Tuesday, 25 November 2014


 I imagine most art historians will enjoy Mike Leigh’s film for its glowing cinematographic re-creation of Turner’s world in the 1830s and 40s – albeit somewhat sanitised by the warm light of early nineteenth century watercolour land- and town-scapes, but visually familiar and beguiling.  As far as one can judge, it’s also a fair portrayal of JMWT in all his uncouth glory, mixed with high-falutin turns of phrase, cultural tastes and obsessional sketching.  

Much of the movie-going pleasure is in the meticulous detail, anachronisms of dress, conduct, language so often ruining historical dramas in the eyes of historians.   A small lost opportunity, given the incidental but highly relevant references to the slave trade, is the absence of any Black  citizens in the streets and maritime locations, at a time when many were working as sailors and servants.  7There will doubtless be other nit-picking corrections and complaints, but they are rather irrelevant given the high quality of the movie and its many delights – most especially the assembled RAs on Varnishing Day.  Who ever expected to see Shee, Stanfield, Prout etc portrayed on film? And the depiction of Haydon as neurotic cousin to Leigh Hunt is superb - I hope that actor gets an award.  I was surprised there was no mention of Haydon’s unhappy end, though, as surely that must have occasioned some expressive grunts from Turner.

However, pedantry compels one correction, lest the error embed in future accounts.  Ruskin wrote eloquently in praise of the sky and sea in Turner’s Slave Ship when it was shown in 1840 as Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon coming on.  But he did not ask his father to buy it  - the subject was too ‘painful’.  John James misunderstood, misinterpreted the praise and purchased the painting as a surprise present, which was hung in John’s bedroom, not in the entrance hall.  Ruskin hated waking to the horrible scene but could not say so; instead, he sold it almost immediately his father died.

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