- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

J. M. W. TURNER:

ACKROYD’S BRIEF LIVES

By Peter Ackroyd

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $21.95, 173 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MERLE RUBIN

A vortex of swirling mist and heaving waves; huge, billowing clouds in a tumultuous sky, a floundering ship, tiny human figures caught up in it all: Few artists have ever managed to equal Turner in portraying the overwhelming, terrifying, yet sublime power of Nature.

Widely considered the greatest painter England ever produced, James Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) also inspired some of its greatest art criticism, which is to say, John Ruskin’s impassioned, brilliantly discerning appreciation of his work in “Modern Painters.” (“Have you read Ruskin on me?” Turner reportedly remarked. “He sees more in my pictures than I ever intended.”)

Still in his 20s when he first encountered his aging hero, Ruskin also left a memorable account of the man, which Peter Ackroyd cites in his biography “J. M. W. Turner,” the second volume of his ambitious “Brief Lives” series:

“[E]verybody had described him to me as coarse, boorish, unintellectual, vulgar. This I knew to be impossible. I found in him a somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English-minded gentleman: good-natured evidently, bad-tempered evidently, hating humbug of all sorts, shrewd, perhaps a little selfish, highly intellectual, the powers of his mind not brought out with any … intention of display, but flashing occasionally in a word or look.”

Like Chaucer, who was the subject of the series’ first volume, Turner could well be characterized as an archetypal Englishman; a Londoner, born and bred. He is certainly so for Mr. Ackroyd, who has been exploring the theme of Englishness in novels such as “English Music” and nonfiction works such as “London: The Biography” and “Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination.”

Unlike the courtly author of “The Canterbury Tales,” however, Turner was humbly born: the son of a barber, “Old Dad,” whom he cherished all his life, and an emotionally-disturbed mother who ended her days in an insane asylum. In Mr. Ackroyd’s winged words:

“[H]e was a quintessentially London genius, a Cockney visionary… . He loved crowds, and smoke, and glare, and soot and dust and dunghills… . Like other Londoners, too, he was by instinct a dissenter and nonconformist. He was touched by the general egalitarianism of the citizenry; although many of his patrons were noblemen, he retained a sturdy independence of spirit and of conduct… .

“He was in the conventional sense of his period a thoroughly irreligious man … but his faith was of quite a different kind. There is the apocryphal story of his muttering, on his deathbed, ‘The sun is God.’ If it is a legend it is nevertheless an appropriate and convincing one. He understood the sacredness of light … . He had an almost primeval view of the heavens which, in sunlight or moonlight, brooded over the earth. He bowed down to the deities of the cosmic order.”

There have been countless studies of Turner’s art. And there is no shortage of biographies, two of the most recent, by Anthony Bailey and James Hamilton, having come out in 1997. Much, including much of interest, that can be found in these and other full-scale studies is absent from Mr. Ackroyd’s abbreviated account.

Brevity, however, has its attractions; and in addition, what Mr. Ackroyd offers is a thoroughly sympathetic portrait of his subject. He tries to present things from Turner’s perspective, and in controversies with critics, whether artistic or personal, he always takes Turner’s side.

Reading this account, one is particularly struck by how very early in his career this young painter, with relatively little formal training, was not merely accepted by the artistic establishment, which is to say, the Royal Academy, but also acclaimed as an artist of genius and compared with such masters as Rembrandt, Gainsborough and the 17th-century artist whom he most admired, Claude Lorrain.

But by 1802, the year the 27-year-old Turner was elected as a full Academician, his work was already becoming too “avant-garde” for some critics. Many of the qualities that would render his work so appealing to modern tastes struck many of his contemporaries as downright wrongheaded. Mr. Ackroyd notes the somewhat damaging effects of Sir George Beaumont’s criticism on Turner’s reputation, but doesn’t really provide an adequate account of what Beaumont and other critics objected to.

To 20th- and 21st-century eyes, Turner’s increasingly visionary land, sea and sky scapes seem to prefigure (and in many ways surpass) such developments as Impressionism, Symbolism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. His spontaneous habit of finishing off his work while it was hanging on the Academy walls has much in common with latter-day Action Painting.

Might we, with hindsight, be reading more into his work than he ever intended? And should art be valued only in proportion to the degree that it happens to prefigure future trends?

Despite the attacks that spurred Ruskin to defend him, there were other discerning contemporaries of Turner’s who valued the visionary qualities of his work. Turner’s art, as Mr. Ackroyd points out, was the visual equivalent of the poetic feats of the great Romantic poets — Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, although Turner, ironically, seemed to prefer the poetry of their more conventional predecessor James Thomson, whose verses he sometimes used as captions for his pictures. Turner himself also wrote verse, including a lengthy opus in the 18th century manner bearing the somber title “The Fallacies of Hope.”

Some weaknesses in Mr. Ackroyd’s book — the lack of detail, the relatively small number of colorplates — are the perfectly understandable consequence of its compact size.

Less excusable is his habit of referring to people in Turner’s story as “a friend,” “another painter” or “a critic,” rather than giving us their names. But the great strength — and delight — of this book is its engagingly lifelike portrait of the artist’s personality. Although Mr. Ackroyd cannot have had the honor of seeing Turner in the flesh, his book conveys the sense of really knowing him.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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