J. M. W. Turner by Peter Ackroyd
(Nan A. Talese, 2006, 173 pages)
This little biography of the great English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) is part of the Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series. I recently watched Mike Leigh’s Oscar nominated film Mr. Turner, and it was so excellent that I had to read more about this irascible and brilliant artist. While Turner was the most accomplished English painter of his day, his career was riddled with both professional and critical controversies. His gruff personality (though Ackroyd does an excellent job of showing the varied sides of Turner’s nature) contributed to rivalries with other artists, and his exploration of new techniques in light and color caused many critics to dismiss his work. Grounded in classical techniques, Turner strove to represent the properties and effects of light, water, and the elements in unorthodox ways, making him something of a proto-impressionist. As Ackroyd puts it, “It was one of his great gifts to clothe the ordinary world with the majesty of poetry…he chose to depict the romantic side of familiar things” (86).
The biography is well written and engaging. It offers helpful evaluations of Turner’s possible thoughts and motivations at various stages of his life, though Ackroyd is always clear about where he is dealing with facts and historical records and were he is speculating or evaluating. An excellent balance is struck between recounting the recorded developments in Turner’s career (the paintings he showed at the Royal Academy, the logs of various trips that he took, paintings that he sold to wealthy patrons, etc.), assessing the significance of specific paintings, and offering personal anecdotes to help develop a well-rounded portrait of the artist.
Ackroyd does, however, give short shrift to the final phase of Turner’s life. Turners last eighteen years are covered in two chapters (a mere 25 pages). This brevity is understandable in certain respects, considering Turner’s increasing privacy and decreased production in his final years. However, some of Turner’s most recognizable paintings were created in this period as well. For an artist who developed so drastically in the final stage of his career, it would seem that this phase demands a fuller treatment. That quibble aside, this is precisely what a brief biography should be. It is like one of Turner’s sketches – quick, skillful, and evocative.