A brush with Mr Turner: why can’t films about painters get the painting right? (2024)

Years ago, I was asked to write a screenplay about JMW Turner for Peter O’Toole (who was not going to play Turner). Sadly, the film never happened. It might have been a chance to redress the fact that most films about artists set in the past come badly unstuck when it comes to recreating the actual practice of drawing and painting. Peter Greenaway, in The Draughtsman’s Contract, took trouble to provide authentic 17th-century costumes and architecture, yet the draughtsman’s drawings – central to the plot – are embarrassingly late 20th-century in style. Likewise, Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio indulges in painterly oil-sketching procedures unthinkable in Caravaggio’s time.

When I, and some of my colleagues on the Turner’s House Trust, were consulted by Mike Leigh and his team for the film Mr Turner, we found them already steeped in the artist, his life and times. They were well-read, stimulating to talk to, not really in need of much guidance from us. And watching the finished film was a strange mixture of the comfortably familiar and the utterly strange: Turner and the early 19th century bursting fresh and fully formed from creative minds, quite different from those of art historians and museum curators.

As everyone knows, Leigh is an idiosyncratic director. His methods are inscrutable, he keeps his cards close to his chest. He seems to enter into a mystic pact with his actors who join him in a passionate attempt to get as close to their subject as possible, to identify with characters and events as though they were reliving them not as mere imitators but as incarnations of those people and events. Stanislavsky is only the starting point as far as Leigh’s method is concerned. As for plot, that emerges out of the white heat of this debate.

A brush with Mr Turner: why can’t films about painters get the painting right? (1)

The result is a deeply moving and beautiful film, centred on Timothy Spall’s powerful characterisation of the artist: crude, rude, porcine, yet sensitive and tender. It’s impressive and convincing, but it’s not quite the Turner I know.

First of all, there’s the fascinating question of period dialogue. The cast improvise their conversations in the language of Turner’s time. This is a chancy business. Miraculously, the experiment doesn’t become laughable or painfully anachronistic. I did find myself wondering about the magical opening sequence of the film, though. We’re in the Netherlands (there’s a windmill), with two women in white lace caps advancing towards us down alane, chatting volubly in 1820s Dutch. As they pass us, still chatting, the camera pans up to the top of the grassydyke behind them, and there is a man in a crushed top hat earnestly sketching a sunset.

When Turner was on tour, he drew the multitudinous details of local costume, trades and employments, and his Dutch sketchbooks in particular are full of such observations. Why wasn’t he taking note of those girls, those wonderful caps? The film makes clear he had an eye for the ladies. He didn’t need to stand on a dyke in the Netherlands to draw the sky. And, if the Netherlands was to be introduced at the outset, whydidn’t Turner’s numerous Dutch seascapes figure in the ensuing story?

Spall went to great lengths to get his drawing and painting right, and sort of succeeds. He misses the crucial point, though: that Turner was a miniaturist by temperament. He made innumerable watercolours on a tiny scale, compressing astonishing amounts of topographical and atmospheric detail into them, and the sketchbooks he took with him on tours usually function in the same way. If you look closely at his oil paintings, you find them equally detailed. The current Late Turner show at the Tate in London provides plenty of opportunity for this, though, by omitting the small-scale works, it tends to stress the breadth rather than the precision. But there are watercolours of Lake Lucerne or Venice that illustrate the delicacy and subtlety of his observation. Likewise with the oils: examine his famous steamer in a snowstorm, and you will find it is painted with minute care in every part. There is finedraughtsmanship in the windlashed sea itself. You understand why Turner was infuriated when critics called it “soapsuds andwhitewash”.

A brush with Mr Turner: why can’t films about painters get the painting right? (2)

Spall is decidedly of the soapsuds-and-whitewash school of painting. He smears and spits and swipes at the canvas, enacting what the contemporary public choose to believe about Turner, and what modernism has asked us to believe, too. In the same spirit, Spall draws with his pencil or chalk held like a needle at the extreme end away from the point, incapable of fine manipulation: not a technique for delineating every last curve of a gothic window or curl of a lace cap. Broad gestures make for good cinema, but they are a travesty of the infinitely delicate execution we find in the work itself – indeed, the unsuspected depth of human feeling that Spall’s performance brings out in the man. Fine draughtsmanship embodies tenderness: think of the exquisitely turned wrists and ankles of Degas’ dancers.

