'When Sobriety and Taste Were Cast to the Winds': A Study of George Walter Thornbury's the Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A

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The second edition of journalist and novelist George Walter Thornbury's biography of Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A.: Founded on Letters and Papers Furnished by his Friends and Fellow Academicians, includes a colour reproduction of the artist's watercolour Inverness (Pls 1 and 2). (1) The pink and golden hues of the book's illustration bathe the cityscape in an Italianate light that does not appear in Turner's artwork, whose blues and greys and dramatic sky depict a colder and gloomier place. The addition of this romantic glow, along with the awkwardly rendered shadows and the elimination of details in the execution of figures and architecture, threatens to mislead readers about the tone and nuance in Turner's original watercolour. Whereas the first edition of the biography from 1861 had featured 7 illustrations, including portraits of the artist and pictures of the houses in which he had lived, the second edition published in 1877 contains 8 colour plates showing an anonymous artist's renderings of works by Turner, as well as 2 black-and-white illustrations representing the house in which Turner was born and the room in which he died. (2) The colour replicas of Turner's artworks were criticized in October 1877 in the Westminster Review:

   Of this book, we will begin by protesting against the
   illustrations, which purport to be 'facsimiled in colours' from the
   original drawings. It would not be an easy matter for any one
   except Turner himself to facsimile Turner's drawings; and least of
   all can that difficult feat be performed cheaply and mechanically;
   and the glaring daubs that are inserted in this book do not afford
   the slightest idea or reminiscence of Turner's work. (3)


Although this strongly worded assessment may exaggerate the illustrations' failure to evoke Turner's art, there is no question that the reproductions differ significantly from the originals. The black-and-white illustrations in the second edition are also misleading: the image labelled as portraying the room in which Turner died, for instance, is in fact based on an 1847 drawing by John Wykeham Archer that illustrates the room in which the artist was believed to have been born (Pls 3 and 4). This error in identification and the alterations apparent in the simplified and idealized representation of Turner's Inverness are analogous to Thornbury's manipulations of the facts of Turner's life in the text of his biography. In spite of such inaccuracies, however, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., the first extensive biography of the artist to be published, was to have a lasting influence on the popular and scholarly reception of Turner for over a century.


Thornbury casts Turner as a suffering genius and a symbol of British nationalism. According to the author, Turner possessed a heroic ability to triumph as an artist despite an unhappy life of personal and professional hardship. While Turner did undergo hard times and express patriotic feelings, Thornbury exaggerates his sorrows and manufactures his national legacy, often at the expense of truth. Thornbury taps into a popular mythology of the artist as melancholic and alienated. (4) He constructs a fictitious identity for Turner that incorporates a series of cliched cultural notions that have been applied to countless artists, musicians, and poets, from Michelangelo, to Beethoven, to Byron. In addition to emulating narratives of artists' lives and characters based on tropes that originated well before the Romantic era, most notably in the writings of Giorgio Vasari in the middle of the sixteenth century, Thornbury's biography mimics the ideas and writing styles of three of his British literary contemporaries, John Ruskin (1819-1900), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), and Charles Dickens (1812-1870). (5)

Thornbury was born on 13 November 1828. …