The two Turners

BY PETER CONRAD 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 pounds 25

Can these rival biographies really be about the same subject? Two different men confront us on their jackets. James Hamilton's cover shows Turner as he saw himself at the age of 23: a golden boy, who has bought himself new clothes and powdered his hair for the occasion, looping a florid cravat around his throat. Anthony Bailey chooses an image of Turner as seen, less seraphically, in middle age by his colleague John Linnell. The eyes, no longer planetary, are craftily averted; the lips, lush and pouting when painted by their owner, look pinched; and by swivelling the head to one side, Linnell can delineate an asset which Turner himself erased behind the light irradiating his face - a beak fit for a parrot, or for a cantankerous Mr Punch. One figure is an angel, the other a gnome.

Undersized, jowly and corpulent, Turner, as Hamilton admits with a defensive smirk, was "no oil painting". In his self-portrait he flatters himself physically, as well as awarding himself a social promotion by impersonating a gentleman traveller. Ashamed of his inauspicious Covent Garden birthplace, Turner moved his studio to Harley Street, where his expert milking of the collectors made him, Hamilton calculates, a millionaire in today's terms.

Critics taunted him with coded reminders of his lowly origins, sneering that his landscapes resembled a greens stall and likening his human figures to sacks of potatoes. Turner consoled himself, according to Bailey, with fantasies of "imperial ambition". He painted the triumphal career of Aeneas and brooded over the fate of Napoleon, whose irresistible energy threatened ancient social prejudices; a property deal was for Turner, as Bailey puts it, "empire-building" on a smaller scale. Bailey's book concludes with a study of the grandiose will in which Turner, bequeathing his paintings to the nation (and specifying that he must be buried wearing one of his rolled canvases as a shroud), transformed himself into a national treasure. Hamilton, on the other hand, concentrates on Turner's Wordsworthian feats as a walker. On his sketching tours, he covered an average of 20 to 25 miles a day.

The biographies concur in their view of Turner's achievement. He painted light in a new, mystifying, often glaringly vivid way. Both emphasise his daring by comparing him to Regulus, imprisoned in a dark room where his eyelids were sliced off, then exposed to a sun whose brightness blinded him. Bailey's title underlines this obsession with the incineration of the natural world: the "angel standing in the sun", painted by Turner in 1846, is a harbinger of apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. Hamilton frames his life within solar annunciations. Strange haloes multiplied the sun in the week of his birth, and as he died a freakish mid-winter aureole lit up his room. On his death-bed, he remarked "The sun is God" - though Hamilton admits that he may have more piously meant that "The Son is God", while Bailey discounts the story altogether and claims that Ruskin made it up. Turner called his country house Solus Lodge, which makes it, for Bailey, a resort of self-proclaimed solitude. Hamilton, aware that Turner's spelling was erratic, over-cleverly proposes that "the Latin for the genitive case of `sun' is solis, a word Turner will have known even from his fractured classical knowledge".

The paintings, as Constable said, were "golden visions". But the biographers believe they were conjured out of Turner's psychic gloom. His technical innovations provoked accusations of madness. Hamilton, intrigued by the narcotics and purgatives with which Turner dosed himself, calls him a hypochondriac and suspects him of suicidal yearnings. Bailey wonders if the reviewer who laughed at Turner's sulphurous yellows as "jaundice on the retina" might inadvertently have spoken the truth: were his chromatic hallucinations the signs of some ophthalmic disaster?

Contemporaries thought of Turner as a magician, a "Prospero of the graphic arts", and Turner encouraged this notion. He claimed, quite implausibly, that he had himself lashed to a steamboat's mast so he could study a snowstorm at sea. He even named the vessel, calling it the Ariel; neither biographer can find any record of its existence. He was also likened to the violinist Paganini, who derived his technical virtuosity (or so superstitious whisperers alleged) from a pact with the devil.

Hamilton, generally sceptical about rumours and legends, refuses to speak ill of Turner. While Bailey jocularly documents the squalor of his studio, overrun by incontinent cats, and remarks on his unswept chimneys, Hamilton believes that the numbered labels on Turner's sketchbooks attest to his "innate tendency for tidiness". The notes Turner made for his Royal Academy lectures on perspective convince Hamilton of his valiant efforts "to get both his written and his spoken style into some kind of order". For Bailey, the tortuous syntax of Turner's letters and the muddle of his poetry look like symptoms of emotional inarticulacy, or perhaps dyslexia. The struggle to regulate thoughts, acclaimed by Hamilton, strikes Bailey as a sign of schizophrenia: "frequent Jekyll and Hyde tussles went on in his brain". Bailey teases Turner as a Scrooge; Hamilton acclaims his "wonderful flashes of generosity". In retaliation, Bailey points out that his affections were only institutional. Having presented his fellow-academicians with 12 silver dessert-spoons, he "went on being more generous to the Academy than to any of the women in his life".

