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'Standing in the Sun: A Life of J.M.W. Turner' by Anthony Bailey

Bio paints Turner as a genius ahead of his time

Sunday, April 25, 1999

By Donald Miller, Post-Gazette Art and Architecture Critic


Standing in the Sun: A Life of J.M.W. Turner

By Anthony Bailey



Many megastars light the world long after their passing. Even so, every generation needs to discover them for new audiences so that their mastery is not forgotten.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) stands at the pinnacle of 19th-century British art. Yet for many his life may seem a very long time ago.

In Turner’s time, the inventions of the Industrial Age were changing his world. Turner could paint ancient Carthage from imagination or, closer to reality, depict the burning of Parliament or steaming trains and steamships abstractly chugging from ports still choked with doomed four-masters.

Anthony Bailey’s latest biography -- he wrote “Rembrandt’s House” -- should kindle new interest in Turner, a fascinating, sometimes crabbed genius. Decades ahead of his brown-daubing contemporaries, Turner produced gloriously luminous sunsets and intensely atmospheric landscapes in a fresh and startlingly simplified form, bowling over his contemporaries and winning him powerful collectors.

Today the world acknowledges how Turner’s discoveries sped Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro’s invention of French impressionism after they saw his glowing works in London more than 20 years after his death.

But there is so much more to know, and Bailey, author of 20 books and a staff writer at The New Yorker for many years, gives his story all the minute attention it deserves in an erudite but readable style exploring the many byways of Turner’s twisted life.

His genius was recognized early, and he soon became wealthy; at his death he was worth more than $5 million. Yet his personal gallery, in which he finally lay in state before interment in St. Paul’s Cathedral, held 40 years of dust as well as fallen ceiling plaster that had pushed out a masterpiece from behind and was left that way.

Turner was an eagle-eyed, well-read eccentric -- a short stout man in a tall hat. A sharp chin, large nose and toothless face made him a living Punch. He was slyly self-indulgent and drank copiously, but he was intelligent and held his own with schooled clients.

More than a little reclusive, Turner had two natural daughters he never acknowledged. He not only lived intimately with his last housekeeper, Hannah Booth, but also adopted her name in her neighborhood. After his death, she claimed he never paid for anything during their life together.

But what an angel of a painter -- able to capture rapturous light and indicate figures, ships, buildings with the lightest of touches. His oils resembled watercolors, his watercolors oils.

As he worked, other artists would ask how to solve their painting problems. His answers were correct even when no one had seen him study any canvas but his own.

One of the stories Frank Harris, the English magazine editor, tells in his outrageously inflated autobiography “My Life and Loves” was how art critic John Ruskin, who is credited with keeping Turner from being forgotten, took moralistic pride in having burned his erotica. Turner’s drawings by the hundreds had been done while the artist was probably a participant and voyeur at riverside sporting houses.

But some of these survive and are part of the magnificent Turner Bequest of the many paintings and drawings at London’s National Gallery of Art. “Standing in the Sun” contains many small illustrations, sublime and earthy. This is an elegant biography, but the most shocking photograph is of Turner’s death mask with its hawk-like beak, hollow cheeks and empty open mouth. How he would have hated this image.

Best of all, Bailey continuously describes Turner’s artistic temperament -- how he would lie in a small boat for hours on the Thames looking at clouds or how, near his end, he fell getting out of bed to look at the river.

This intensity is a clue to the mastery. Observing and capturing nature in its wonder, terror and sublimity were Turner’s primary resource. That and possession of a creativity that was no less than sublime.

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