Mike Leigh’s new film has Timothy Spall as artist William Turner. It recreates the artist’s life and early 19th century England in meticulous detail with warts, bad teeth and all.
The acting is of the highest level, the film looks great and is as accurate in the facts it tells as the costumes and landscapes it recreates.
The son of a barber and wig maker of Covent Garden, Turner sold directly to his clients, mostly the gentry, and did so as an equal. He was a difficult and taciturn man who lived for his art and was never part of a movement.
Turner painted landscapes, but his real subject was the industrialisation of England, the rise of the factory and steam power. His work looks as if the philosophy of Hegel has been translated into paint — everything is in the process of becoming something else. All is fluid and changing — wooden sailing ships being replaced by iron and steam, or landscapes where all elements are in transition.
His work looks like late impressionism, though it actually predates the norm that impressionism was rebelling against. Compared to the later high Victorian art of static idealised realism, he is decades ahead.
His art looks to the new and the future. He embraced new techniques, new materials and inventions. He is from a time when art and science were not two separate and warring worlds. He was fascinated by light and developments in physics.
Compare this to the English art movements of the late 19th century which look back to an idealised past — the “unalienated” medieval—and to reviving old skills. Both the pre-Raphaelites (a hint is in their name) and the Arts and Crafts Movement looked to the past as a reaction to the horrors of industrialisation. After Turner, England became a backwater in the world of art.
The film depicts in an understated but astonishingly precise and accurate manner the man, his life and the world in which he blossomed. It takes up the life of Turner at the age of 50 when he was at the height of his fame. He was an awkward man, essentially a loner, unwilling to settle down and cruel to his wife and children.
It shows the world of English art in the early 19th century when the Royal Academy operated like a cross between a craft union and a private men’s club and where membership was almost the only gateway to sales.
The film shows all this but in a way that does not alienate you from this brilliant if difficult man.
The exhibition, Late Turner, is on at Tate Britain until 25 January.