Art and Photographic History Art Exhibition Reviews

Reviewing “Mr Turner ” by Mike Leigh

In my personal view, some of the most interesting aspects of “Mr Turner” was his constant interest in all types of scientific investigation. The development of new colours in laboratory conditions and his interest in photography were parts of the recent film that I found deeply engaging and in particular the cameo scene with Mrs Sommerville. This Eighteenth Century background has been splendidly covered by Richard Holmes in his “The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science” 2009.(Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science Books). I am reliably informed that Turner read Goethe’s tremendous work on colour theory. How JMW Turner may have eavesdropped on the Royal Academy next door is interestingly discussed at and his probable interest in the work of William Herschel is considered here.turner46 Flint Castle

Two typical reviews of Mike Leigh’s production can be read at The Guardian -

and The Telegraph - where Robbie Collin makes reference to Spall  as “like a mouthing, phlegmy Gruffalo”.

Here is a review (unedited) from my friend Vaughan Warren whose prolific work, inspired by Turner, appears at Penzance Public Library:-

‘Mr. Turner’, a film by Mike Leigh; a review by ‘Mr. Warren’.20140927_151818

Rated: 10+/10; perhaps?


Painting is a ‘rum’ business… of ‘nothingness’ and the like!


If one was unfamiliar with the mythology surrounding JMW Turner, or indeed oblivious to whom he was, then the film might appear meaningless and self- indulgent, even despite the fascinating but unlovable depiction by Timothy Spall; yet as a testament to ‘Englishness’ this film is sublime in all its mastery of misery and beauty but some have complained it is too long; it was not long enough! As it turns out I will argue that this film hides a lot more than it reveals at first glance, and its episodic nature has resulted in a rather fragmented view of the man, the painter, the myth?

Like JMW Turner, I was a student of the Royal Academy Schools, which moved from Somerset House to Burlington House, being there myself from 1978-1984, in Piccadilly, London; so I was bound to be rather hyper-critical yet responsive to such a homage to one of our greatest painters. The interactions at the Royal Academy Exhibition, as it was then, were bang on! Poor John Constable was born after Turner and died before Turner’s demise in 1851 and his whole life was overshadowed by this ‘monster’! Turner’s generosity in sharing ‘observations for improvements’  in others work was his gift to teaching; far removed from his disastrous lectures on Perspective at the Academy which were not for want of knowledge but the problem of communicating something so innate!

Travel in Turner’s time appeared idealistic; ferries along the Thames stopping at the new railway stations or venturing even further to the mouth of the Thames and Margate where of course he met Mrs. Booth whom he subsequently ‘bedded’ and lived as a harmonious family life as Turner possibly could have; but the restlessness continued… Turner never married but had two daughters by another woman, one Sarah Danby!

In reality JMW Turner was a short stocky rather shabby man who appeared to lack any social graces especially when it came to women and any concept of family, excepting his father William Turner, Turner’s ‘Daddy’,  whose resulting and inevitable death, was subtly hinted at by the scene of mixing Chrome Yellow oil pigment without protection as was the way in many painters studios, and upon reflection the skin condition of ‘the maid’ was probably a result of ‘Painters disease’, a result of exposure to lead and arsenic ever present in paints even to this day; not within the EU of course but still available in cheap but authentic pigments available from China.

The sumptuous filming caught well the tensions of the period with civilised facades hiding squalor and debauchery behind closed doors. In this respect and most others Timothy Spall was a perfect cast for the role, and Mike Leigh’s directing may have been drawing more upon his own families ‘trauma’. Indeed it is the way the sexual promiscuity of Turner was handled, sometimes with innuendo but at other times with a truly threatening behaviour and scenes of blatant groping. Is it for this reason that many women who have seen the film find Spall and by proxy Turner disgusting and ‘pig like,’ and would not recommend it!p-unframed

To address this Turner’s encounter with ‘Jessica’ at Petworth should have been extended to reveal a more tender and cultured side to his personality. It would have also drawn focus away from Turner as a typically landscape based artist, as his figures at Petworth are abstractions in a mannerist style far in advance of his landscapes which flourished later, and are some of the greatest depictions of figures in interiors we have in English Painting.

It was poor research that suggested that Turner made way for the Pre Raphaelites and photography, however the depiction of John Ruskin, the critic and champion of Turner, was a triumph and the film should have ended with Ruskin burning almost a third of Turner’s erotic figurative output, which we will now never know about. Instead the film ended with the realisation that, “The Sun is God”, and the wry smile of ‘Mrs’ Turner compared with the desolation of Turner’s lifelong companion in the form of his cousin as  maid / relative / sexually abused female! Indeed it was suggested that it was for Turner’s attentions that she appeared to live and endure knowing nothing else presumably, and this made her the victim of the man as ‘monster’?

