The Art and Life of J.M.W. Turner: An Interview with Biographer Franny Moyle

Culture Watch
tags: interview, Franny Moyle, JMW Turner



Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, NW Lawyer, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, and more. He can be reached by email: robinlindley@gmail.com.

Franny Moyle

"It is only when we are no longer fearful that we begin to create."  –  J.M.W. Turner


British artist John Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was “the father of modern art,” according to the eminent art critic John Ruskin.

Turner elevated watercolor painting and the landscape genre as he defended a new British approach to painting. He is now remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of Western art.

Called “the painter of light,” Turner stood in awe of nature, a force that perpetually overwhelms puny humans. He mastered landscape and history painting, and surprised and confounded his contemporaries with his innovative use of color and brushwork combined with an emotional power that later influenced the impressionist and abstract art movements.

In her new biography, Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner (Penguin Press), author Franny Moyle traces the development of this revolutionary and prolific artist from his precocious boyhood and early admission to the Royal Academy through his later years when his “indistinct, unintelligible” works were seen by some observers as evidence of madness. She captures his passages as an artist: his love of nature and light as he meandered across his country and Europe while finding beauty in places often ignored or avoided as he applied his genius for careful observation and his flair for drama in his inimitable works.

Ms. Moyle also provides the historical context for Turner’s art with her accounts of his friends, rivals and other contemporaries and the events that shaped his life from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars to the Industrial Revolution. Turner was a creature of his time, as Ms. Moyle writes: “Fascinated by progress, hungry for knowledge, Turner was a man who drank in his own time with an unquenchable thirst.”

She illuminates Turner’s turbulent personal life as well, chronicling his mother’s mental illness, his private life as a single man, his mistresses, his two illegitimate daughters, his insecurities and quirks, his losses and triumphs.

Critics have praised Ms. Moyle’s book on Turner for her vivid storytelling, original and extensive research, and compelling prose.

Ms. Moyle is an author and award-winning television producer. Her books include Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde,and Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites, the source for a six-episode television series she produced. She studied English and Art History at St John's College, Cambridge. Ms. Moyle was an executive producer with an expertise in arts programming at the BBC and was BBC Television’s first Commissioner of Arts and Culture. Many of her productions interweave history and culture. She is now a freelance executive producer and writer and lives in east London.

Ms. Moyle generously responded by email to a series of question on her Turner biography.

Robin Lindley: What inspired your new biography of the great English artist J.M.W. Turner, Ms. Moyle? Did the book grow out of research for your past books and your film productions?

Franny Moyle: I often find myself asking questions that subsequently prompt an idea. Turner is arguably our favorite artist here in the UK but I had a hunch that most people, in thinking of Turner, imagine just his late works, often referred to as impressionistic or abstract (and therefore appealing to people who have grown to love those Impressionist and Abstract artists who came after Turner).

As I looked at Turner’s work I began to wonder what his peers and contemporaries thought of his work… and there was the beginning of a work that would attempt to put the painter within the context of his time.

Robin Lindley: There are dozens of books on Turner and his work. Did you find that previous biographies were lacking or that new information had become available?

Franny Moyle: Every biography is of its moment and every good biography makes an important contribution. As writers, we always stand on groundwork prepared for us by those who have excavated material in the past. But of course new thinking, new research and new findings come to the light all the time. And sometimes material requires re evaluation.

I was able to include some of the latest thinking as well as reveal a few discoveries of my own. But what I would say about adding to an existing canon is that biography is not just about assembling fact. It is also about creating a narrative and a reading experience. And for this reason there is always room for new voices which offer book purchasers choices and different entry points to a subject.

Robin Lindley: What was your research process for your comprehensive biography?

Franny Moyle: I always work in a systematic manner. Phase one is to get across as much of the available secondary material as is possible – and that means reading EVERYTHING no matter how new or old. Only when I have done this do I then begin to go through all the primary material I can get my hands on. And my rule is to always cast the net wide, pursue what may be goose-chases, read and explore around subjects. This means reading primary material associated with Turner’s friends and contemporaries, not just him. It means reading the material that he and his peers would have read (pamphlets, newspapers, treatises).

The other thing I do is follow hunches. I trust my instinct, and if I suspect there may be a story somewhere I go looking for it. Sometimes I am right and I find what I guessed was lurking. And often I draw a blank. So there is no sense in which writing a biography is an efficient process!

Robin Lindley: You humanize the great Turner in your new biography. Some readers may have a sense of Turner from the 2014 film Mr. Turner with Timothy Spall in the title role. What was your sense of that depiction of Turner? I gather from your book that he perhaps had more refined social skills than portrayed in the film.

