J. M. W. Turner: The Man Who Set Painting on Fire (New Horizons) Paperback – 23 May 2005
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The wealth of illustrations includes early self-portraits and coloured landscape drawings, including a Margate street scene that was made when Turner was only nine years' old. Many of his most famous paintings are included, including `The Burning of the Houses of Lords & Commons', `Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying', `The Fighting Temeraire', `Rain, Steam, & Speed', and `Light & Colour - the Morning after the Deluge'. One wishes for a larger-sized book that could display these in greater detail. This is more pertinent with the wonderful reproductions that span both pages, where the unfortunate centre binding reduces the joy of the impression.
There is no need to worry about the translated text. It flows perfectly, and Olivier Meslay has much to say that is of interest. For instance, "The impression that the lagoon made on Turner is equalled only by the impression he makes on us today as he continues to influence our own view of Venice. Turner's view affects us profoundly, more so than Canaletto's or Guardi's or Bonington's ... Venice offered Turner all his favourite themes - water, light, the dissolution of forms, the sense of the sublime, distance, the past, the importance of history ..."
Meslay follows a more-or-less chronological path through Turner's styles and oeuvres. In the fifth and final chapter - "Turner's Legacy" - he comments on his secret life and erotic art. Meanwhile, direct comparisons are made with the later works by Whistler and Monet and the influence Turner had on their art. On the claims of Turner's influence on the avant-garde, these need "to be treated with caution ... even in the most stripped down of forms, the artist [Turner] is still determinedly pursuing his investigations into light, atmospheric forces and colour combinations. He may abandon form and line; but to argue the absence of a subject is more problematic ... At no time does he seek to assemble areas of colour or geometric forms in an arrangement that is purely self-referential."
As an appendix, the book comes with extensive extracts from contemporary documents. The first of these is `In the Master's Studio', F E Trimmer's description of Turner's studio immediately after his death - "There was also a bottle of tincture of rhubarb and some iodine, but whether for artistic or medicinal use I cannot say." There then follow a selection of Turner's letters; some descriptions of him by his contemporaries; extracts from Ruskin's `Modern Painters'; views on Turner by the impressionists; and Andrew Wilton's critique of `The Parting of Hero & Leander' (although the reproduction of the painting is small and in monochrome).
The book ends with a list of further reading, a list of the illustrations, and an index. All in all, this is a small, excellent, fact-packed and beautifully-illustrated introduction to this most intriguing of painters.
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