He was the finest landscape painter of his time, and he knew it. This new biography explains why.
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) painted the sunrise over Norham Castle with as much invention as he depicted sea battles, moments in British history, and Welsh villagers struggling to get piglets into a boat in choppy shallows. Born to a barber and wig-maker, Turner became one of the youngest ever Academicians at London’s Royal Academy and was so beloved by John Ruskin that the eminent art critic cataloged all 30,000 of the artist’s works (including, to Ruskin’s surprise, erotic drawings) after Turner’s death. Like all good storytellers, Moyle (Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde, 2012, etc.) begins with high drama: Turner’s death in a state of “moral degradation” in a neighborhood of Chelsea. From there, she returns to Turner’s Covent Garden youth and chronicles his successes and failures. This is a popular rather than scholarly work, light on technical analysis but heavy on scenes from Turner’s life. Moyle does highlight Turner’s technical innovations, including his experiments with backlit paintings and scioptic balls (“a kind of early wide-angle or fish-eye lens” used to create panoramic views), and she describes well such iconic paintings as The Battle of Trafalgar and The Fighting Temeraire. Her focus, however, is on personal stories: Turner’s relationship with the widow Sarah Danby, with whom he fathered two daughters; his mother’s incarceration in a mental asylum; and his controversial investment in the Dry Sugar Work near Spanish Town in Jamaica, “a cattle farm that depended on slavery for its labour.” Throughout, the author enlivens her tale with perfect details, as when undertakers bringing Turner’s large, expensive coffin to his Chelsea home can’t get the casket through the door.
Moyle writes that young Turner was “an instinctive and tireless networker, massively self-motivated, undeterrable in his determination.” This excellent biography shows the benefits, and the pitfalls, of such single-minded obsession.