Thursday, December 20, 2012

Peter Ackroyd’s “Turner”

When we were in London in September for vacation, one of the first museums we visited was the Tate Britain. And the highlight of the Tate Britain was the collection of works by J.M.W. Turner.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) was the foremost landscape painter of his generation, and early on he was recognized as such. Admitted to the Royal Academy of Art at a surprisingly young age, Turner had a significant impact upon his own generation, as well as the generations of artists to follow, including the Impressionists.

In Turner, author Peter Ackroyd sketches a life of the artist that provides basic information about the man, his family, his career and his major works. This is the kind of biography I wish I had had before viewing the collection at the Tate – short, straightforward and providing enough detailed information to provide some depth and understanding of collection (including how the collection came to be at the Tate).

The book, in fact, is one of Ackroyd’s “brief lives.” It is not exhaustive but then it is not meant to be. Instead, it is a chronological overview of its subject that gives an extended outline of his life and work. Other ‘brief lives” that Ackroyd has done include ones for Sir Isaac Newton and Geoffrey Chaucer. (Ackroyd knows how to do an exhaustive biography – just pick up his Charles Dickens, published in 1990.)

Don’t let the “brief life” description mislead. Ackroyd has done his homework. He pulls from letters, contemporary accounts, the writings of Turner admirer John Ruskin and others, and proceedings of the Royal Academy, among other sources.

In Turner, Ackroyd presents an artist who produced an astonishing number of works over his lifetime, one who worked almost feverishly – much like Dickens later worked in literature and magazine publishing. Turner and Dickens seem to share another important characteristic – self-awareness of their place in their respective fields and how they wanted to be known after their deaths. And both men were producing significant and important work up to the times of their deaths.

If you’re interested in a more in-depth discussion of Turner’s paintings, watercolors, engravings and other art works, then Turner: The World of Light and Color by Michael Bockemuhl is a succinct (96-page) resource. It is published by Taschen, one of the leading firms for art books and artist biographies (the one you usually find at art museums).

This would have been another good book to have read before viewing the Turner collection at the Tate, or perhaps viewing the collection, reading the book, and then visiting the collection again. It includes color reproductions of many of Turner’s major works. 

Painting: Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis by J.M.W. Turner (1843); Tate Britain.

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