Review of ‘The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J M W Turner’ by Franny Moyle

This is a very detailed biography of the artist Turner, from the author of Desperate Romantics and Constance. I’m afraid there was something about the writing style and perspective that left me cold. Maybe I thought it would be quirky, like the film Mr Turner which starred Timothy Spall.

The narrative begins with the circumstances of Turner’s death – he had a second home as ‘Admiral Booth’, living with a woman – which his friends tried to repress as it further worsened the artist’s reputation. Then the whole of his life is examined, impressively bringing together evidence from a variety of sources to follow his rise to fame. Historical context is given where necessary for us to place him in that world, although not all references are explained. For the general reader, the style is very wordy and the content could have been slimmed down a little. Maybe for a student or curator with a professional interest in Turner, the book is ideal.

I felt that a few things were missing. Often there were significant paintings discussed but these didn’t appear in the three sections of plates. A timeline and family tree were needed but not included. There was little information on how critical and popular opinions of Turner’s work have changed since his death, with no attempt to trace his influence on modern art. I would also have appreciated some dramatisation of the artist’s life, just very occasionally, to allow the reader to feel more connected to him. His personality does remain a mystery to me, other than that he was proud, hard-working and not especially political.

In summary, this biography provides knowledge without enjoyment.

First published in 2016.

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