The artist’s eye by Richard Jones


A look at Mr. Turner (M)

IF you’re a semi-regular viewer of works on display at museums and art galleries there’s a fair chance you’ll have seen paintings signed by ‘J.M.W. Turner’.
I have, particularly in the Tate and National Galleries in London but in our very own National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne as well.
Not until I saw veteran actor Timothy Spall unleashed on screen as the aforesaid Turner had I known anything much about the acclaimed artist though, let alone what those initials ‘J.M.W’ stood for.
His first mistress, mother of his two daughters, might have known him in the 1820s and 1830s as ‘Billy Turner’, yet Mr Turner’s given names were Joseph Mallord William.
In stuffy Victorian times, of course, the pre-fixes ‘Mister” and ‘Madam’ were always used so director Mike Leigh quite correctly uses the oft-used term for his film title.
Turner was the son of a Covent Garden barber and during his extremely productive painting years Turner senior (Paul Jesson) was his unofficial butler, art dealer and canvas stretcher.
Unlike a number of his contemporaries – the very sad Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), for instance – Turner knew how to play the game and gained wealth and respectability during his own lifetime.
We see him at a huge country estate, run by a leading aristocrat who is one of Turner’s patrons, and at the Royal Academy where’s he’s feted by his contemporaries.
One exchange with fellow landscape artist John Constable is illuminating. Spall makes Turner sound as the master addressing an apprentice although Constable, of course, was important in his own lifetime, too.
But the most informative and happiest scenes are played out at Margate on the English coast where Mr Turner goes to sketch seaside scenes.
He rents a room from Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey) who doesn’t know initially who her famous lodger is. Turner engages her ageing sea-faring husband in dinner table talk and learns from Mr Booth how many slaves collected in west Africa were tossed overboard during storms at sea before the ships berthed back in England.
Those discussions laid the groundwork for one of Turner’s most famous paintings. And even though during a royals’ tour of the Royal Academy the young Queen Victoria dismisses one of Turner’s more abstract paintings as “a dirty yellow mess”, the grunting and phlegmatic artist carries on.
Turner and Mrs Booth move into digs in Chelsea following Mr Booth’s death. They lead a happy life, although at his other London address Turner’s maid Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) is wasting away with terrible psoriasis and related skin disorders.
Modern inventions, such as the railway and the camera, have just intruded into Turner’s world. He tells Mrs Booth when they’re having their studio shots taken that photography will probably spell the end of crafts such as his.
Mr. Turner is a long-ish film, running for 150 minutes, although the re-creations of 1830s and 1840s Britain – London especially, but also the charming seaside town of Margate – are exquisite.
And the opening scene set in Belgium with a giant windmill silhouetted in the fading evening light is breath-taking.

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