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Mike Leigh on JMW Turner

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Anarchic, grumpy, fond of getting drunk in the Royal Academy; director of new JMW Turner biopic Mike Leigh on getting to know the master

I was amazed that there hadn’t been a film made about Turner before. He’s a perfect subject, especially if you like to subvert preconceptions and fixed notions – the film says, ‘Hang on a minute, he’s not just the man from the chocolate box.’ Turner’s seen as a ‘safe’ figure because there are currently thousands of works by him in the Tate Britain gallery alone, and everybody knows his work. People have the wrong end of the stick – he was dangerous. Turner was a radical, and he anticipated the modern world in many ways.

For me, what was fascinating, and gave him potential as a picture, was the tension between this eccentric, flawed, passionate, driven, generous, grumpy, hard-working guy, and the sublime paintings he created. He’s a dream of a character – this English anti-establishment figure, who was at once an insider and an outsider. He could be a curmudgeon, but was capable of great tenderness – there’s so much that’s a paradox about him.

As we researched Turner, there was an infinite amount that surprised me. Like all lives. Once you go to the detail, they become unique and therefore extraordinary. He was a prodigy because he was a cockney – his father ran a barber shop in Covent Garden, and before he was 10 his drawings were sold from the shop. He was accepted into the Royal Academy at just 14 and, after flirting with becoming an architect, he dedicated himself to becoming a painter – he was already travelling all over the country to paint when he was a teenager.

Turner’s relationship with his parents is fascinating, and even though our film drops anchor in his later life, they’re crucial to understanding him. His mother certainly had a mental illness of some kind, but at the time they had no idea there was such a thing, so she ended up in Bedlam asylum when Turner was about 30. He and his father became incredibly close – he eventually ended up working for Turner as his assistant. Turner was profoundly upset by his father’s death years later – it began a period of intense depression for him, but one that led, ultimately, to his best work.

JMW Turner

Birth of an anarchist

Out of this unconventional background came a very unconventional man. He was who he was, he said what he thought, he dressed how he wanted to dress. What you saw is what you got. He was an anarchist, a public explorer of a kind. There was a real sense of competition between the painters of the time, and we have a scene in the film where Turner alters a painting when it’s hanging in the Royal Academy – just to wind up a minor painter, who’s horrified at how out-of-his-league he is. They would have great dinners at the Academy where they would all get p*ssed.

He was unconventional in his personal life, too. He never married, but had two children in a relationship with a widow he kept secret from everyone – even his housekeeper, who he was very close to. I dare say from some people’s moral standpoint they would find it offensive. The film, as my films do, looks at people as they are, in a non-judgemental way. People who live in a straight and respectable, old-fashioned way might find this bohemian character offensive. At the time, he would have been outside the fold, but was adept at keeping his double life secret.

We wouldn’t care about any of this, of course, were it not for the work. He was boldly innovative, not just in how he painted, but in the style. There’s a painting we look at in the film, which shows Hannibal crossing the Alps. Any other painter would have filled the canvas with big elephants and armies, but Turner paints him tiny – you can just see the elephants in this massive landscape, and thunderous skies dwarf him. What he’s saying implicitly is that this guy thought he was ruling the universe, but actually he was a mere mortal going to his fate. “A victim of his own hubris,” as he says in the film. It’s not just what he did with the paint, it’s what he was saying about the world and humanity.

JMW Turner

Express yourself

That said, what he actually did with the paint was revolutionary. The convention at the time was that painting was classical, conservative and photographic or representational. Turner was discovering that painting light wasn’t painting this pretty landscape, it was painting light itself – painting the elements and finding
a way to capture something that was more than just recreating it on a canvas. What he did with paint was radical – he found a way of capturing the quality of light, which we take for granted in modern art. He was a modern artist of his day. And I say that as someone old enough to remember people in the Fifties saying modern art was rubbish. We see people in the film reacting against Turner’s late works – some of the greatest paintings ever made – they thought he was going blind, or going batty.

And that’s the thing. Maybe Turner was batty. He would go so far in service of his painting, even putting himself in physical danger. He famously lashed himself to the mast of a ship in a storm to sketch it, and when the Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834, he and two younger artists went out on a boat on to the Thames to draw it. We’d have loved to put that in the film, but the budget wouldn’t allow for it.

More than anything, the theme of the film is progress. One of the most remarkable things about Turner is that he lived 200 years ago, but feels like a modern man. We span the Georgian and Victorian periods, and see things like the introduction of trains and the development of London as a city. Turner embraced it wholeheartedly, painting the first steam engines, and he was fascinated by photography. He says in the film, “Soon, every painter will be walking around with a box under his arm instead of a portfolio.” We know he actually said this and sure enough, in 2014, everyone carries a camera in their pocket. It’s that feeling of him as a contemporary that fascinated me – for all
the eccentricity and elaborate language, the exploits at the Royal Academy and the personal secrets, Turner feels like one of us.

Mr Turner is at cinemas nationwide from 31 October

(Images: ALAMY, Corbis)

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