Late Turner; Painting Set Free and Mr Turner - a review. News in Conservation, Issue 45

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Autumn, this year, is enriched by Britain's best painter of light Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 -1851) with both an exhibition and film. Here in London Tate Britain's exhibition Late Turner; Painting Set Free is already open until January when it travels to Los Angeles, then to San Francisco. Mike Leigh's film, Mr Turner, opened in the UK on 31 October, across Europe thereafter and in the U.S. on 17 December. Painter par excellence of skies, speed and water it is surprising Leigh is the first director to tackle Turner as a subject. Both exhibition and film deal with the final decades of Turner's life. While the exhibition attends to his art, the film concentrates on the man and Timothy Spall in the title role brings his taciturn character, wrapped in his own concerns, creditably to life. Spall was named best actor for the role at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Leigh builds his films around lengthy improvisation work with his actors, expecting them to study and immerse themselves in their characters, revealing only so much information to his actors, leaving them to discover and react to their fates. The depiction of 19th century women is unflinching and uncomfortable viewing to present-day eyes.
Turner turned 60 in 1835 a time when physical and mental decline was thought to impair output. Not so with Turner, he continued to innovate, nevertheless being attacked in the press for his capacities of mind and hand. Recreating William Parrott's painting Turner on Varnishing, Leigh shows the artist radically reworking his paintings while colleagues point ridiculing him as he works his canvases with vigour, scratching his paint with thumbnail and fingers, blowing raw pigment off the back of his hand like snuff. Such details abound in both performances and sets
illustrating the depth of thought the production encompasses, competently aided by the Georgian and early Victorian consultant, Jacqueline Riding, it rewards close scrutiny. Although the episode of Turner having himself lashed to a ship's mast to experience the full force of a sea storm may be apocryphal it and others are depicted to great effect in a series of vignettes, many with the air of earlier Dutch genre scenes, though not without satire, as in the representation of Ruskin.
Locations such as Petworth House and Park, home of Turner's patron Lord Egremont, provide more lush visuals and great sweeping skies, captured in skilful cinematography. Leigh shows Turner's fascination and concerns about the future. He describes his visit to the Crystal Palace, his response to the new railway; the 1840s was 'the' decade of railway expansion that saw most British towns acquiring a rail connection. Turner also shows curiosity, he has himself depicted, and worries about the effect of daguerreotypes on painting. But while he depicted the modern in dramatic images like Rain, Steam and Speed and The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, Tate's exhibition shows his preoccupation with history, time and continuity in his art. Turner made his landscapes history paintings including scenes from classical antiquity and Shakespeare and continued to draw on the conventions of marine painting, especially its Dutch roots that had inspired him in the past, but now in his late years with much more theatre and drama. The film touches on this only through classical bas-reliefs hanging in the artist's studio.
Turner was a great continental traveller. The film shows him in Holland. For him travel was not just about looking but studying the landscape intensively. With age he travelled less, and as his memory of, for example, Venice, faded, he did not visit it after 1840, his technique became broader, which worried the critics. They wanted more architecture, more specificities as in his earlier depictions of that city.
With greater press hostility, in the film shown as a music hall turn, and Queen Victoria's outspoken dislike of his work, Turner retreated into studio and produced private, experimental work not for exhibition. There was no fundamental break but an ongoing process. Even now with some of his very late work we do not know if they are finished. Some like those for Frances McCracken are documented as unfinished; like Sunset from the Top of the Rigi. Other prospective patrons expressed alarm at Turner's evolving practice.
For the conservator interested in materials, the catalogue has a chapter devoted to the detrimental effects wrought by his choices and early conservation treatments, affecting the way his paintings look today. Turner adopted many new, though unstable, pigments that appeared in the 19th century, as did others who also used Megilp, absorbent grounds and wax in their paint. The film shows his father, who acted as studio assistant, ordering and preparing paint and canvases, grumbling about the price of a bladder of ultramarine, telling his son the Megilp will arrive next week. It was Turner's innovative, expressive use of these materials, not their choice that was so radical and not solely their application either. He compressed into square, round or octagonal formats, contrasting effects, sometimes paired; Shade and Darkness with Light and Colour, War, the Exile and the Rock Limpet and Peace, burial at Sea. His optics and the power of painting shocked and mystified, his innovations remained too radical for some, which Leigh captures exactly on film.