An acutely limned miniature of J.M.W. Turner (1775–51), whose watercolors, engravings and spectacular oils mark him as England's greatest painter of air, earth and water.
Whether the culmination of the Romantic period or the harbinger of Cézanne and van Gogh and all we’ve come to call modern, Turner invented a new pictorial language that baffled contemporaries—except, perhaps, for the preternaturally incisive John Ruskin. Ackroyd (Chaucer, 2005, etc.) comments smartly on the art but focuses on the man, a genius peculiar to London, comparable to Blake, Hogarth and Dickens. Descended from a line of barbers and butchers (his mother was committed to an insane asylum) and raised amid the clamor of Covent Garden, Turner escaped anonymity through his father's encouragement, his talent and his unremitting hard work. Elected to the Royal Academy at an astonishingly young age, he conducted most of his career as England's best known and best paid painter. An awkward poet, a halting public speaker, an avid angler and sailor, Turner was highly secretive and protective of his work. He traveled widely throughout Britain and the continent, admiring particularly the charms of Venice and the canvasses of Rembrandt, Canaletto and, above all, Claude Lorrain. Taciturn and brusque, he single-mindedly pursued his art and reserved any affability for small children and a few close patrons. On the condition his paintings be kept together, he willed a large portion of his work to the nation, and today the shipwrecks, fires, storms and atmospheric chaos Turner so brilliantly captured constitute the chief ornament of London's Tate Gallery.
A short biography, but one no less satisfying for the wide-ranging erudition Ackroyd brings to the task.