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J.M.W. Turner: Ackroyd's Brief Lives    by Peter Ackroyd order for
J.M.W. Turner
by Peter Ackroyd
Order:  USA  Can
Nan A. Talese, 2006 (2005)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Nineteenth-century artist James Mallord William Turner was born in London in 1775. He came from 'humble beginnings', was said to exhibit 'crude manners', spoke Cockney (a London street dialect), possessed a 'prodigious talent', and an acumen for business affairs and property investment. Turner never married, but fathered two daughters, Evelina and Georgina, in a lengthy cohabitation with widowed Sarah Danby. It is surmised that he avoided the commitment of marriage because of his mother, who had episodes of great rage, and was eventually committed to an asylum until her death in 1804.

In that same year, Turner opened his first private gallery on Harley Street. His beloved father William lived with his son, tended to property gardens, acted as housekeeper, and assisted with the care of paintings and galleries. Turner traveled extensively throughout England and Europe. In 1851, he died on returning from a trip abroad. With a view of the Thames before him, he is noted to have said 'The sun is god.' He had a great love of the sea and its changing temperament, sketching raging storms, and committing what he saw to memory. Turner applied his astounding memory in depicting landscapes as he remembered them rather than as they were. His artistic subjects ranged from riverscapes, Greek mythology, historical settings, and friends' estates, to reflections and refractions - his study of the 'effect of light on curved surfaces'.

As with all artists, there were both negative and positive critiques of Turner's work. The author writes, 'Indeed it has been stated that Turner's paintings did themselves change the art of scenery in the Victorian period.' I enjoyed Turner's declaration 'that his inspiration for his famous painting Ulysses deriding Polyphemus came not from Homer but from a song in a pantomime entitled Melodrame Mad: 'I sing the cave of Polypheme, / Ulysses made him cry out, / For he ate his mutton, drank his wine, / and then he poked his eye out.'' Humor is also revealed in an instance when Turner subjected a buyer to continual price-raising - when asked 'Why, what in the world are you going to do with the picture?' the artist replied: 'Be buried in it, to be sure.' Apparently the dean of St. Paul's said at Turner's funeral: 'I will not read the service over him if he is wrapped up in that picture.'

Peter Ackroyd's Brief Lives series is an excellent source of information on personages I might not have otherwise read about. The author has an elegant, and effortless writing style, which does not require the constant presence of a dictionary by the reader's side. (Refreshing!) In J.M.W. Turner, Ackroyd presents readers with a pleasurable and masterful examination of a brilliant life in history.

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