Pigments of the imagination

Turner's secrets lay in his art, not his heart, argues Jan Marsh; Standing in the Sun: a life of J M W Turner by Anthony Bailey, Sinclair- Stevenson, pounds 25 Turner: a life by James Hamilton, Hodder & Stoughton, poun ds 25
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Turner's life was lived almost wholly through his eyes and hands. His thinking, arguing, scheming and teaching were done by drawing and painting. Travelling, he might seem an ordinary mortal, with his satchel, change of clothes, guide book and umbrella - with a concealed poniard in case of banditry. But all the time he was making visual images: landscapes, seascapes, cloudscapes, castles, rivers, groups of figures, a diligence overturned in Alpine snow.

Short, stocky, weatherbeaten, he looked like a ship's captain or a cab driver, but in his gaze there was that "peculiar keenness of expression that is only seen in men of constant habits of observation". Indeed, it seems he could not stop observing and recording. He could manage 20 sketches in an hour, as the waves heaved or the carriage jolted, and Turner swore that the driver would not pause.

His numerous sketchbooks therefore constitute his day-to-day autobiography. Watercolours and engravings were his regular employment, and the paintings his major public and intellectual achievements. His life was thus his work, which poses challenges to biographers who do not aim to write art history.

Son of a Covent Garden barber, Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775, two decades after Blake, whose busy inner city of trade, fashion, entertainment he shared. He was known as William, like his father, the other names being in honour of his uncle, a prosperous butcher. There was a young sister, Mary Ann. Her death, aged five, is confirmed by Anthony Bailey, who has done much devilling in local records. When Turner was 24, his mother was committed to St Luke's mad hospital, and thence to Bedlam, where she died.

Apart from a period at school in Brentford - a centre of a progressive education in the 1780s, according to James Hamilton - Turner had little book-learning. He was always going to be a painter. His drawings hung in the barber's shop, and sold. "When I was a boy I used to lie for hours on my back watching the skies, and then go home and paint them," he said later; "and there was a stall in the Soho Bazaar where they sold drawing materials and they used to buy my skies. They gave me 1s 6d for the small ones, and 3s 6d for the larger ones. There's many a young lady who's got my sky to her drawing."

Hard by in Somerset House, the Royal Academy offered free training for gifted lads and a prestigious association for artists. Here, from 14 to 75, Turner's professional life centred, his year determined by the summer exhibition season. Thereafter he travelled up and down Britain and across Europe, when peace allowed, for landscape subjects, historic sites, weather effects. Back in London, these were developed into saleable items and new set pieces for the RA.

His output was terrific, as any visit to the Turner Gallery at the Tate confirms. And Turner was versatile - latter-day Claudes, grand Roman scenes, the battle of Trafalgar, Fingal's Cave, the Palace of Westminster ablaze, Ulysses mocking Polphemus, Cowes regatta, the demasted hulk of the Fighting Temeraire being tugged to the breaker's yard, furnished by the artist with ghostly spars and rigging in honour of past glory.

He was known through Europe as a landscapist, but that is a narrow definition of what he did, which still astonishes. The themes are elemental - earth, fire, air, water. Yet his is no mere Romantic awe before sublimity, but an aesthetic response informed by practical knowledge and political sympathies. Of these two biographers, James Hamilton, as an art historian, is best on linking Turner's works to their political context.

Both these books are reactions to existing research, giving workmanlike accounts of the known facts. Neither, however, has any information on Turner's journeys to Vienna, Prague, Berlin - nor any explanation for the lack. Are the sketchbooks missing?

Though he ignored portraiture, the bread and butter of most British artists, he could do genre subjects. When young David Wilkie stole his thunder with Village Politicians in 1806, Turner retaliated with the Country Blacksmith disputing upon the Price of Iron, using a local incident to comment on a national issue.

In his day it was the pigments that aroused most comment: first his use of white amid the brown "old master" palette, then the brilliant crimson and gamboge of sunset and sunlight. "Whether boats or buildings, water or watermen, houses or horses," wrote one critic, "all is yellow, yellow, nothing but yellow." "So I meant it to be," Turner chuckled.

On varnishing days at the RA he was wont to scumble new colour over his canvases expressly to disadvantage those hung alongside. Yet, with a word or brush-stroke, he would also solve problems for fellow painters. As teacher and professor of perspective, his hand was eloquent, his words inarticulate. Temperamentally, he might be tight or generous, genial or grumpy. He never acquired polished manners. His hobbies, on which Bailey is particularly good, were boating and fishing; for a while he had his own boat on the Thames at Isleworth.

What of his affective life? Despite his artistic vision, emotionally Turner was pre-Romantic, which is biographically problematic. He got on well with men of frank spirit. He cared for his "old Daddy", who had happy years as his son's assistant, housekeeper, gardener. But Anthony Bailey vainly searches for a reason why his mother was abandoned to a public asylum. Mary Turner was simply erased from the world.

This may explain Turner's relations with women, concealed from his contemporaries and, until now, imperfectly understood. First there was Sarah Danby, a musician's widow, who bore Turner two daughters, Evelina and Georgina. Sarah had a pension, which was reason enough not to marry, but one gets no sense of affection, closeness, coupledom. In old age he cohabited with Sophia Booth, keeping his identity secret. Both seem to have been relationships of convenience rather than love.

It is asserted that Turner was "highly sexed", owing to his sexually explicit drawings - most of which Ruskin solemnly burnt in the basement of the National Gallery. But these naked women and men amid rumpled sheets don't seem erotic, merely factual and functional; a visual record made by one for whom drawing was a compulsive activity. Turner's heart was unformed; all his love and desire were for art.