On writing

Franny Moyle on dispelling the myths of J.M.W. Turner

Fanny Moyle tells the extraordinary story of one of Britain’s greatest, and misunderstood, artists, J.M.W. Turner

Grunty, unkempt, reclusive, mocked and misunderstood. This is the prevailing caricature of the British artist J.M.W. Turner. True enough, Turner did appear thus in the very last years of his life, when he is glimpsed by his contemporaries sporting a scruffy black top coat, its pockets bulging with dirty paint cloths, emerging during the so called Varnishing Days of the Royal Academy exhibition to contribute a flourish to a canvas, before scuttling away. But during the course of his 76 years it’s also true that there were very different versions of the great painter. In fact, if one thing is certain in the life story of Joseph Mallord William Turner, it is that nothing is ever fixed.

It was the son of Turner’s dear friend, the architect Sir John Soane, who is perhaps to blame for Turner’s reputation as a grunter. The young man was in the Eternal City, when he reported that “a sucking blade of the brush made the request of going out with pig Turner – he grunted for answer that it would take up too much time…. and then grunted his way home”. 

And yet as a young boy Turner is far from piggy. He is the immaculately dressed, polite son of an aspiring barber sporting a striped waistcoat and fashionable long, curled hair - already dedicated to art.

In his twenties, Turner emerges as a keen social networker who understood the need to press hands and currying favour to climb through the political brambles of the powerful Royal Academy of Art. In the Academician Joseph Farington’s diary, young Turner is always at his door. He offers his paintings to the Academy’s opinion formers, whilst making sure that he is at any gathering were the conversation about art might move forward. William Godwin bumps into him at the opening of Henry Fuseli’s Milton Gallery. He is spied at William Beckford’s home viewing the patron’s Claudes. He joins his fellow artists in the Louvre during the peace of 1802. He breakfasts with Samuel Rogers. Meanwhile on Friday nights he is at Dr Monro’s house, where Bedlam’s chief physician gathered the leading landscape painters of the day for debate.


Varnishing day: William Parrott, J. M. W. Turner at the Royal Academy, Varnishing Day, oil on canvas. The Collection of the Guild of St George, Sheffield.


War and Exile: J. M. W. Turner, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet, exhibited 1842, oil on canvas, 311 inches x 311 inches

Turner’s naked ambition softens as he ages. He becomes an affable companion for the journalist Cyrus Redding on a tour of Devon in 1813. And he gains a reputation as an occasional, informal host, inviting friends to picnic in the garden of his Twickenham home where he laid on “ cold meats, shell fish, and good wines”. It is this chummy version of Turner who accompanies the sculptor Francis Chantry on convivial, extended fishing expeditions - one to the Houghton Fishing Club where Turner made a little sketch of himself mid stream for the club’s day book.

The informal Turner gives way to the more formal club member. When not dining at the Academy club, he will be found at the Athenaeum, in his favourite chair in the south-east corner of the Drawing Room. 

And finally he emerges as the elder statesman, complete with that shabby black coat and paint-stained fingers.  These personal oversights do not lessen his social appeal however. At Christmas eminent painters, along with the President of the RA Lord Eastlake vie with the critic John Ruskin for his company. Every January he joins the birthday party of his patron Benjamin Windus, where he can’t help but examine the landscape designs on the pink edged Worcester desert-ware. Every Spring he is the star Attendee of RA show.

That Turner was mocked in the latter part of his career is indeed true. As his work took on what Turner described as its ‘indistinct’ misty aspect, the critics hurled brickbats. Yet Turner retained admirers even then. “You never get to the end of a picture of his,” Lady Trevelyan remarked. “You might fancy things in other people’s blue mists, when you were in the humour, and the things would not be there next time you looked; but Turner’s things are really there, and once you have seen them there, they are forever, and you know he has meant them, and meant a thousand things more that you have only to watch for and find out.”

So not quite the recluse, not always scruffy, nor entirely misunderstood. The one consistency in his inconsistent life however was his dedication to art, and to bear witness to the vast world around him. As Ruskin so aptly put it “everything in the sunshine and the sky so talks of him”.



Franny Moyle

The extraordinary life of J. M. W Turner, one of Britain's most admired, misunderstood and celebrated artists

J. M. W. Turner is Britain's most famous landscape painter. Yet beyond his artistic achievements, little is known of the man himself and the events of his life: the tragic committal of his mother to a lunatic asylum, the personal sacrifices he made to effect his stratospheric rise, and the bizarre double life he chose to lead in the last years of his life.

A near-mythical figure in his own lifetime, Franny Moyle tells the story of the man who was considered visionary at best and ludicrous at worst. A resolute adventurer, he found new ways of revealing Britain to the British, astounding his audience with his invention and intelligence. Set against the backdrop of the finest homes in Britain, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, this is an astonishing portrait of one of the most important figures in Western art and a vivid evocation of Britain and Europe in flux.

Set against this spectacular and ultimately controversial career, Moyle also excavates the private Turner. Psychologically wounded as a child, by a family torn apart by death and mental illness, she suggests a man who could not embrace relationships fully until the very end of his life. Only then did he succumb to his love for the widowed Sophia Booth, concealing this all too human aspect of his life behind an assumed identity. She mines the poignancy of his final years, when, with his health ailing, Turner sought solace in a secret private life that had eluded him before and that he knew would scandalise the new generation of Victorians.

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