The movie is not a documentary or even a
typical biopic. There are no lines to identify
either place or time. But it plunges you into
the world--and even more, into the mind--of
the obsessed genius who painted 350 oils
on canvas and 20,000 watercolors and
sketches on paper.
For someone so expressive visually, Turner
was nearly inarticulate verbally, speaking
mostly in grunts.
The film covers the last 25 years of his life,
from 1826 to 1851. It was the period of his
greatest productivity, when he had himelf
lashed to a mast to experience the fury of a
snowstorm at sea, when he painted the
Fighting Temeraire as well as pictures of the
new railroad trains.
Scenes in the Royal Academy show his
competition with fellow artists like John
Constable and his hatred for later
Queen Victoria herself derided one of his
paintings as a "dirty yellow mess."
Finally offered a great deal of money for his
paintings, he left them to the people of
England to be seen for free in one place, the
His last words were, "The sun is God."
Last month, our daughter Kathy sent Frank
and me to the movies to see Mr. Turner,
Mike Leigh's movie about 19th century British
artist Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Turner is played by Timothy Spall, who won
best actor at Cannes for the role. He did an
excellent job of portraying the difficult
Leigh insists on extensive preparation for his
actors, and Spall studied painting for two
years to learn to handle paints and brushes
like a pro.
The movie opens with a windmill in Holland.
Two Dutch women pass Turner, who is
scribbling in his sketchbook.
I expected to see him working at his easel to
reproduce the scene, but the movie was set
before paints were sold in tubes and
were easier to transport, before the plein aire
movement took painting outdoors.
Earlier artists drew in their sketchbooks and
took their sketches home to their studios to
Turner painted light, and its effect on water,
atmosphere and weather. His father, one of
only a few of his major relationships,
stretched his canvases and mixed his paint.
A barber, he also shaved his son and a pig's
head they had for dinner, in the movie at
Timothy Spall plays Turner in his studio (left)
and among the natural scenes that inspired