures of the elements of air, earth and water. The artist delights to go back to the first chaos of the world…All is without form and void. Someone said of his landscapes that they were “pictures of nothing, and very like.”
Ackroyd notes that Turner was in no way conventionally religious. Indeed, an apocryphal story is that, on his deathbed, he said, “The sun is God.” It’s a tale that doesn’t have to be true to be accurate. Turner worshiped the sun. As Ackroyd writes:
He understood the sacredness of light as the power which coursed through all things, and which charged the world with its divine grandeur. He had an almost primeval view of the heavens which, in sunlight or in moonlight, brooded over the earth. He bowed down to the deities of the cosmic order.
Capturing the essence
I have begun this review with all of these quotations for two reasons: (1) It seems to me that these insights from Ackroyd and the others go to the heart of Turner’s life and art, and (2) they are an example of the great value of a short biography.
Published in 2004, Turner was the second of Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series. The subjects of the other five published so far are Geoffrey Chaucer, Isaac Newton, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Charles Chaplin.
A similar series in the U.S. is the distinguished Penguin Lives, published from 1999 through 2012. Unlike Ackroyd’s one-man project, these have involved 34 writers telling the stories of 34 subjects.
In both cases, the goal is to present a condensed look at the life of an important figure from the past, 100 to 200 pages — but not a superficial look. The goal is to capture the essence of the subject’s life and impact.
That’s why the quotes above are so powerful. Ackroyd’s book is only 148 pages, yet he’s absolutely profligate with the amount of space he devotes to Turner’s love of light and of depicting the elemental chaos of the world in his art.
Any biography of Turner might include these quotations and similar analyses amid the vast array of facts, descriptions and anecdotes that are required in a full-scale life story. The delight of Ackroyd’s book is that, in its brevity, these perceptions stand out.
Several times in Turner, Ackroyd makes comparisons between the painter’s art and the work of great poets.
He had already advanced the art of history painting to a new intensity and even sublimity, as if the poetry of Byron or of Shelley had found color and texture, light and shadow.
A bit later, Ackroyd writes about Turner’s first visit to Italy and a side trip he made to pay respects at the grave of Virgil.
Virgil was for him the poet who had managed to combine the pastoral and the allegorical, to create spiritual landscapes, and to derive legendary enchantments out of historical events. In his own way, and in his own medium, he had similar ambitions.
Those ambitions, though, didn’t sit well with some contemporaries. One amateur artist found much fault in Turner’s work, complaining that he was “perpetually aiming to be extraordinary.”
“A Cockney visionary”
Yet, if Turner’s art was extraordinary — and it was — there was, Ackroyd notes, an “essential simplicity” to the artist’s nature. In his studio, Turner “worked from early morning, keeping long hours, and yet ‘work’ is hardly the word for what was essentially a mode of life.”
Turner “needed to keep busy, as if there was some great relief or release in continual activity,” writes Ackroyd. Drawing, painting, creating — it was all akin to breathing. He could not live without it.
He was, Ackroyd writes, “one of those natures who seemed destined for work, and who take positive pride in their energy and industriousness.
Turner travelled much, always returning to London where he was born.
[L]ike William Blake and William Hogarth — two artists whom in attitude and demeanor he so much resembled — he was a quintessentially London genius, a Cockney visionary….He loved the crowds, and smoke and glare, and soot and dust and dunghills.
He died in London in 1851 at the age of 76.
Patrick T. Reardon