The Sun is God

The Oxford Companion to J M W Turner

Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann (eds) <em>OUP, 4

"He looked like an English farmer, with his rough black coat and heavy boots, and his cold, hard expression." This was the French painter Eugene Delacroix's unimpressed verdict on Joseph Mallord William Turner, the maker of the apocalyptic, spray-glazed seascapes and light-veiled landscapes that have become icons for today's gallery-going middle classes. Universal reverence is new: Mark Twain described Turner's passionate painting of dying slaves on a ship being thrown overboard at sunset as "Cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes".

In life, Turner was a rough diamond. His father was a Soho barber with a West Country twang that may have mixed with Turner's boyhood cockney (lesser men mocked his vowels when he lectured on perspective at the Royal Academy). With his short, stocky body, bandy legs, high colour and "penetrating gaze", Turner was often taken for a sailor. In his last years, living secretively by the Thames with his mistress, Mrs Booth, he passed as "Admiral Booth", getting up early to sit on the terrace he had built to watch the sun rise over the river. The way he stared straight at the sun frightened those who saw him - wouldn't it damage his eyesight? "No more than it would hurt yours to look at a candle," said Turner.

Turner was a practical man. His technical skill raised the status of watercolour and brought it closer to oil. The challenge was to paint light: he used "stopping out" varnish to leave areas of white paper shining out, scratched highlights with one "eagle-claw of a thumbnail", and swept off pigment with a sponge or breadcrumbs. He was practical about money, too. Sir Walter Scott remarked: "Turner's palm is as itchy as his fingers are ingenious and he will, take my word for it, do nothing without cash, and everything for it." He left an estate of around £4m in today's money, partly through establishing his own commercial gallery off Harley Street, where admirers such as John Ruskin were welcome. Late in life, Turner was able to turn down an offer of £100,000 (around £2.5m today) for the contents of his gallery, so that, on his death, he left a large body of work to the nation.

The new Oxford Companion contains 32 colour plates, a 13-page chronology and a thematic contents list that helps the reader navigate the alphabetical entries. It is particularly good on concrete matters such as Turner's will (a knotty topic, given that his central aim of setting up a fund for destitute artists was never achieved) and the changing market in Turner's work. The chief editor is Evelyn Joll, the chairman of Agnew's, which has been Turner's principal dealer for the past hundred years. Other contributors include authoritative Turner scholars such as Andrew Wilton, Ian Warrell and Eric Shanes, who wrote the essays for the catalogue to the Royal Academy's current exhibition "Turner: the great watercolours", which is not to be missed.

Turner left £20,000 to the Royal Academy, partly for the biennial award of a gold "Turner Medal" for landscape painting, which was to be worth "about £20" (then the equivalent of an annual income). Today, the RA stumps up for a bronze Turner medal, plus the niggardly sum of £50. Meanwhile, the Tate Gallery, in a white blaze of media attention, shortlists narcissistic non-painters such as Tracey Emin for what is cheekily called the Turner Prize. Unlike Emin and Sarah Lucas, whose joint artistic offering at Tate Modern is a larger-than-life video of themselves puffing away and glugging down the vino at ten in the morning, Turner's art was genuinely public - about nature, war, history, social unrest, while he kept secret his private life and generous intake of "brown sherry". He had two daughters with Sarah Danby, the mistress he never publicly acknowledged, then lived out his declining years anonymously with his former Margate landlady. The "dark, kindly mannered" Mrs Booth seems to have soothed his despairing moods with domestic happiness - they called each other "old 'un" and "dear" - though she apparently paid all their household expenses.

One occasional drawback to the generally excellent Companion is a lack of dovetailing between the entries. I had to read Hannah and Sarah Danby's entries several times before I was sure that Sarah was the aunt of Hannah, the sad figure, dressed in dingy white flannel and with her eczematous face covered, who looked after Turner's gallery so poorly. The rain came in through the skylights, her seven Manx cats walked with wet feet over unhung watercolours, and one of the paintings served as a cat flap.

At ten in the morning, just before Turner died, the sun poured into his bedroom overlooking the river. Ruskin, who had a better way with words than Turner, records him saying in his last weeks: "The Sun is God." Even if that was Ruskin's invention, Turner's paintings, shining out from the dark red walls in the dust and decay of his gallery, silently asserted the same terrifying hope.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.