William Turner: Painter who emerged from Lowry’s shadow when he was in his eighties

 

At one point, the painter William Turner was selling so little that he had to store many of his pictures under the staircase of his house. They duly fell on the gasman as he crawled in to read the meter. Turner only began to achieve wider recognition, and sales, in the early years of the 21st century.

He is often described as a leading member of the so-called “Northern School” of Lancashire painters. But his astonishing paintings escape easy categorisation.

At the time of his first one-man retrospective, held in a Greater Manchester public gallery in 2005, the curator described him “as one of a very small number of English artists to fully engage with European expressionist art.” Already in his 80s, Turner sat at the end of the gallery at the opening, signing autographs and looking like a man who had at last come into his own.

Born in Manchester in 1920 in very modest circumstances, Bill Turner knew LS Lowry, but he resisted being grouped with him. Admittedly, the two of them shared some of the same subject matter. To Turner, for example, Stockport’s tremendous 27-arch red-brick railway viaduct was a recurrent subject. But Turner’s art, with its bold reds, whites and blacks, was more vigorous than Lowry’s. Sometimes it was transcendental, like a vision of Judgement Day. The pictures, usually in oils, swirled with life. “I find English painters rather stiff,” he said. His acknowledged masters included Utrillo, Vlaminck, Rouault, Chagall and the German expressionist Max Beckmann.

From his earliest days Turner was used to coping with adversity. His father was a travelling salesman, his grandfather a restaurant porter. His mother died of pneumonia when he was five. He left school at 14, in 1934, for numerous odd jobs: storekeeper, scales-maker, mail-order packer. The art teacher, who also taught maths, wouldn’t recommend him to go on to art college because he couldn’t draw a straight enough line.

He grew up next to the Belle Vue speedway track in Gorton, a classic working class district of inner Manchester which was eventually gutted by foreign bombs and home-grown demolition projects. His first ambition was to be a speedway rider, but he couldn’t afford £80 for a motorbike so settled for racing cycles; he went for 30-mile rides into his 80s.

Turner soon found, as he put it, that he “wasn’t much good at anything but painting.” His career became a triumph of persistence and integrity, through years spent with little or no recognition. In his childhood his aunt Clara had encouraged him in the belief, for which there is no evidence, that the family were descended from JWM Turner. (Clara was something of an eccentric. When war broke out she stocked up on darts to throw at German invaders.) At 17 the young Turner painted a small version of a JWM Turner watercolour, which he continued to hang on the wall of his studio.

His vision of the industrialised north, and the people shaped by it, was entirely his own – he was no copyist. But sun and smoke are as important in his vivid oils as in the late masterpieces of JWM Turner. In one picture a huge yellow sun peers through fog. In another, a blue sun hangs over Salford Park like a visiting meteorite.

For many years he kept the wolf from the door in and around Manchester, with hack work and teaching art; only in his 60s did he become a full-time painter. He was a romantic: “My painting comes out of the 1930s,” he acknowledged, “when there was no work but high expectations.” He wasn’t a realist in the sense of attempting to reproduce what he saw. His memory was phenomenal. He absorbed the essence of scenes, both pre-war and post-war, and reworked them into composite images in his studio.

Lowry’s success undoubtedly hindered Turner in making much impact on London dealers. He hawked his pictures around, he said, “wearing my shoes out.” He detected “an antipathy towards northerners.” To put it another way, the message was: “With Lowry, we’ve got one of these northern painters. Do we want another?” At one brief West End show Turner sold not a single picture.

His life changed not long after he turned 80, when he found an agent for the first time. David Gunning runs a small art shop in Todmorden, Lancashire. He went to supper one day with a customer. On the walls he was stunned to see three paintings by Bill Turner, whose work he knew only from a short passage in a reference book. Where was the artist? he asked. “Oh, he’s been dead for years.” Not so. Gunning tracked him down.

When he went to Turner’s house, he said, “It was like I imagine taking heroin must be. The walls were full of paintings going back to the 1940s.” The 20 pictures he took away with him sold within two days. This tale of artistic rediscovery was as important as the day in 1928 when the St Ives painters Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood walked along a local street and noticed the boatman Alfred Wallis’s paintings through the open door of his cottage.

Turner, though, was no primitivist. He learnt his art, and practised it, the hard way. His late-flowering success proliferated. In 2003 I visited Gunning’s shop at the suggestion of my art-loving brother-in-law, who lives nearby. I was stunned by the profusion of extraordinary pictures by an artist I’d never heard of. I arranged to see Turner at his Cheshire cottage – still spry and wiry, with bright blue eyes. I then wrote the first article about Turner to be published in the national press since some brief mentions in the 1960s. Gunning’s telephone never stopped ringing. I felt honoured to be able to help Bill Turner, and his unique work, escape from unjust obscurity.

William Ralph Turner, artist: born Manchester 20 April 1920; twice married (three daughters): died 10 July 2013.

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