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STANDING IN THE SUN by Anthony Bailey


A Life of J.M.W. Turner

by Anthony Bailey

Pub Date: Dec. 31st, 1998
ISBN: 0-06-118002-5
Publisher: HarperCollins

A thorough, careful biography of a talented, deeply evasive English painter whose own contemporaries knew little of him. Bailey, a former staff writer for the New Yorker and author of some 20 books (The Coast of Summer, 1994, etc.), undertook a difficult task in writing this. For even during the artist’s lifetime, Turner took great pains to deny his past, ignoring or obliterating his various tragedies. Nonetheless, Bailey has created a convincing portrait of the man by plowing assiduously through historical records, archives, and earlier biographies. The painter who appears in these pages is anything but a sympathetic character: After his mother was committed to the notorious Bethlehem Hospital for the insane when Turner was just 26, he never spoke of her again. Upon her death just two years later, his secretiveness intensified. Given his subject’s lifelong elusiveness, Bailey has done an admirable job of refracting Turner’s personality through detailed and lively descriptions of his social milieu and the writings of his peers. Apparently, even his contemporaries found this small, bandy-legged, and homely man perplexing. His friend and colleague David Roberts, while acknowledging Turner’s “profound greatness,” for example, also wrote that he was “selfish to an extream . . . [and] cunning, penurious & sensual.” Few ever knew that Turner first lived with one widow, fathered two daughters by her, and subsequently took up with another; he never married either. Of his artistic life, by comparison, much is known: Turner’s talents were recognized in childhood, were fostered in the Royal Academy, and they remained the subject of much debate. Bailey balances each aspect—the personal and the professional—well, and even manages to convey his own compassion for his paradoxical subject. —His contradictions have puzzled many,— he writes, —but they endear him to me.— Without ever denying Turner’s quirks and petty cruelties, Bailey gradually illuminates the artist’s character.