Essay: And the winner of the Turner Prize is ... Turner

The artist now a byword for the avant-garde was a true innovator, writes Anthony Bailey
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What would Turner have had to say about the Turner Prize? The annual jamboree for practitioners of absolutely up-to-date art is upon us once again, so let's spare a thought for the artist whose name has been lifted and linked with dead cows in formaldehyde and concrete structures resembling crematoria.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) worked in a time when the term "conceptual art" hadn't been conceived, when what a painter did with paint was lay it thoughtfully on paper, canvas, or panel. Art then had fairly strict rules, modulated by such eminences as Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy, and bolstered by the categories of Historical Painting, Portraiture and Landscape that moulded the taste of creators and critics.

Turner, son of a Covent Garden barber, began in the most traditional of ways: he coloured-in old engravings, he copied drawings, he sketched antique casts and live models, he journeyed round the country on foot and horseback making illustrations for periodicals of castles, abbeys, farm buildings, riverside ruins. His early work was meticulous, his heroes Claude Lorrain, Richard Wilson, and Tintoretto. Instead of reflecting his predecessors, he embraced them, emulated them and contended with them by trying to do what they had done better.

Very soon he became a producer, a maker of art objects for sale. He was elected to the Royal Academy, the trade union-cum-club of the profession, and made his way into its elite. And yet as time went on, although his art did homage to the past, it did so in an increasingly revolutionary way. As early as 1803 the press was accusing him of "debauching the taste of young artists ... by the empirical novelty of his style". He was attacked for incongruity and confusion. Hazlitt thought all was without form and void in his works and believed that Turner was trying to paint "the first chaos of the world". His methods changed, too. He washed watercolours over his oils. He pumped water on his watercolours. He scratched out highlights with a thumbnail left talon-like for that purpose. He cut out paper figures and pasted them on his paintings. The intricate, rather "mappy" style of his early maturity gave way - under Italian light or English weather - to something altogether freer and in tune with the elements. Even in his studio, making pictures from the shorthand of his sketches, the impact of the out-of-doors took precedence over the lessons from his illustrious painter forbears. He indulged his need to shock, particularly in displaying his passion for bright yellow. He got less interested in "sound" technique and used materials that were sometimes incompatible and liable to self-destruct. Constable wrote, after going to see John Sheepshanks's collection of Turner in Blackheath, in the 1830s, "Turner is very grand ... but some of his best work is swept up off the carpet every morning by the maid and put into the dust hole". His colleagues were fascinated by how this secretive, grumpy, taciturn artist turned up for the Varnishing Days at the Royal Academy and - in public - proceeded to turn a barely begun canvas into a finished picture that just happened to deflect all attention from surrounding pictures. Long before "happenings" as art, this was art as performance.

Turner once went in for a prize, offered by the British Institution, for a painting to be a Proper Companion for an Old Master. He did a near copy of a Claude and sent it in 10 days late, thus cleverly disqualifying himself. Although Hazlitt liked it, Turner's painting seems to have been intended to mock the BI's doctrinal attitudes towards modern art: if they wanted contemporary Old Masters, he'd give them one. But this is not to say that Turner was ever a propagandist for the New in any way other than through his own painting. Many of his comments about art were tongue- tied. He was endearingly restrained in his judgements on his contemporaries, going out of his way not to criticize the mediocre work of one who was poor and had a large family. He was generous to the young, and helped out the commonplace artists of the day with their picture problems before the Royal Academy Exhibition opened. It was an Academy rule that members should not allude openly to the works of their fellows, and this suited him.

Yet, even if Turner mightn't have said much about the entrants for this year's Turner Prize, he could have had thoughts aplenty. Although - without rolling in his grave - he would have found it difficult to think with complete generosity about artists who often seem to have begun rather than, as he did, ended as innovators, he would undoubtedly have appreciated the new ways of looking at things that the late 20th century has granted artists. The man who shocked art-lovers in Rome in 1828 by displaying his canvases unframed, with yellow-painted ropes mailed around the stretchers, would have been up for the most novel "installations". The artist whose erotic sketches put Ruskin into an incendiary state would have looked with interest on the behaviour of Tracy Emin. The former apprentice scene painter and potential architect would have been open to the surprise of today's special effects and the tactile interest of new building materials. Late in life he got to know the young pioneer photographer JJE Mayall, who explained to Turner how images were copied on iodized silver plates, and talked with him about light and shade: it isn't a wild speculation to imagine Turner now as a maker of films, though they would be the films of a loner.

And his verdict on the winner of the Turner Prize? Turner was someone who wanted his fortune to go to a charity for distressed artists to be known as Turner's Gift, whose ambitions included a funeral at St Paul's and a statue to commemorate himself, and he had an accurate perception of himself as the great genius of the day. There is no doubt who he would have thought the only artist deserving of the Turner Prize: JMW Turner.

Anthony Bailey is the author of 'Standing in the Sun, A Life of JMW Turner', published by Pimlico, pounds 14.