Joseph Mallord William Turner is going to be the face on the £20 note, and Andrew Graham-Dixon, who spoke yesterday at the London Library, claimed that he’d made this happen. He also has a theory about Turner, whom he regards as the greatest British painter.
Graham-Dixon was on the committee that was advising the Governor of the Bank of England on who should feature on the note. It was an arduous process, but eventually the three left on the committee met with the Governor to hear the result. It wasn’t Turner, but Graham-Dixon launched into a rant—and the Governor changed his mind. Who was discarded, asked somebody at the end of the talk. I couldn’t say, answered Graham-Dixon, but think porcelain. So Wedgewood was edged out.
Turner from the very beginning of his career was interested in light. Graham-Dixon believes that he put figures and classical references into his paintings just to fit them into recognised genres and make them saleable. Like Graham-Dixon, I’ve always thought the “wild parts” of Turner’s paintings the most interesting and that the watercolour sketches—of parliament burning down and the lagoon in Venice–are his finest works. (Is this because we’re of a similar age and have made a comparable journey through art, his, of course, much intenser and deeper than mine?)
Graham-Dixon talked a lot about a picture called Regulus. It was inspired by Claude Lorraine, whom Turner much admired, but unlike in Lorraine’s painting where the sun is luminous the sun in Turner’s painting is like an atomic explosion. Regulus was a Carthaginian soldier captured by the Romans, who cut off his eyelids and tied him to a stake where he couldn’t avoid the sun. Graham-Dixon believes that Turner wanted to cut off the eyelids of the British public and get them to look at light rather than the dull figures and buildings.
Earlier artists—like Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Caravaggio—were fascinated by light, but, believes Graham-Dixon, there is a major difference from Turner. For earlier artist the job of light was to illuminate things, objects like faces, knives, clothes, and animals, but for Turner the light come first not the objects. He was trying in the watercolour sketches to paint pure light.
The burning of Parliament
Perhaps Turner did not know that he was doing this, said Graham-Dixon, but he marked the change as having begun from when Turner spent two weeks in a boat on the lake at Petworth just looking at the water. Supporting evidence is that Turner’s paintings left to the nation are his best paintings, the ones he couldn’t sell—because they didn’t fit the expected genres of the time.
Graham-Dixon argued that nobody recognised what Turner was doing until 1966 when Lawrence Gowing wrote a short book—Turner: Imagination and Reality—as an introduction to a MOMA exhibition of Turner. Graham-Dixon thinks that book the best thing ever written about art, and I’ve ordered a copy.
Turner led to the Impressionists, and early on in their careers Monet and other Impressionists wrote a letter declaring their debt to Turner. Towards the end of his career Monet tried to suppress the letter—because, suggests Graham-Dixon, his later works were getting closer and closer to those of Turner but not getting close to the “touch” of Turner.
Graham-Dixon ended his splendid, conversational lecture by going right over the top and suggesting that in his work Turner anticipated Einstein and the theory of relativity.