One last technical point; although Turner was at the cutting edge of pigment use, his use, (even if available commercially before 1851), of Cobalt Blue over his preferred pigment known as Smalt is still a question of conjecture. Although Cobalt Blue was a known pigment used in ceramics it is a question of stability and lightfastness in oils that leads many conservationists and dealers to question the authenticity of alleged works by JMW Turner if elements of this material are found after chemical analysis.

Painting, art, film; is a ‘rum’ business indeed; or was it Sherry?Mr T at RA


Another friend comments:-

Thank you for sharing the Cannes film festival review of  ‘ Mr Turner’. I’m going to see it on Tuesday so will be able to judge whether all the publicity has been accurate or otherwise. Around the time of his bi-centenary Leo McKern made a valiant attempt to portray the artist in the drama-documentary ‘ The Sun is God’ (supposedly his dying words
as bright sunlight burst through an overcast sky moments before his last breath at precisely 10 am on December 19 1851.) Though typically low budget that production admirably succeeded in conveying both the social conditions and prevailing atmosphere alongside the convincing character study itself. Were Mike Leigh to go one better he will have done well.
This is in reply to the following review from the BFI on Leigh’s success at Cannes:-


Art and Photographic History Art Exhibition Reviews St Ives West Cornwall (and local history)

Mr Warren’s Turner- Penzance Public Library

As the winter storms hit Penzance, so does that great painter of storms, steam and whirling chaos, Joseph Mallord William Turner. Not the great English Romantic himself of course, whose late works are currently at the Tate Britain in London until January 25th next year, but as a film, Mr Turner, by Mike Leigh and in the form of an exhibition currently on view in Penzance Public Library, Turner and Me painted by Vaughan Warren R.A.S. Ancillary works by Vaughan are also on view on the first floor of The Arcade in Chapel Street.

Timothy Spall in Mr Turner
Timothy Spall in Mr Turner

In a year of sombre reflection upon the futility of war, the appearance of original films like Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall and Mr Turner, are inspiring visually. The technique of Loach and Leigh, both of whom use improvisation as a means to authenticity, is inspiring and instructive. Mr Turner has renewed interest in a rumbustious, querulous figure and promises to be exciting viewing. Turner was a protean traveller and visited Cornwall and painted the local landscape including Mounts Bay and the Tamar Valley. Sketches at St Ives established him, according to some authorities, as the founder of the painting tradition there. Timothy Spall, an exceptional actor and a keen sailor brings his talent and determination to portraying Turner in both his vitality and in his melancholy moods.Mount

Vaughan Warren has a tremendous enthusiasm for Turner and has won the Turner Award himself, as well as the Reynolds Medal and Landseer Award. He also has a track record of interest in the history of art which informs his work at a deep level. He also has an interest in local history. He and his partner Melanie Camp share an enthusiasm for Daphne Du Maurier’s novels and in particular Rebecca and its associated film which was, of course a Hitchcock classic. This has provided the inspiration for an Acrylic, a medium which Vaughan assures us Turner would have loved, The Wreck of the Rebecca, which appears in the current show. Vaughan Warren has found much inspiration too in the work of Julius Olsson, whose contribution in St Ives is the subject of much intriguing study by David Tovey, as well as Whistler, Mondrian and Kandinsky. The latter was an acquaintance of Naum Gabo, who also worked locally, is famous for his writings on the spiritual in art. Warren declares too his intention to strive,” towards an abstract beauty through paint and the image”.PSX_20141004_222450

The Victorian restrained grandeur of the public library in Penzance makes for a suitable context for Vaughan’s Turner inspirations. However, because they have to be mounted so high up above the installed illumination, they are not as visible as they might be. It is a reminder that despite the town having many galleries there is limited space in which even experienced artists can display. Turner’s palette is of great interest to Vaughan Warren and more details can be found at

Self-portrait by Vaughan Warren
Self-portrait by Vaughan Warren
Mr Warren RAS
Mr Warren RAS

In the current display three works particularly appealed to me. The acrylic on canvas of St Michael’s Mount predominates because of its free use of colour. I also greatly liked small watercolour called Turneresque. It almost goes without saying that this painter shows great facility in all three mediums. The two pictures which are mounted in oval frames make a refreshing change here too. The small painting in the corner which appeals to me most however is Red Interior; Music Room whose contrasting colours remind me a little of Sickert and a little of Gwen John. Anyone who has the opportunity should see the film and Vaughan Warren’s work in Penzance.

In addition to the works displayed in the library there is an opportunity to view Vaughan’s drawing of Nelson’s death mask at the Redwing Gallery, Wood Street in Penzance. The display in Penzance Library may be viewed until mid-December.

On View at Penzance Library, Morrab Road, Penzance
On View at Penzance Library, Morrab Road, Penzance