We had a very good event this evening in which three of the actors who appeared in Mr. Turner – Martin Savage who played Benjamin Robert Haydon, Mark Stanley who played Clarkson Stansfield and Timothy Spall himself – came to the RA to talk about the work which went into the film: the amount of background reading, two and a half years in which Timothy Spall was taught the craft of painting, the extent to which the actors were required to think themselves into their roles, the research which went into the reconstruction of the 1832 exhibition (filmed at Wentworth Woodhouse), and the task of improvisation which led to the final script. I had not known that Turner had actually met Reynolds as well as being a huge admirer of Reynolds’s Discourses – indeed, that Reynolds had chaired the panel which led to Turner’s acceptance into the Royal Academy Schools aged fourteen and Turner attended the last of his Discourses in December 1790. The event convinced me, if I had had any doubts, of the seriousness of the film as an exercise in research-based and intelligent, as well as intuitive, reconstruction.
I have been cogitating about the comment from Edward Chaney that Mr. Turner is too focussed on issues of class. But there surely was, and is, a class aspect to the fact that Turner was born the son of a Covent Garden barber, retained a working class accent throughout his life, but owed much of his early success to the support of major collectors, including Richard Colt Hoare, the antiquary and owner of Stourhead, Edward Lascelles, heir to Harewood, the Earl of Yarborough of Brocklesby, as well as William Beckford and John Julius Angerstein, less aristocratic collectors. I thought that two of the convincing scenes in the film were, first, the way that Lord Egremont supported Turner at Petworth and, second, the way that Turner was supported at the RA over Constable, who was the same generation, but slightly more middle class. It demonstrates the way that talent beat class.
One of the artists who has a walk-on part on Mr. Turner is Henry William Pickersgill, a dutiful and diligent portrait painter, who was adopted by a Spitalfields weaver, trained at the RA Schools, was respected by Constable, and had ‘a clever wife, who manages all matters for him’. Admired for his sober likenesses, much employed by Oxbridge colleges, he painted the Victorian meritocracy, was an RA for fifty years, ended up as its librarian, and is now pretty wholly forgotten.
We went to what felt like an artists’ screening of Mr. Turner at the Rich Mix with all the local artists out in force to assess the veracity of its depiction of a painter. What was the verdict ? Very convincing: an amazing performance by Timothy Spall conveying the arrogant, uncouth and hog-like characteristics of Turner and his visual obsession with boats and sky; a historically well-judged depiction of the politics of the RA, including Constable being rebuffed on varnishing day; admirable performances by Paul Jesson as Turner’s father and Marion Bailey as Mrs. Booth; and exceptional in the way that the film does (and does not) show Turner actually painting, much more persuasive than most depictions of painting on film (you only have to think of The Draughtsman’s Contract). My only quibbles were that his house in Harley Street looked too new, Queen Victoria never visited Somerset House, and Ruskin was not such a twerp.