Franny Moyle: The film depicts Turner in his later life. Turner’s personality went through lots of phases and certainly in his youth he was an impressive social networker.

Robin Lindley: Turner was recognized for his artistic talent at a very young age. How was he discovered?

Franny Moyle: The world was a much smaller place in the eighteenth century. London was quite literally a fraction of its current size. The center of London’s, and therefore by default the nation’s artistic community, was Covent Garden. A huge portion of artists lived and worked here and the Royal Academy was on The Strand, which is close by. Turner happened to be born in Covent Garden and since his father, a barber, began to show his son’s work to his artistic clientele and put it in the window of his shop – it got noticed.

Robin Lindley: You describe Turner’s artistic vision as “encyclopedic.” How did that quality come out in his art?

Franny Moyle: Turner had an astonishing range of vision. If you look at his work closely you will soon discover that he captures the tiniest detail within the widest vista.

Robin Lindley: You also recount’s Turner’s skill as a storyteller and that certainly is evident in his history paintings. Where do you find his knack for storytelling in his work?

Franny Moyle: His storytelling is all bound up within this encyclopedic vision. He presents layers of vignettes and narratives in his work. A tiny detail within a landscape might be a fisherman pulling in his nets in the foreground, or a shepherd tending his sheep, while in the middle distance he might present another story. Meanwhile he’ll often add a further narrative that affects the entire world he depicts: a storm looming or the dying sun bathing the scene in golden light.

Robin Lindley: Why do you think Turner was often attracted to ruins and decay? Do you think he suffered from clinical depression?

Franny Moyle: Turner undoubtedly suffered from stress and depression from time to time. There is plenty of evidence of his need to escape the pressure of London and professional life. But I’m not sure that the ruins in his work reflect any personal symbolism to this end.

His interest in ruins, in my view, reflects a number of things. First the depictions of ruins was very popular generally in the eighteenth century, and there was a strong market for topographical prints featuring monuments and ancient buildings. Turner had a strong commercial sensibility and wanted his work to sell. But above and beyond that, I think he became really interested in the idea of time and scale. He saw life as a great cycle, a rise and fall of empire and of fortunes at one end of the scale, and of the daily sun rise and sun set at another. Ruins represent a constant reminder of time and the great cycle of birth and decay.

Robin Lindley: Turner’s sensibility and approach to human conflict reminds me of Goya’s work. Was Turner influenced by Goya? Who were some of Turner’s influences?

Franny Moyle: I think Turner’s most important influence was Claude Lorrain – the French seventeenth century landscape artist. Lorrain’s sense of light and his classical composition goes to the heart of Turner’s work. Of course there are other influences too – Turner was a sponge who absorbed many aspects of other artists’ work from John Robert Cozens to Watteau!

Robin Lindley: Although Turner never married, you note that he “got on well with women.” It seems that his personal life was complicated with paramours and children out of wedlock. Was his personal life well-known and seen as scandalous in his time?

Franny Moyle: No and Yes! Turner was very much a Georgian, and the Georgian era was an exceptionally liberal one from a sexual point of view. There were a lot of children born out of wedlock; a lot of people living together without being married; and a lot of married people pursuing affairs and intrigues.

I think when he was younger therefore, there was little sense of his lifestyle as scandalous. However, at the moment of his death, in 1851, the moral climate had radically changed and there was genuine concern amongst his friends and colleagues that the fact he died in a home he shared with a widow, to whom he was not married, would have attracted unwanted, negative press.

Robin Lindley: Some critics see a definite spiritual dimension to Turner’s work. What did you learn about his religious or spiritual life?

Franny Moyle: I think the paintings speak for themselves vis a vis Turner’s sense of the spiritual dimension. There has been quite a lot of dispute over Turner and religion.

We know that as a child he was sent to a Methodist school in Margate, but as a young man there are accounts of him eschewing church in favor of continuing to sketch.

My personal hunch is that he may well have been a Deist. Much of his work resounds with Deism that was popular in London in the 1790’s and was espoused by those who opposed organized religion and considered instead that nature provided the necessary and sufficient means to experience God.

Robin Lindley: Turner isn’t well known for figurative work, at least in his best-known paintings. However, a secret sketchbook of his nude studies was discovered in recent years. How would you describe his skill with the figure and the role of the figure in his art?

Franny Moyle: When push came to shove, Turner could draw figures well enough as his sketch books reveal, but I think its fair to say that he reverted to a kind of short hand when depicting the human figure. However, he did attempt some major figurative works across his career – a Holy Family for example, as well as Jessica and Rembrandt’s Daughter.

Regardless of his skill in depicting the human figure, the human element of his work very important. His landscapes are to a painting peopled, and the interaction of man with the wider natural world is at the core of his work.

