A couple of weekends ago, my wife, Jenn Morris, and I were lucky enough to have a few days in New York, a city which we discovered to be only marginally warmer than the frigid Upstate New York town where we usually draw our winter breaths. We were lucky, too, in a way, to at last have a chance to see the film that many in the Ruskin “world” (such as it is: small, passionate, but, happily, expanding) had been discussing–and, as often as not, snarling about–for months: Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner.” As the still from the film above suggests, it is no ordinary film, and, because of its manifest qualities, was nominated for four Academy Awards (cinematography, costume design, original score, and set design), all eminently deserved applauses if you’ve seen it. It got none of them. Its wonderful performance by Timothy Spall as Turner was unjustly overlooked, a shame not only for Mr. Spall, but on the Academy. But then, as they say, usually with that hint of “what did you expect?” just beneath the surface, “that’s Hollywood.” Actually, that a film on so great an artist as Turner ever came to be is both wonderful and a wonder. Kudos for the vision and accomplishment of Mr. Leigh. That said, one would have wished that the director’s portrait of Turner might have been given fewer behavioral warts–although Turner certainly had such warts–and that more than a few frames would have been devoted to the painter’s intense spirituality and appreciation of the natural world. But then, films about spirituality hardly fill theaters these days while films focusing on grit and gruff have a better chance. That’s “Hollywood.” Given the long relationship between Turner and Ruskin, it is not surprising that an interpretation of our subject makes its way into movie. “Ruskin” appears in two scenes. More than enough. By two. I’ll tell–and, better, show–you why I think so in a moment.
I’ve been musing for some time, a bit guiltily, that I have not yet posted anything about Ruskin’s lifelong love of Turner’s art. And so, our viewing of this complex, simultaneously fine and frustrating, film seemed to be the occasion for rectifying the omission.
Ruskin fell in love with Turner’s art when he was just a teen, immediately after seeing some of the artist’s commissioned vignettes in a book of poems on Italy by the then much famed Samuel Rogers. Turner, Ruskin immediately saw, saw nature not merely with utter accuracy but was able to express in his pictures the breathtaking beauties of that natural world, beauties in which the boy delighted daily. Soon he was hard at work convincing his parents to take a Continental trip so that he might see with his own eyes the scenes Turner had painted. It proved to be the first of many such trips on what Ruskin would come to call his “Old Road” through Europe, beginning at Calais and proceeding, by coach, through France–stopping, en route, at the great cathedral cities (Amiens, Rouen, Paris)–then climbing through the Jura hills into Switzerland. After longish stops in the Swiss and French Alps, they would make their way through one of the great passes into Italy.
Not long after the family’s return from this first foray, Turner’s new work–on display that year in London at the Royal Academy (a place well-portrayed in the film)–was in the process of being vilified as “incomprehensible” by not a few English art critics. Ruskin thought the cudgeling an injustice of the highest order, and, in response to it, wrote, in 1843, the first of what would become his five-volume series, Modern Painters. The entire series, he said when it finally concluded in 1860, was written with one intent: to prove that Turner was the greatest artist of his age and, further, to show that his work, when examined carefully, could easily be shown to be greater than many of the much-touted artists of earlier ages. Loving the painter’s work as he did, it was inevitable that the young man would attempt to persuade his father, John James, a very successful sherry merchant, to buy a picture.
It is this moment of purchase that becomes the first entry of Ruskin and his father into “Mr. Turner.” They are seen in the special gallery Turner had set aside for the display and sale of his paintings (also superbly rendered in the film). The John James Ruskin we meet is portrayed as a very seriously stuffed shirt while his son is imagined as… Well, he has been described in various reviews of the film as a fop, a prig, a dandy, or an immature, spoiled, pretentious fool, the suggestion being that tiresome lad and his father are the type of patrons who have claim on an artist’s time only because they have the money to purchase. Which, in truth, in this instance, they did, buying Turner’s incredible oil, “The Slave Ship.” For years it hung over a mantle in the Ruskin family home in South London, proudly presented by the critic to all who entered. (The painting is now on permanent view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)
In the film’s second “Ruskin scene,” we find Turner at the Ruskin home (as occasionally did happen). Two other famous landscape artists are present as well as are Ruskin’s parents. As the frames pass, the young Ruskin starts gushing over with ostentatious praise of Turner’s work, making, during the course of a couple of minutes, a embarrassing spectacle of himself, finally desolving into confused inanity when he can’t make head nor tail of a bizarre dilemma Turner has rather cruelly put to him out of disdain for the youngster’s pomposity and patent inability to truly understand his art.
