Image from 'Enjoy Petworth'
One problem with the blogging that I do is that even the most innocent interest, a casual observation about something that Turner did and how it relates to my work for instance, can lead to a diversionary distraction that leads me down one rabbit hole after another. And, God knows, I love them rabbit holes!
Today’s situation began with such apparently harmless curiosity, regarding the great painter’s two primary decisions in his will . The first was the choice to deed all of his own works that he still owned to England, with the stipulation that the nation would soon thereafter build a gallery to display the hundreds of pieces involved. The second codicil opted to leave his nearly 150,000-
pound fortune—worth tens of millions of dollars by today’s standards, starting literally from his father’s barber shop —to a trust fund that would assist poor, struggling artists to gain exposure, training, and direct support.
In other words, he cut off his entire family from the vast majority of the wealth that his efforts had allowed him to amass. Nonetheless, when family members—which likely included both his out-of-wedlock children and assorted nephews and nieces—disputed the will, the courts overturned Turner’s intentions, so that kin got everything, except that England’s National Gallery ended up with 20,000 pounds, free and clear.
Furthermore, the place to display his work only showed up very recently, a century and a half after he decreed that different forms of his output must have a proper place of display within five to ten years. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ appears to have trumped a masterful artist’s generous wishes.
The whole scenario made me wonder what was up with all of that. In seeking to make sense of it, several important points about Turner’s professional and private life came to the fore, centered on two of my endeavors that I particularly enjoyed creating and continue to delight in seeing.
Both of these panels seemingly originated from Turner’s multiple sojourns at Petworth, one of the domiciles of the wealthy George Wyndham, Earl of Egremont, whose multiple mansions included this family structure in the West Sussex section of Southern England. Here, over the course of nearly thirty years, Turner would amble and sketch, fish and sketch, write poetry and sketch, and paint both from his sketches and his prodigious memory. The Tate exhibit clumped this pair of paintings as central to Turner’s work at Petworth, where the master eventually ended up with a room of his own from which he could come and go as he liked.
The first, entitled simply “Two Women with a Letter,” is richly narrative, despite its being one of those works in which Turner played with highly impressionistic strokes and used unfinished conglomerations of paint to suggest areas of light and shadow. The Tate itself points out the quality of intrigue in the painting, as well as Turner’s clear fascination with the feminine. The wood that ended up depicting my recreation of this piece somehow complements the composition in a way that is almost chilling in its intensity.
The second canvas, “Music Party at East Cowes Castle,” while long associated with Petworth, may in fact have originated from another venue of the landed gentry that Turner cultivated. On the other hand, its tonality and technique so powerfully suggest the earlier depiction of two ‘ladies with a letter’ that the two oils certainly share some elements in common. Turner’s East Cowes’ effort is purportedly unfinished; in fact, the smaller portrayal that I’ve created—and again the wood chosen adds magic of its own—may appear more complete than Turner’s original.
Whatever the case may be graphically, the point is more or less indisputable.
Turner came to depend for his prolific outpouring of greatness for places and purchases that, in turn, depended on environments like he encountered at Petworth.
This question of how artists manage to ‘make ends meet,’ as it were, has to concern those of us who hope to make our way as artists. It also is an apt query for understanding the whys and wherefores of how art expresses itself as it does, both in the past and in the present.
For Turner, whose raw talent was as indubitable a fact of nature as the axiom that ‘water finds its level,’ perhaps he would have walked the path of the painter and ‘drawing master’ regardless of ‘friends in high places.’ But this is probably not correct. One way or another, the only buyers who could pay enough for piece—to permit the combination of adequate food and shelter, relatively expensive supplies, time and space to create, not to mention opportunities to travel and consider nature in its many scenic byways, and so forth—were men and women with fortunes to spend.
The only issue was who would provide patronage, not whether one might live as an artist without it. George Wyndham had a reputation as a generous, down-to-earth man who appreciated talent, honor, and insight regardless of the social origins of those who demonstrated the capacities and qualities that he valued.
He began to purchase Turner’s works in the early 1800’s, and Turner was frequently at Petworth, Wyndham’s main residence, regularly from 1809 to Wyndham’s death in 1837. For most of that period, he had his own studio and living quarters there.
Wyndham never married, like Turner. Like Turner, his progeny were all without the benefit of matrimony. Wyndham maintained as many as fifteen mistresses, with whom he fathered up to forty children.
One chronicler posits that “Egremont seems to point towards a more sensible and responsible breed of Victorian aristocrat” that were otherwise prevalent at the time. This may be so. But if it is so, the licentiousness of Vanity Fair is a more honest representation of this age supposedly noted for its stodginess and conservatism than are any number of prejudices about ‘good old days’ in which people followed social rules more righteously and so on. As I intuited from the little that I knew of Turner beginning this project, every stone that I turn over—the ninety paintings that I’m recreating each has this sort of history ‘underneath it,’ so to speak—reveals a richly wild and frothy life beneath it that belies any sense that propriety ruled among our European forebears.
TURNER’S PERSONAL LIFE
Though I will not delve too deeply into this today, all of these issues revolve around the social issues that pop up in an artist’s life. So much that is false and facile about the reality of the past, from which everything in existence now has sprung, predominates in how we think about things.
Turner never married. He consorted with the rich and powerful, many of whom were libertines, and yet longed to give guidance and assistance to people like him, whose parents were barbers and other working folks. His children were out of wedlock. He disinherited them in order to leave everything to art. Such rich and strange bits and pieces as these are merely a brief of this wild purveyor of visions understanding of light and dark, of water and earth.
Moses Sweetser’s 1878 biography, published in 1878, considered the Thornbury volumes that I cited above. Sweetser’s preface speaks to all who value art.
“When Thornbury was collecting the materials for the biography of
Turner, Ruskin admonished him thus: ‘Fix at the beginning the following main
characteristics…in your mind, as the keys to the secret of all he said and did:
Uprightness, generosity, tenderness of heart (extreme), sensuality, obstinacy
(extreme), irritability, infidelity. And be sure that he knew his own power and felt
himself utterly alone in the world… . Don’t mask the dark side.’”
EPIC PAINTING CONCLUSIONS
All of this, without doubt, gives the promulgator of an Epic Painting Project lots and lots to think about. In essence, one basic question is pretty easy to state. “How can an artist who didn’t come into life with any silver spoons find the space and materials and time to practice and capacitate her art?”
Turner wanted to help the likes of me solve that problem. Using the famous ‘five per cent interest’ phenomenon, he sought to ignore bloodlines and reward talent, to proffer to those ‘lower-crust’ painters and other cultural practitioners from English parentage a way to keep at it, in perpetuity.
Of course, the courts—and probably the inherent biases of social systems for the survivors of the well-heeled—often make such legacies as Turner sought to provide difficult to put into effect. Such was definitely the result in Turner’s case, in any event.
My loving spousal unit likes to quote a line in this regard from Aldous Huxley’s masterful, and too often ignored, Point, Counterpoint. The novel speaks to these matters as it spins a yarn of a promising and wealthy female artist and a poor and promising male writer.
The fellow laments that he will have to leave his love because her father has made good on disinheriting her when he sees that she fully intends to pursue a life with a working class scribe. She won’t hear anything of this plan, however, telling him that they will find a way, come what may.
‘The likes of us, my love’ she tells him, ‘must live by our wits.’