Robin Lindley: After the Napoleonic Wars, Turner traveled to France. He eventually painted the Waterloo battlefield, but rather that render a glorious scene of combat he portrayed a dark image of carnage. Do you think this painting reflected Turner’s view of war and human suffering?

Franny Moyle: Yes. I don’t think Turner was a man much persuaded by the efficacy of war. One of his very last paintings was called War, The Exile and the Rock Limpet and depicted Napoleon on St. Helena, his entire empire reduced to a rock pool and his subject a mollusk. I think this sums up Turner’s ultimate view that in the grand scheme of things, war is a futile exercise that leads nowhere. His works do not heroicize war, but reveal its human consequence.

J.M.W. Turner, War, Exile and the Rock Limpet. 1842.

Robin Lindley: One of Turner’s most powerful paintings is Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying-Typhon Coming On. He was obviously concerned about the treatment of slaves. The incident he portrayed involving the slave ship Zong was long past, but did he embrace abolitionism or other political movements in his time?

Franny Moyle: I find this painting very problematic, not least because Turner had invested in slavery as late as 1805. He accompanied this particular painting with a poem that, rather than drawing attention to the barbarism of the slaves being thrown overboard, noted instead how easily financial ventures could be ruined by random events.

Having said this, clearly the frantic hands sinking in the waves provide a sense of horror at the deaths of the poor slaves thrown overboard and so the poem may well have been intentionally ironic. My hunch is that, like a great many men of his era, Turner felt that slavery was one of the fundamental economic factors that underpinned the wealth of the British Empire. He may have disapproved of the trade in slaves, but the employment of slaves was a different matter. Many Georgians felt that if the slaves were well treated this was justification enough for their employment in a necessary economic machinery.

Turner does not write on slavery nor do his paintings offer a clear position.

Robin Lindley: Turner’s art, especially in his later years, was seen by some critics as too abstract, indistinct and chaotic. Perhaps Rain, Steam and Speed and later landscapes exemplify a looser, more expressive style. These works seem to be precursors of impressionism. Did some impressionists and other later artists see on Turner as an influence?

Franny Moyle: I feel sure that Monet was influenced by Turner, and he would have seen his work when he visited London.

Robin Lindley: How did the renowned art historian John Ruskin become an advocate for Turner? What did he see that was unique in Turner’s art?

Franny Moyle: Ruskin saw Turner as the supreme artist of nature and the natural world, and it was what Ruskin saw as Turner’s truthful depiction of the natural world that inspired Ruskin’s adoration of him.

Ruskin said in his definitive work Modern Painters: “But I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.” I think this sums up what he saw in Turner. He saw an artist who conveyed layers of meaning that, in summary, came towards expressing deep and fundamental truths.

Robin Lindley: You write that Turner’s painting of the ship The Fighting Temeraire may be his greatest work. What makes this work outstanding for you?

Franny Moyle: I don’t think it is his greatest work, but its massive popularity with people must mark it out as one of his most important works. It combines a number of great ideas (to use Ruskin’s means of assessment): wonderfully rendered water and sky; brilliantly composed and balanced work; beautifully observed vessels; but above and beyond this a sense of time and change—the new world tug pulling along the Old-World ship of the line marks a moment of transition from the era of the Old Empire to the brave new world.

Robin Lindley: Turner trudged for miles in all kinds of weather to capture scenes of nature. You describe his wide knowledge of nature and science. What did you learn about his interest in science?

Franny Moyle: Today we see art and science as discrete – but in the eighteenth century there was not such a compartmentalization between disciplines. This was the age of inquiry and adventure.

When Turner observed clouds, geology, and waves this was as much an exercise of scientific enquiry as artistic depiction. When he noted the effect that different applications of paint had on top of one another, this was as much an experiment as a scientist watching the effect of dropping phosphorus pentoxide into water.

It is no surprise then that Turner kept up with the progress of science – from colour theory and the latest thinking on optics, to new mechanisms of capturing the external world from camera obscura to photography.

Robin Lindley: You write that Turner hoped to capture a “common sensibility” in his art—something more universal than a personal response. Was Turner satisfied that his art achieved this aim?

Franny Moyle: I think the fact that Turner wanted his paintings to be left to the National Gallery as a legacy indicates that he was.

Robin Lindley: You suggest that an epitaph for Turner could be “the eye and the intellect.” How does this phrase capture Turner’s life?

Franny Moyle: Turner combined an utter brilliance in the skill of observation and depiction with profound thought. This is what makes his art great rather than just plain good.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for sharing your insights Ms. Moyle and congratulations on your extraordinary new account of the life and times of Mr. Turner.



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