Spall denies such feelings to the artist as creator, in perhaps unintended deference to the myth that Turner was some kind of abstractionist. The Tate show sets out to demolish that myth but instead reinforces it, starting out by using a quotation, “Painting set free”, from a catalogue by Lawrence Gowing for an exhibition in New York in 1966. This deliberately recasts Turner as a rival to the American abstract expressionists. Sadly, all of this draws attention away from the real quality of Turner’s art, his love of the experienced world, and his compassion for the human beings who inhabit it.

A brush with Mr Turner: why can’t films about painters get the painting right? (2024)


What is the movie Mr Turner about? ›

Is Mr Turner Based on a true story? ›

“Mr. Turner” is a biographical drama film on the life of J.M.W. Turner, an English painter in the late 18th century. Turner is played by Timothy Spall who received several “best actor” awards for his role in the play.

What is the relationship between art and film? ›

Visual imagery: Both art and movies rely on visual imagery to create impact and convey meaning. While art may be static, and movies may be dynamic, both mediums use color, composition, and form to create striking and memorable images that capture the imagination.

Is Mr. Turner a good movie? ›

Led by a masterful performance from Timothy Spall and brilliantly directed by Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner is a superior Hollywood biopic.

How old was Mr Turner when he died? ›

J. M. W. Turner
J. M. W. Turner RA
Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, c. 1799
BornJoseph Mallord William Turner23 April 1775 London, England
Died19 December 1851 (aged 76) Chelsea, London, England
Resting placeSt Paul's Cathedral
8 more rows

Why is Mr. Turner rated R? ›

Higher rating given due to relationship between Mr Turner and his household servant which could be considered to take advantage of his position of authority and hence scene borders on rape. Also prostitution scene difficult for younger audience to understand in context.

Who is Timmy Turner's real dad? ›

Mr. Turner, also known as "Dad", (voiced and portrayed by Daran Norris in the series and the live-action films respectively) and Mrs. Turner, also known as "Mom", (voiced by Susanne Blakeslee, portrayed by Teryl Rothery in the live-action films) are Timmy's parents.

Was Mrs Turner mixed? ›

Through the narrator, we learn that Mrs. Turner is mixed race and has many Caucasian physical features. These make her look different from many in her community and unattractive to Tea Cake.

Is a film an art or not? ›

According to film theorist Rudolf Arnheim, "Film is an art because it allows for the representation of human emotions, experiences, and perceptions through a unique and powerful visual language." (Arnheim, 1957) Arnheim's view is supported by other scholars who argue that film, like other art forms, can evoke emotions, ...

Can a movie be called art? ›

Though some might argue that it is simply a form of entertainment, there are substantial reasons to view film as a visual art form. In fact, it's often considered one of the greatest art forms and, by some, the highest form of artistic expression.

Is a film an artwork? ›

All film is art, though some of it is better art or higher art. How, if at all, should we draw the line? This, it turns out, is not just a question for those with a special interest in film. It has interest for aesthetic theory more broadly, because film can serve as a test case for definitions of art.

Does Mr Turner get married? ›

He reappeared after more than 18 years on the Girl Meets World episode Girl Meets the New Teacher. He married the nurse who took care of him after his motorcycle accident.

What was Mr Turner's last episode? ›

Turner exited Boy Meets World in the middle of season 4. Quinn's character would continue to be mentioned, as the writers snuck in meta references to his absence and included him in archival footage, but he never appeared again after getting into a motorcycle accident in the episode "Cult Fiction.

Why did Mr Turner leave? ›

Turner left the show in the middle of season 4 after getting into a motorcycle accident in the episode "Cult Fiction." Though there would continue to be some references to the character as well as archival footage of Mr. Turner, Quinn would never appear again on the show.

What happened to Mr Turner after the motorcycle accident? ›

Was in a motorcycle accident in "Cult Fiction". He didn't die, but he was never seen again on Boy Meets World. His final words of the series were spoken to Shawn, "The Center is filled with lost souls who have no belief system. Who are targets for some guy to bring over to his way of thinking.

What ever happened to Mr Turner? ›

Turner has been in a serious motorcycle accident. Turner spends time in a coma, but is said to have survived. Not that this ultimately mattered, as Turner abruptly disappeared soon afterward. While he was referenced a few times later, he never appeared in person on Boy Meets World again prior to its cancellation.

What happened to Turner's housekeeper? ›

Hannah remained as Turner's housekeeper until his death in 1851 and then stayed on as custodian of his gallery until her own death in 1853.

What is the significance of Mrs Turner? ›

Mrs. Turner represents the cruelty and delusion that comes from idolizing physical characteristics, and how this devotion turns ordinary people into either gods to worship or fiends to demonize. Beyond that, Mrs. Turner also serves as a reminder that prejudice exists within the Black community, not just outside of it.


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