George Melly

Take Your Pick

Turner: Standing in the Sun

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Sinclair-Stevenson 480pp £25 order from our bookshop

Turner: A Life

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Hodder & Stoughton 400pp £25 order from our bookshop

Surely it’s impossible for two authors to engage simultaneously in writing full-length biographies of Turner without becoming aware, as they beaver away in archives and galleries, that they have a literary doppelgänger?

Well, it didn’t stop Messrs Bailey and Hamilton, nor their publishers, from going ahead, and I must admit to near-despair when I opened an enormous parcel making this manifest. I had imagined that one book at least would have been coffee-table fodder, but no. They are both thoroughly researched and well written. Bailey’s Standing in the Sun is a bit longer, but mostly because (perhaps appropriately, in the circumstances) he goes in for more scene-painting. Sometimes, indeed, he gives the no doubt false impression that he is paid by the word. The rubbish the street-cleaners swept up in Covent Garden in Turner’s childhood – the ‘litter of purply-green cabbage leaves, bits of white yellow turnip or pale orange carrot [etc, etc…]’ – is the same in any street market today, or is Bailey trying to imply where Turner’s palette came from? Yet at other times his verboseness pays off. His description of Turner’s death is more moving than Hamilton’s brusque account.

Still, Hamilton is witty, always a plus in my book, and I prefer his way of introducing Turner’s friends and patrons (often the same thing) as the book develops, rather than in separate chapters as Bailey does. This means we get to know Walter Fawkes, a Yorkshire landowner, and the admirable Lord Egremont of Petworth as they make their entry and play out their roles, and the same is true of the painter’s great enemy, Lord George Beaumont.

I suppose in the learned journals these two works will be measured against each other, weighed and analysed, finely judged, but I’m reviewing them for the ordinary reader and tackled them in turn. There seems to be little they disagree about, and all in all I found little to make me recommend one book over the other.

Turner was certainly a genius and knew it from his precocious youth. I’d always imagined a gradual transition from topography and the golden light of Claude and Richard Wilson to the storms and tempests of his later years. This turns out to be an absurd simplification. At times Turner was almost Picasso-like in his borrowings from others, including, in his case, Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, and the seventeenth-century Dutch marine artists, yet it was nature he most revered, and in all her moods. Towards the end, of course, he produced pictures which worried many people (indicative of mental disease), including even his PR, Ruskin. But they show that Turner was not only the father of Impressionism as has often been said, but of Abstract Expressionism also. He went out in a blaze of light.

As a character, he was a mass of contradictions: a generous miser, a sociable curmudgeon, a lover of his own pictures who let many of them fall into decay. Despite the odd row, he loved the Royal Academy and served it well. It also provided the setting for two of his most comical manifestations. In 1807 he was elected as the Academy’s Professor of Perspective, a subject which fascinated him. However, he was apparently the worst lecturer ever – muddling up his illustrations and totally inaudible as he turned to sort them out. His other performance – only here he was in control – was on ‘varnishing day’, when artists were allowed to varnish or correct their work in situ. Turner, in his top hat and shabby, old-fashioned clothes, used the opportunity to paint his contribution from scratch and in such brilliant colours as to obliterate his neighbours.

Were there dark sides to Turner? Certainly his treatment of his mother was pretty heartless. Always difficult, she went insane, and although by this time Turner could have afforded a private asylum, he and his father let her rot and die in Bedlam. Nor did they attend her funeral.

There have always been rumours of a dark sexual life in the stews of the East End. Neither author gives this much credence, although both acknowledge the pornographic drawings, many of which Ruskin destroyed. Given how bad Turner was at figures, I can’t help wondering if Ruskin may not inadvertently have carried out an aesthetic rather than a moral auto-da-fé.

Neither author actually admits to Turner’s failing at drawing people. Both are to blame, but especially Hamilton, for quoting far too much of Turner’s verse, a violon d’Ingres hideously out of tune.

Otherwise no real grumbles. The three mistresses are there, all treated stingily when abandoned, and Turner’s father, the Covent Garden barber who for many years looked after his famous son like a combination of slave and mother, is very much in evidence in both books, an early Dickensian figure in the mould of Sam Weller.

As to the illustrations? Well, my proof copies didn’t have any and this had the happy effect of driving me to visit the Tate and, crammed full of all this double-headed, sometimes repetitive information, what an enchanted pleasure it was.

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