The smallest incidents can prompt opposed verdicts. On a trip through the West Country in 1813, Turner told his companion "I am a Devon man," vouchsafing that he came from Barnstaple. In fact he was born in Maiden Lane, a scummy alley north of the Strand, named in homage to the prostitutes who plied their trade in it. Bailey begins his book with this story, because it shows up Turner's self-aggrandising mythomania. He falsified his place of birth and (in the absence of other evidence) was free to fictionalise his birthday: he declared that he was born on 23 April, sharing the date with Shakespeare and St George. When the Barnstaple story crops up, Hamilton neatly finesses it. Turner, he insists, was professing an affinity with the landscape. Why make a fuss about it, when we don't mind President Kennedy announcing "Ich bin ein Berliner"? Visiting Rome in 1819, Turner coincided on the Capitol with the Princess of Denmark. A stiff wind incommoded the princess, and a soldier grabbed Turner's umbrella to shelter her from it. The umbrella was blown inside out, and snapped some of its ribs. "Turner scowled," reports Bailey. Hamilton, however, justifies his annoyance by supplying extra details: it was "an expensive umbrella, with a two-feet- long dagger hidden in the handle to guard against felons" - an essential precaution for the Englishman abroad.

On the crucial relationships in Turner's life, his biographers are systematically at odds. The family packed off Turner's mentally turbulent mother to an insanitary and punitive public asylum, even though they had funds for private care. Bailey calls the decision "cheap, mean-spirited and unloving", and speculates that Turner had other reasons for wanting the poor woman out of the way. Did he fear that her malady might be a hereditary doom? Hamilton, more guarded, remarks only that the confinement "was shabby to say the least", though he guesses that some obscure sketches of grappling captives may be "sublimations of his mother's trials". Both writers acknowledge Turner's devotion to his father (who also served as a grateful slave). Bailey quotes an apologetic note, written at the last minute to cancel another engagement, in which Turner pleads an urgent trip to Twickenham for his father's 70th birthday. "Tersely eloquent", it testifies to this shy man's capacity for love. Hamilton downplays the bond - "he had a son's normal concern for his father" - and takes the same note as evidence of Turner's "driven nature" and his habit of double-booking himself. Bailey castigates Turner for neglect of his children, while Hamilton flimsily pardons him on the grounds that he painted "The Tenth Plague of Egypt", suggesting he worried about "dangers to children".

Bailey and Hamilton also diverge on Turner's elderly liaison with the Margate landlady Mrs Booth. He secretly cohabited with her, adopting the name of her late husband as an incognito. Neighbours took him for a retired admiral, and fondly nicknamed him Puggy Booth. She looked after him in his final illness, spending her own money - despite his wealth - in the process. Bailey treats the episode as an exercise in Bunburying, disclosing Turner's talent for subterfuge while making clear his sexual appetite, and has no doubts that Turner warmed the widow's bed. Hamilton is more delicate. He insists that Mrs Booth played a "motherly role", since Turner's only "darlings" (by his own admission) were his paintings, and he absolves the couple of "any intention to deceive ... or to run a double life".

Yet how can either Hamilton or Bailey know what went on behind closed doors, or inside locked and bolted heads? Occasionally they let their confident assumption of omniscience slip, and remind us that a biographer is one who affects intimate acquaintance with a long-dead stranger. Hamilton has a weakness for over-eager surmise, passed off with the aid of a collaborative plural pronoun. He imagines Turner's introduction to Lord Egremont's house at Petworth, "guided, let us suggest, by Egremont himself". The suggestion seems innocent enough, except that half a page later Hamilton, having lapsed into historical fiction and adopted the present tense of reverie, is making up dialogue for Turner's patron: "`You can paint in here, if you'd like,' says Egremont quietly in his Sussex brogue." Petworth, whose rooms were painted by Turner as pools of lambent light, also impels Bailey to indulge in a stubbornly fictitious whimsy (which he has the good grace to smuggle into a note at the back of his book). He argues that a picture formerly called "Interior at Petworth" was Turner's obituary for Egremont: through an impressionistic blitz of colour, Bailey identifies Egremont's "black-topped catafalque", near which a mob of yapping dogs maul a table- cloth. But the notes concede that the painting is no longer thought to be associated with Petworth; the Tate neutrally catalogues it as "Sack of a Great House". Bailey - licensing his own day-dreams, like Hamilton on that imaginary tour of the house - demurs: "partly because of the dogs, I prefer the earlier, Egremont-connected theory."

Bailey's is the better narrative, with the more compelling characterisation. He emphasises his subject's moral chiaroscuro, showing him to be a sun- worshipper with what Ruskin called a dubious "dark side". Hamilton has the sounder academic credentials: he was Nuclear Electric Turner Scholar at the Tate Gallery - a post which, in a small marvel of sponsorial ingenuity, co-opts Turner's heliocentric religion to boost the industry responsible for Chernobyl. The story is more soberly and reliably told by Hamilton, though Turner the man disappears into the paintings. You can take your pick. I have decided never to trust a biographer again.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015