Paradoxically perhaps, biographies often begin with their subject`s death. So it is with Moyle, who recounts how Joseph Mallord William Turner, to many Britain`s greatest painter, died in 1851 not at his known London home but in a secretive second house in an insalubrious street in Chelsea, where neighbours thought he was a sea captain, “Admiral Booth”.
It is a suitably odd beginning/ending for an artist of precocious talent and prodigious output, whose eccentricities grew along with his stature as a celebrated but also misunderstood man, with one president of Britain`s Royal Academy of the Arts dismissing Turner’s paintings as “crude blotches”.
Turner had humble beginnings. Born in 1775, his father was a barber and his mother was mentally ill. He grew up in the freewheeling and bohemian Georgian age, close by Covent Garden, then the heart of London’s gambling, drinking and commercial sex district.
He was a prodigy who first showed his work, aged 15, at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy. He was canny, making sure of his place as an academician at the RA, both to enhance his social position (he needed aristocratic endorsement to succeed), and to provide an acceptable price for his work.
That price rose steadily. He was able to open an account at the Bank of England at the age of 19, and his fortune grew. His clients were aristocrats and wealthy industrialists. In his middle years he was in such demand that he could open a gallery to sell his work.
In search of new subjects, he became a tough and dedicated traveller, going by foot and donkey down German rivers, across the French Alps and to Venice, which he painted in gold, white and blue to reflect “a melancholic delicacy”.
While artists previously had painted the landscape with topographical accuracy, Turner captured its spirit. He painted tumultuous storms over harbours, blazing fires, the smoke and steam of the new industrial age. He thrilled to weather at its most violent.
Turner`s constant compulsion saw much of his time, energy and emotion go into producing sketches, watercolours and oil paintings. His sex life and affairs appear not to have mattered to him except as light relief from his work. He could be a gruff and curmudgeonly bugger.
Turner was also famed for his marine and historical work. He experimented wildly with colour and technique. Before his death, an American offered an unheard-of £5000 for his work “The Fighting Temeraire” but the old man kept the painting for himself.
Magnificent works such as “Rain, Steam and Speed” and the “Temeraire” hang in London`s National Gallery. J.M.W. Turner`s face is to grace the new £20 note from 2018.
Moyle’s biography is exhaustive, and rather too long for casual interest. She sometimes has to fall back on extrapolation in the form of “one gets a sense”, “almost certainly” and “perhaps this is why”. But she knows why he became “Admiral Booth”, and all the other stories.