Published: 24 March, 2011
by JOHN HORDER
JOSEPH Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), was the most loved and hated painter of the Victorian era. He loved secrecy so much he found it impossible to give anything away about his relationships with the opposite sex and illegitimate children, even when hard pressed. He clung on to it like a five-year-old boy smother-loving his favourite teddy, refusing ever to be parted from it.
As the sun made its springtime comeback this week, what better time to celebrate the painter. There’s time to read Peter Ackroyd’s engaging brief life story before being one of the early visitors to a new Turner gallery that is opening in Margate – a mere train ride away – in mid April.
From an early age, Turner was convinced that the sun, which played such a large part in so many of his paintings, was God. His father, who owned a barber’s shop in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, was of a sunnier disposition than his mother Mary, who had an uncontrollable temper, and was eventually locked up in the madhouse in Old Street, near where William Blake was buried.
“It was a subject about which he never chose to talk... Turner would be condemned as ‘mad’ by the more vociferous critics”, Ackroyd concluded.
Throughout these admirable 148 pages Turner never stops working for all the hours God gives to him, starting his own gallery in Harley Street, seeing his favourite paintings of storms at sea in more and more galleries, then completely losing interest once he became Professor in Perspective at the Royal Academy in January 1811.
The true treasures in Ackroyd’s “Brief Life” are the drawing of Turner “the Cockney visionary”, with his parrot nose just like his beloved father’s (1816), the small-girthed elderly “Turner on Varnishing Day” (at the Royal Academy) by SW Parrot, around 1846). There are reproductions of “The Battle of Trafalgar” (1824), which never found favour with George 1V and Turner believed cost him his knighthood, and one of his masterpieces, “The Fighting Temeraire” (1838) – “the last thoroughly perfect picture [he] ever painted”, according to John Ruskin.
A few weeks before his death in 1851,Turner is reputed to have remarked that “the sun is God”. “The remark may be apocryphial”, Ackroyd concludes, “but it is appropriate enough for an artist who loved the light beyond all things.” And secrecy.
But such is Turner’s enduring power that the seaside town of Margate has enlisted his help in a bid to regenerate its visitor appeal. The Turner Contemporary, located on the same site on the seafront where Turner stayed on his visits to the town, opens on Saturday April 16 with an exhibition entitled Revealed.
Centred on his painting of “The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains”, it will include new commissions by some of the 21st-century’s eminent artists.
• JMW Turner by Peter Ackroyd is in the Brief Lives series published by Chatto & Windus
• Rendezvous is at Turner Contemporary, Margate, Kent CT9 1HG from Saturday April 16, daily (except non-bank holiday Mondays) 10am-7pm. Admission free. Trains from St Pancras every hour, take about 90 minutes. More details at www.turnercontemporary.org