This is another fine offering in Peter Ackroyd's accessible and compact `Brief Lives' series of biographies of seminal figures in British cultural history, dealing with the painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. Although he's best known for his late masterpieces in which detail is largely sacrificed to vast tableaux filled with light, Turner was a much more versatile painter than this popular image of him suggests. Ackroyd's little book describes well the painter's prodigious energy, epitomised by his prolific output of sketches completed on regular walking and coach tours, both in the UK and in Europe. Equally at home in watercolour and oils, Turner was capable of both an impressionistic style, showing a preoccupation with light that preceded the Impressionists proper by half a century, and a neoclassical vision that sought particularly to emulate the 17th century master Claude Lorrain. The latter trait is seen particularly in Turner's series of paintings of the story of Dido and Carthage, one of which (Dido Building Carthage) is reproduced as a colour plate.
I didn't know a great deal about Turner before reading this book, and think it's a really valuable overview of both his life (while necessarily short on detail about a private, even secretive, man) and his work. While the number of colour plates isn't high - nine of his paintings, two of him (one a self-portrait) - there's enough description, particularly of those paintings inspired by his continental tours when his lifelong fascination with light was starting to produce some really remarkable effects, to whet the appetite. My only significant criticism is that Ackroyd perhaps doesn't do enough to set Turner in his broader, early 19th century context, or evaluate his work in its cultural setting against the background of, particularly, the Romanticism of the period. But a fine introduction nevertheless to one of Britain's greatest artists.