The Artist with Illusions of Grandeur; Gazette Books,paperbacks Non-Fiction

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 22, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Artist with Illusions of Grandeur; Gazette Books,paperbacks Non-Fiction


Byline: PHILIP HENSHER

Standing in the Sun by Anthony Bailey

Sinclair-Stevenson [pounds sterling]25

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Turner: A Life by James Hamilton Hodder [pounds sterling]25

HHHH

Joseph Mallord William Turner is the third, and perhaps most remarkable, of the three English painters who, in many people's opinion, have an unarguable claim to greatness. Unlike Gainsborough and Constable, however, he turned himself into primarily a European artist. His earth-shattering work was never a private taste of these islands. He was always a titan whose canvases would interest continental collectors and artists.

I wonder, though, whether he didn't sacrifice something on the altar of his ambitious and grand art. In his private life, as these two excellent biographies show, he was ready to behave ruthlessly and offensively towards his contemporaries, friends and family - as if knowing that, in the end, his greatness would let them forgive everything. Anthony Bailey calls him a `lonely grouch'. Similarly, in his art, something small, domestic, human seems always to evade him.

He strikes me as someone whose biggest effects are for the public eye, a sort of 19th Century Rubens; even his domestic paintings - such as the watercolour interiors of Petworth - and his small-scale landscapes are constantly reaching for a mystical, sublime experience.

His grand, visionary canvases puzzled many of his contemporaries but, with only a few exceptions, they were exhibited and sold. Perhaps this was because there was a strong movement, from the late 18th Century onwards, towards wildness and frenzy in English art. Turner is the most substantial artist in this tradition; like Blake, Fuseli or Samuel Palmer, he often gives the impression of painting an inner vision as much as what is in front of his eyes.

In his wild, late canvases - Death on a Pale Horse, Sunrise with Sea Monsters and Rain, Steam, and Speed - sight and vision are conflated to produce art which went beyond anything dared even by those bold masters.

They are what the half-admiring, half-sceptical critic of The Times called them: `dazzling unrealities'.

Here are two very good biographies of Turner, which, in the way of London buses, arrive simultaneously. Anthony Bailey has thrown his net wide, and we get a lot about Turner's society and the England of the time; it's sometimes more interesting than illuminating, and he rather goes for the picture of Turner as a misunderstood genius.

James Hamilton, by contrast, gives us the artist as practical painter who, when asked what his secret was, replied `the only secret I have got is damned hard work'. Though it's certainly true that Turner was a hardworking and immensely competent artist, he was also a magician who baffled, and continues to baffle, his audience.

A really mysterious, magical canvas such as Death on a Pale Horse continues to bewilder both biographers; for Bailey it is proof that Turner had been reading the Book of Revelations, for Hamilton, more bizarrely, it is a warning against cholera. …

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