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Standing in the Sun cover Standing in the Sun: A Life of J.M.W. Turner

by Anthony Bailey

Published by HarperCollins

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

He wasn't much to look at, a stocky, bowlegged little man with a great beak of a nose and a propensity for shabby, ill-fitting garments. He never lost his strong Cockney accent, and given the class prejudices of his age, it was inevitable that many of those who saw and heard him would scorn him as a non-entity.

But when J.M.W. Turner set paintbrush to canvas, his true genius shone through the rough exterior for those who had the wit to see. Thus it became his strong personal preference to allow his works to speak for himself and to avoid personal publicity. In addition, Turner took a puckish joy in obfusication, wrapping himself in mystery even in dealings with friends and long-term associates, playing games of aliases and pseudonyms for the sheer fun of make-believe.

As a result, it has been very difficult to gain a sense of the real Turner behind the legends that grew around him, some fabulous and others downright malicious. This was not helped by the excesses of one of his earliest biographers, a sort of Victorian forerunner of Kitty Kelly, who picked up every rumor and whisper without any pretense of weighing and examining them, and ran them all into his biography of Turner as though they were verified truth.

Anthony Bailey has undertaken the difficult task of writing a fresh new biography of this complex and secretive man, and has done it with aplomb and panache. This work involved the meticulous study of original materials, including many previously overlooked sources such as tax records of Turner's day, and the examination of almost all Turner's surviving sketchbooks (including some of the "indecent" drawings that miraculously survived John Ruskin's puritanical purge by fire). As a result, Bailey has uncovered some surprising new facts about this timeless artist, and has shattered more than a few of the myths, both positive and negative, that have accreted around the man over the years.

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Review posted April 21, 2002

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