A portrait of the artist: is it time we looked at Turner differently?

Two new books about the painter show that, when it comes to biography, sometimes less detail can give us more perspective.

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Rembrandt, whom J M W Turner revered, left more than 100 self-portraits but Turner left only three. The first two were the product of his teens, and the third was completed in 1799, when he was 24 years old. The youngest artist to be elected an associate of the Royal Academy, he presents himself here as an upstart, an overturner of the order of things. Turner painted what interested him, and people – himself included – on the whole did not. His figures are distant, his faces dots and dashes. He had sailors tie him to a ship’s mast so he could observe a storm at sea but preferred not to look too closely at a human being.

When people looked closely at Turner they saw, as Delacroix remarked, “an English farmer” with “a hard, cold demeanour”. Constable described him as “uncouth”; one friend thought him “suspicious”. To Ruskin, he was “good-natured evidently, bad-tempered evidently”.

Turner clearly enjoyed the contrast between his earthly imperfections and the sublimity of his art: “No one would believe upon seeing my likeness that I painted those pictures.” No one did believe it. “His very person and face,” according to the landscapist William Havell, “were the antagonists of the ideality of his works.”

He lived in vivid times – revolutions, steam, speed – but the significant women in Turner’s world are as vague and indiscernible as those in his landscapes. His mother, Mary, who was 38 when she married William Turner, a Covent Garden barber, lost her mind when her young daughter died. Mary died at Bedlam in 1804, aged 69; so while Turner was being lauded by fellow academicians, his mother was chained to a wall. Nothing is known about her madness, save that she had a “fierce” temper and her young son was removed from home to live in Brentford and then Margate. It was here that he made his Faustian pact with painting. “I hate married men,” he later said. “They never make any sacrifice to the Arts.” Turner sacrificed everything and ­everyone to the arts.

He never married but there were two mistresses that we know of. The first, Sarah Danby, the widow of a musician, had seven children before Turner provided her with two more, of whom he took scant notice. The couple lived apart. Had their intimacy been revealed, Mrs Danby would have forfeited her widow’s pension. Turner was happy with this arrangement. His second mistress, Sophia Booth, was more visible and it was with her that he secreted himself in his final years in the Chelsea hovel where he was known as Admiral Booth.

His “only secret”, he said, was “damned hard work”, which poses a challenge for his biographers. Both Franny Moyle and Eric Shanes promise to provide us with the fullest portrait of Turner yet, but their subject won’t sit still long enough for his likeness to take hold. While Shanes gives us the brilliant but elusive young man, Moyle shapes her narrative around the double life and scandalous death of Admiral Booth. In both books, we watch him produce his canvases like rabbits out of hats, driving the old farts crazy with his garish pigments and his white bases. When he is not painting, he is finding further views or preparing lectures on perspective, given to the Royal Academy. The lectures were, writes Shanes – who describes them in full – “an abject failure”. They were delivered, a contemporary noted, with “much hesitation and difficulty”. Turner’s speech was spare, and his prose lacked dexterity. He left little by way of a written record.

What Moyle and Shanes do have are his bank accounts, allowing us to weigh the contents of the artist’s coffers in pounds, shillings and pence. His first painting, Fishermen at Sea, shown in the RA exhibition of 1796, was sold for £10. Two years later, he had £950 invested in the Bank of England; he died having saved the equivalent of millions. He hoarded his gold as though awaiting a catastrophe – Turner had what Henry James would call “the imagination of disaster” – and instead of having the liveried servants he could easily afford, he chose to live in squalor. He was a notorious miser; it is appropriate that his face will be adorning the new £20 note. Yet he left the bulk of his fortune to destitute artists and bequeathed his paintings to the nation.

Both authors find the man in his relationship to money but also by tracking six decades of paintings and sketchbooks – 540 oils, 1,600 watercolours, 19,000 sketches – beginning with his adolescent topographical experiments and ending with what Hazlitt described (and I believe this was a compliment) as his “pictures of nothing, and very like”. While Moyle’s publishers have allowed her three plate sections, Yale University Press has spared no expense in producing, for Shanes, a lushly illustrated volume, gleaming and glossy, so boastful a block of a book that it is almost too heavy to hold. “This book,” he writes, “which is itself vast in scale, condenses a biography which is more than twice its length that is due to appear electronically.” Blimey. Vastness was Turner’s subject but his figures either drown in, or are dwarfed by, the vastness of their surroundings. Bigness is no guarantee of quality: remember what happened to the Titanic and the Costa Concordia.

Moyle’s Turner is a mischievous, mani­pulative and thoroughly modern painting machine, a man on the make and on the take, selfish, sexual and eminently clubbable. The world of the Royal Academy gave him structure, as well as recognition. “His taste for order and tradition,” she writes, “stood in stark contrast to the chaos of his private life.” Yet this taste for order and accumulation of wealth was surely born of his fear of chaos. His art was strongest when it faced what he feared. Overturning order, chaos became his subject. “He paints,” said William Beckford of Turner’s late style, “as if his brains and imagination were mixed up on his palette with soapsuds and lather.”

Shanes is good on the turbulence of Turner’s childhood, suggesting that his sister died as a result of a “killer cloud” following a volcanic eruption in Iceland. There were vivid red sunsets for years afterwards. “Who is to say that the shipwrecks, drownings, plagues, infernos, avalanches and other catastrophes he would one day depict did not ultimately have their origins in the death of a beloved sister that simultaneously toppled his mother over the edge of insanity?” This thrilling sentence, on page four, comes with the assurance that the ­author will “delve inside Turner’s mind” to explore what made him “tick”.

But instead of giving us this vertical plunge, Shanes continues on a horizontal plane, documenting every recorded moment of the artist’s first 40 years, including the day on which he hurt his knee. Overly large biographies are hard to keep afloat and, accordingly, Young Mr Turner becomes a catalogue of works with occasional biographical asides. These are the best bits: Turner felt, Shanes argues, “profound guilt” about his mother’s fate but his reputation came first. And the principal reward he got from painting was the creation of “worlds far more wondrous than our own”.

Of the two books, Moyle’s is the more satisfying, not least because it allows for the intimacy of reading. It is also, despite the paucity of images, the more aesthetically pleasing. Less is more when it comes to biography – and Moyle gives Turner’s restless life a perspective and a frame.

Frances Wilson’s most recent book is “Guilty Thing: a Life of Thomas De Quincey” (Bloomsbury)

The Extroadinary Life and Momentous Times of J M W Turner by Frannky Moyle is published by Viking (508pp, £25)

Young Mr Turner: the First 40 years (1775-1815) by Eric Shanes is published by Yale University Press (552pp, £85)

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM