Turner: A Life

by James Hamilton

Published by Random House

461 pages, 2003

Buy it online





Landscape of Life

Reviewed by Ed Voves


The great British landscape painter, JMW Turner, was once lampooned in a caricature portraying him as a hobbit-like little man wearing an enormous top hat. The cartoon Turner brandishes a mop in his hand like a lance. Yellow paint, dripping from the mop, is about to be smeared on to a waiting canvas. Such was a contemporary view of Turner in 1846, a century before Jackson Pollock.

Turner's paint brushes may have dripped yellow paint but his life, as chronicled in James Hamilton's insightful biography, was drenched in irony. Turner, who at just five-foot-four-inches, was hobbit-like in size, was the artistic giant of the early 19th century. The heir of the classic traditions of European art, he was regarded by many as a madman who painted with "soapsuds and whitewash." Many of his paintings were closely related to events of his day or drawn from ancient history. Yet, Turner was an artistic revolutionary of the greatest distinction, as shown by his monumental 1812 work "Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps." In this contrasting study of dark clouds and a beckoning, sunny valley, Hannibal and his men hardly figured at all. Turner's real subject, the obsession of his life, was light itself.

The dawn of modern art is usually dated to 1863 when Eduard Manet, rejected by the French art establishment, exhibited his paintings of "modern life" at the Salon des Refuse. Almost every incident in the struggles of the Impressionists, the Fauves and the Abstract painters of the 20th century, however, were prefigured in Turner's stormy career. As Hamilton shows in his biography of the artist, Turner faced determined opposition from pillars of British officialdom like Sir Richard Beaumont, founder of the National Gallery, and was denied the high honors which were bestowed on lesser artists.

Born in 1775, Turner was the son of a barber whose London establishment catered to the city's artistic and literary elite. Turner grew to manhood observing Britain's "beautiful people" and quite early in his career began selling paintings to members of the nobility. Yet he never painted portraits of these grandees, as had Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, the leading artists during his youth. Turner's forte was landscape painting and, just as he started to depict the coastline of England and the mountains of Wales on his canvases during the 1790s, the great cultural flowering of Romanticism began. Turner, who loved tramping about the rolling hills and moors of his native land, was the perfect painter for a generation which sought inspiration from nature.

In 1802, a brief treaty between warring Britain and France enabled Turner to visit the south of France, northern Italy and the Swiss Alps. For Turner, the brilliance of the Mediterranean sunlight and the majesty of the Alps was a visual revelation. During his early career, Turner's choice of colors reflected the influence of the Dutch 17th century masters on British art. His palette was a cool one, emphasizing misty grays and somber browns. This brief glimpse of luminous golden hues redirected his whole approach to painting. After Napoleon's defeat in 1815 allowed him to make regular journeys to the continent, especially Italy, Turner's canvases glowed with light, earning him the scorn of many of his contemporaries and the admiration of modern day critics.

The author is among the latter group. Hamilton is a British art historian and curator, whose exhibit "Turner: the Late Seascapes" will be shown this summer at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. One of Hamilton's major strengths as a biographer is his astute appraisal of Turner's sketchbooks. These were used for much more than quick drawings, being compilations of artistic detail, weather conditions, travel notes, expenses and personal reflections. Turner compiled a large collection, bound in fine leather, and referred to them constantly. Hamilton perceptively uses them as a surrogate diary, tracing Turner's evolution as an artist. From these insights, Hamilton fills in the details of how Turner painted masterpieces like "Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway" (1844), a vivid depiction of a train racing forward across a bridge, and "Rocket and Blue Lights" (1840), a swirling, storm swept study of endangered ships.

Turner's paintings were personal, often political, statements. He was a staunch defender of human rights and his searing presentation of an actual event from the slave trade, "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying: Typhoon Coming On" (1840), is an icon in the struggle for liberty. The painting, now in the Boston Museum of Art, confronts the viewer with a blood red sky and a host of small black hands, bound in chains, reaching upward from the surging sea into which they had been tossed to lighten the load of the tempest battered ship.

Turner's display of artistic skill and human empathy raises "Slavers" from being a mere history painting to the status of a cultural landmark. This painting, like so many of Turner's later works, transcends the barriers of time and taste. However, the contradictions which shadowed his professional career beset his private life as well. Notoriously tight with his money, Turner was an indifferent father to his two daughters, who were born out of wedlock. Devoted to his own father, he failed to make provision for humane care for his mother when she suffered a mental collapse. He also left a mass of erotic drawings among his papers which terribly upset the Victorian sensibilities of his staunch defender, John Ruskin.

Controversy continued to haunt Turner even after his death in 1851. On one level, Hamilton's failure to discuss Turner's posthumous career is a puzzling disappointment. Yet, it may also have been a wise decision, enabling his readers to judge for themselves the strange little man who was the last of the Old Masters and the first of the New. | July 2003


Ed Voves is a news researcher for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. He frequently reviews books on a wide range of topics, chiefly history and the life sciences, and has interviewed many writers including Maurice Sendak and Umberto Ecco.