Joseph Mallord William Turner was a loner, a brilliant watercolorist who took this method of painting to a new high. He was also an eccentric, reclusive man. His mother, the daughter of prosperous London butchers and shopkeepers, became mentally ill when he was still a child. For that reason, he was sent away to live with relatives at age 10. Later, she ended up being institutionalized several times and eventually died insane. After early schooling, the young Turner became a draftsman and later studied painting and drawing under Thomas Malton (1726-1801). Malton was a brilliant architectural draughtsman, and Turner got from him a lifetime passion for landscape and architectural painting.
He lived with his father as a grown man. The old Turner becoming his assistant and best friend. Although he never married, Turner had children with several women, including two of his housekeepers. Later in life, already rich and well respected, he bought a house for him and his widowed landlady in Chelsea, where they lived together while he pretended to be her late husband.
He was both admired and dreaded. Friend of all the great painters of the period, he traveled extensively and became a professor of perspective at the Royal Academy. He died a rich man, living a tranquil life at this home in Chelsea.
Critic John Ruskin, who was an acquaintance of the artist and his most dedicated scholar, wrote about Turner that he was the “highest condition of art.” The critic even coined a term to describe his friend’s landscaping technique, “Turnerian Picturesque.”
Describing his work of unpacking Turner’s drawings a decade after the artist’s passing, Ruskin recounts his experience of visiting the dilapidated house and studio in Queen Anne Street:
The manual labor would not have hurt me; but the excitement involved in seeing unfolded the whole career of Turner’s mind during his life, joined with much sorrow at the state in which nearly all his most precious work had been left, and with great anxiety, and heavy sense of responsibility besides, were very trying; and I have never in my life felt so much exhausted as when I locked the last box, and gave the keys to Mr. Wornum, in May, 1858. Among the later colored sketches, there was one magnificent series, which appeared to be of some towns along the course of the Rhine on the north of Switzerland. Knowing that these towns were peculiarly liable to be injured by modern railroad works, I thought I might rest myself by hunting down these Turner subjects, and sketching what I could of them, in order to illustrate his compositions.
Ruskin’s Modern Painters became the standard text on Turner’s art, and on Romantic painting in general. He thought of Turner’s as a genius, someone who made his painting’s subject matter vivid and “pensive.” In his treatment of light and forms, Turner was the first impressionist, a Preface to this movement and a “forerunner of modernist abstraction” according to some. He certainly was a forefather of painters such as Venezuelan Armando Reverón.
Mike Leigh’s portrayal of Turner’s life is a slow-pacing, well directed film. Richard Pope’s photography is spectacular, with a patina and atmosphere that remind paintings from the period. Timothy Spall’s performance is superb — rightfully winning him the 2014 Cannes Best Actor award. Leigh’s script is well paced and rich in details about Turner’s life. It’s both a tribute to the painter and his life as much as his work and time. Despite the oddness of the main role, the portrayal incites sympathy, depicting a man of great character and genius but still human.
The film shows many faces of Turner’s life, including his relationship with his father — he was a loving son, always grateful to the old man for his support and friendship. The scene in which the old Turner asked forgiveness from his son for sending the ailing mother away years ago, recreates the feeling of guilt that the old man must have felt for such a terrible deed and the understanding and gratitude of a son willing to forgive, forget, and move on. The film also shows his curiosity as an artist and his interest in early photography and science. About photography, Turner erroneously thought it could eventually leave painters out of work, which in fact it did somehow but not in the way he foresaw.
His admirer John Ruskin (played by Joshua McGuire)) is also portrayed in the movie, as a cocky and sometimes annoying young man who pretends to know more about art than the artists themselves. In a skit in which Ruskin advances a very arrogant opinion on “marine painting,” and particularly a harsh criticism of Claude Lorrain, the “long dead” French landscape painter, Turner is shown snarling a retort every time the young critic says something blatantly stupid about the topic. At the end, Turner ridiculed the impertinent youngster by asking him an irreverent question about his taste for steaks. The parsimonious interplay of camera movements and dialogues makes the scene both witty and extremely contemptuous, as to re-emphasize the absurdity of the young Ruskin’s pedantry.
Leigh’s take on the life of this extraordinary artist is itself an extraordinary piece of art, well performed, and exquisitely photographed. I give the film a solid five-star grade.