It is, of course, all wrong: a great disservice to Ruskin and his long championship of Turner’s genius. (Recall, two posts ago, Charlotte Bronte’s remark: “Who can read these glowing descriptions of Turner’s works [which Mr. Ruskin provides] without longing to see them?”) Perhaps Mr. Leigh needed a light moment in an otherwise most serious film and, lacking other occasions for fun, it fell to the Ruskin character to provide the levity. However that might be, the characterization of Ruskin tells me that Mr. Leigh has no true sense of how Ruskin really regarded Turner and his work. Rather go on pummeling this directorial myopia (or perhaps the castigations should be hurled at his screenwriter?), it seemed that, in this case, the best defense might be a good offense. And so, with Charlotte Bronte’s remarks in mind, I would like to share next just one of Ruskin’s remarkable descriptions of a Turner painting: “The Slave Ship.” Here is a (moderately) good reproduction.
A bit of context: The ship in the middle background has been contracted to bring slaves from Africa to Europe or America. A violent storm has threatened its survival. To lessen the threat, the human cargo has been thrown overboard. The sea in front of the ship is littered with drowned souls. The painting, based on a real event of the late 1700s, was completed in 1840 and its first public viewing, at Turner’s insistence, was at an Anti-Slavery Society Meeting. Although slavery was outlawed in Britain after 1833, the artist was committed to doing whatever he might to make the practice illegal everywhere.
Below is Ruskin’s description of “The Slave Ship” from Modern Painters I. It was was written when he was 24, about the age he assumes in “Mr Turner.” I give the description in full for two reasons: First, I’d like to make it clear how radically “off” Mike Leigh’s portrait of Ruskin is in his film, and, second, because these paragraphs are representative of Ruskin’s incomparable ability to “walk you around” a painting until you really do “see it with new eyes,” as Charlotte Bronte also remarked after finishing Modern Painters I. So, if you can take the time, please take the walk.
But, I think, the noblest sea that Turner has ever painted, and, if so, the noblest certainly ever painted by man, is that of “The Slave Ship,” the chief Academy picture of the Exhibition of 1840. It [shows] a sunset on the Atlantic after prolonged storm…[T]he storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rainclouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night. The whole surface of sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low, broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm. Between these two ridges, the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendor which burns like gold and bathes like blood.
Along this fiery path and valley, the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it along the illumined foam. They do not rise everywhere, but three or four together in wild groups, fitfully and furiously, as the understrength of the swell compels or permits them, leaving between them treacherous spaces of level and whirling water, now lighted with green and lamp-like fire, now flashing back the gold of the declining sun, now fearfully dyed from above with the indistinguishable images of the burning clouds, which fall upon them in flakes of crimson and scarlet, and give to the reckless waves the added motion of their own fiery flying. Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of the night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship as it labors amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight and, cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea. [Ruskin’s footnote at this point recalls Macbeth (ii, 2): “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? No! This my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine/Making the green, one red.”]
I believe, if I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this. Its daring conception—ideal in the highest sense of the word—is based on the purest truth, and wrought out with the concentrated knowledge of life. Is color is absolutely perfect, not one false or morbid hue in any part or line, and so modulated that every square inch of canvas is a perfect composition. Its drawing as accurate as fearless: the ship buoyant, bending, and full of motion. Its tones as true as they are wonderful, and the whole picture dedicated to the most sublime of subjects and impressions… [The] power, majesty, and deathfulness of the open, deep, illimitable Sea.
In Ruskin’s works there are literally hundreds of similar descriptions of Turner paintings. If you read only a few of them with care, with either the real thing or good reproductions to hand, his contentions regarding the artist’s enduring brilliance and superiority to other artists becomes palpable, and, like Bronte, you become convinced. [If you are interested, many more descriptions, accompanied by marvelous, high quality reproductions, are to be found in Dinah Birch’s wonderful compilation, Ruskin on Turner. (Try addall.com; used books button). If you get it, I promise you’ll be delighted. If that fine experience doesn’t suffice, you can go on to the five volumes of Modern Painters!]
But the signal point I want to make clear is that, no matter how hard you try, you can find nothing in the description above of the fop, the prig, the dandy, or the immature, spoiled, pretentious young man who has been assigned the name “John Ruskin” in Mr. Leigh’s “Mr. Turner.” Instead, as you read, you find a prose genius at work, a young writer deeply in love with art, a writer whose sole intent is to help us see the beauties of nature which only an artistic genius of the stature of a Turner, can render and communicate.
So, if you can, by all means see the movie. (It will soon to be released in DVD; watch it in Blu-Ray format if possible.) But, before you do, take a few moments to re-read Ruskin on “The Slave Ship.” It will help, as you watch, keep both the young critic and Turner’s glorious works in perspective. And, lastly, instead of the actor’s visage given us in the film, you might keep, as substitute, the image below in mind, the portrait of Ruskin done by George Richmond just a few months after Modern Painters I was published and comments like Bronte’s began to be regularly found on the art pages of the English press.
Be well out there.