J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 11851), the English romantic landscape artist was a genius and an imperfect soul.
His glorious paintings, watercolours that suggested the later Impressionist movement mostly captured sea and landscapes in moments of upheaval and brilliant colours.
They indicate his wonder and awe at the natural world, and they also reveal a man in turmoil. Timothy Spall brings Turner to life – the artist, the eccentric and loner with two separate, concurrent families, a tragic family history and deeply ingrained need for privacy.
We spoke with Spall in Toronto beginning with the way Turner’s physical nature helped Spall define his character:
John Turner’s voice and the carriage didn’t seem to be of our time. I don’t know what it was but they put me in a different time. Did that help you find the character?
The way people were, the way they are, people are people, clothes and etiquette was influenced by the way people behaved.
They had codes of practise. A gentleman would never stand with feet together; he’d in a contrapuntal fashion, one leg behind the other.
Marlon Brando did it in The Mutiny on the Bounty. But Turner was very much a contradictory man in many different ways he was a successful quite wealthy man, he made money early.
He had the finest mind, a polymathic intellect and poetic soul but this character base, this simian character that came out of the mud dragged up out of the Thames. He had a rough, implosive character, everything he knew he sucked into himself; all informed how he felt when he was born.
His mother informed the way he is and the relationship with his father the fact that his father had to over compensate. His mother was what they called a lunatic.
Today a violent paranoid schizophrenic, and they had her committed which was difficult in those times. St Bethlehem Hospital which is the word Bedlam comes from was a looney bin.
So he carried this sorrow with him. This was my detective work, she was an embarrassment to him, even though he was slightly upper class than is father.
He came up from Devon to find a wife, and he had this furious temper. His sister died and he 10 and he was sent away. His mother worsened but like a lot of things in Turner’s life, everything fed this driven thing inside him.
And it was painting?
He almost dropped out of his mother’s womb with the desire to draw things. He spent time in the barbershop with his dad and just drew and drew. It’s in the film.
He stayed with an uncle in Bristol his uncle called him King of the Rock because he was always out in the Bristol valley drawing and drawing.
When he was asked for a self-portrait he said “You wouldn’t want a picture of a funny fellow like me on the wall.” He had something of the Napoleon thing, a small, strange little person who forces their discontent of what people make of them into an energy. Everything he experienced fed this driven thing.
Why the seascapes?
In them days London was a lot more in the sea, there was no Embankment. The ships would come right up into the centre of the city. It was a marine world.
He was born in Maiden Lane, right by The Strand, the old fashioned word for a beach. One hundred years ago that’s where the river started. Maiden Lane is very dark and narrow and when he got out of there he saw the light.
Yes, he seems to have been fascinated by light.
They took him to Margate on the sea and the light there is incredible. At 12 he came out of smoky London and saw this amazing light, it was his inspiration. This discontented feeling fed this God given genius that always went against his rough apish character.
You play him as fiercely private, especially when it came to his work.
He would say it was no one’s business, He never explained himself, never discussed his work. It was pre-psychology but he was taciturn. They would ask about his work and tell them it as none of their business.
He actually said that when a friend of his mother saw A Steamboat Off a Harbour’s Edge at an exhibit. She was transfixed by it and he said “My mother just loves that.
She was in a ship once in a storm. Thank God someone understood”. And he said “She shouldn’t have been thinking about that”. He deflected people and made light of it.
Even people who admired and tried to help him.
When Ruskin came along turned him into an iconic character, it seemed it was getting on Turner’s nerves. He was saying “What’s this got to do with you? It’s none of your business!”
It’s all to do with this mystery of never letting anyone know anything. No one knew about Sophia Booth. They had to see her eventually, his two friends Eastlake and Daniel Trimmer.
They went to Chelsea, and they were dismissive. “This woman is uneducated and a country bumpkin!” One was appalled that his great man had a love life and she wasn’t up to his mark. They followed him home but he’d get two streets away and no one knew where he was. He was by nature secretive.
You put in such a fierce performance, the rehearsals with Mike Leigh, then the shooting. What was it like when it was done?
It was terrible actually, a mixture of absolute relief that we’d finished but because it was two years – learning t paint then doing it, then I wasn’t involved anymore and I felt bereaved.
I didn’t know what to do with myself. All of a sudden it was like a world I lives in shut down. Mike showed me the picture with my wife, just the three of us, he allowed me to take my wife.
I sat there and it was a white knuckle ride. You don’t know you’re so inside it when you’re doing it, you build it from the ground up, and I was like Oh My God! We came out and I could barely speak. I didn’t know what to say but I had the distinct feeling that it was a really good film.
It wasn’t until it was shown to key actors and crew I had to nip off to the loo. When I came back to get my coat these people were crying and I thought “What’s happened?”
I thought something terrible had happed in there but it was the reaction to the film. It’s weird, showing it to the cast and crew.
It’s like you had a baby but you’re the baby you gave birth to. You expect people to come up and speak gibberish and you present this baby and they like it. It’s always like that with a Mike Leigh film; you just don’t know what its going to be.