In "Johnson's Life of London," London mayor Boris Johnson illustrates his city's incomparable history by profiling some of its most notable citizens. Here's but one example in the excerpt below.
J. M. W. Turner
The Father of Impressionism
I was a good deal entertained with Turner — he is uncouth but has a wonderful range of mind.
- John Constable, 1813
People go to art galleries for all sorts of reasons: to edify their souls, to make assignations, to get out of the rain. But it is not often they are rewarded with a thermonuclear bust-up between two of the world’s greatest artists.
The scene was the Royal Academy, then in its former home of Somerset House, in the final bustle of preparations for the summer show of 1831. There was none of the chaste white space of your modern gallery, no learned notes or reverential silence.
From floor to ceiling the walls were crammed with the offerings of the Academicians, each painting shouting to be noticed above its neighbours. To hold the centre space of a wall — that was clearly an accolade. To be excluded was an insult.
Into the principal room of the exhibition stomped a fifty-six-year-old man with a battered stovepipe hat and a shiny black coat. In one hand he held an umbrella-cum-swordstick that he used on his continental travels. He had a powerful conk, a protruding chin, and with an inside leg of only nineteen inches long, he was stumpy even by the standards of the day.
He might have been some Dickensian coachman or innkeeper except for the pigment lodged beneath his fingernails.
He was Joseph Mallord William Turner, a painter so confident of his genius that he had already proclaimed, “I am the great lion of the day.” Now the great lion was seeking whom he might devour.
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Once again his eye roamed over the Academy walls. There was no getting round it. His vast pink and gold fantasy of imperial Roman decay — Caligula’s Palace and Bridge — had vanished, to be replaced by some chocolate boxy view of a large grey church. Then Turner’s blazing eyes alighted on the culprit — a man who had not only had the gall to remove Caligula’s Palace, but who had painted the very landscape that now hung in its place.
Turner had known John Constable since at least 1813, when the two men had sat together at dinner. Constable had always been kind to the great lion — in public, at any rate — and praised his “visionary qualities.” It was only a few years earlier that Turner had personally informed the younger man of his election to the Academy (though there is some doubt about which way he actually voted); and now Constable had used his position on the Hanging Committee to perform this monstrous switcheroo. It was, as they say, a hanging offence.
Turner let rip. In the words of one witness, David Roberts, RA, Turner “opened upon him like a ferret.” Constable did his best to clamber back onto the moral high ground. My dear Turner, he protested. He was completely disinterested. He was simply anxious to discharge his sacred duty to hang the Academy’s paintings to best advantage. It was all a question of finding the best light, and doing justice to Turner’s work, and so on. But no matter how much Constable wriggled and twisted, said David Roberts, Turner kept coming back with his zinger. “Yess,” he hissed at Constable, “but why put your own there?”
“It was obvious to all present that Turner detested Constable,” Roberts reported. “I must say that Constable looked to me, and I believe to everyone, like a detected criminal, and I must add Turner slew him without remorse. But as he had brought it on himself, few if any pitied him.”Slideshow: London calling (on this page)
Turner was furious for a mixture of reasons. There was certainly an element of chippiness. Constable was the good-looking heir of a well-to-do Suffolk corn merchant, who had privately declared that Turner was “uncouth,” which in those days meant strange or out of the ordinary. Turner was a defiantly self-made cockney, born above a barber’s shop in Maiden Lane, who dropped his aitches all his life.
Constable was a conventionally pious and uxorious fellow, who by that stage was wearing black in memory of his wife. Turner was known to be scornful of the married state, and once exploded, “I hate all married men!” — a generalisation thought to have been aimed at Constable. “They never make any sacrifice to the arts,” he went on, “but are always thinking of their duty to their wives and families or some rubbish of that sort.”
No, Turner and Constable were not cut out to be chums. But what drove Turner wild that day was not just the underhanded manner in which Constable had promoted his own painting, but the disagreeable reality that the canvas in question — Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows — was a stunner. As Turners go, Caligula’s Palace is in the not-half-bad category, but over the last 180 years I am afraid it has been beaten hollow for a place on the biscuit tins by Salisbury Cathedral. Turner was a shrewd enough judge of a painting’s commercial potential to see that he had been not only cynically bumped by his rival, but bumped in favour of an arguably superior product. He thirsted for revenge, and the next year he got it.
In 1832 Constable exhibited his Opening of Waterloo Bridge, a painting to which he attached great importance and on which he laboured, apparently, for ten years. Everyone knew he could do clouds and trees, and sky and haywains, and little kids lapping water from the stream, but could he do the grand occasion?
Turner was an acknowledged master of the pastoral watercolour, but he had also done colossal and portentous canvases of Dido founding Carthage, or Ulysses deriding Polyphemus, or the Battle of Trafalgar. Now it was Constable’s turn to compete in that genre, and he was vulnerable.
A great painter once told me that every painting must have a “hero,” a point of light or colour or interest to which the eye is drawn before wandering over the canvas. The trouble with is that there is certainly a lot going on—crowds of spectators, waving bunting, flashing oars, soldiers in busbies; and yet for all the glints of silver and gold and vermilion and crimson lake, there is no focal point. There is no hero.Slideshow: When the Olympics is your neighbor (on this page)
It is a bit of a jumble, and it was hard luck that it was exhibited in a small room next to a very simple Turner seascape. According to C. R. Leslie, RA, who saw what happened next, Turner’s effort was “a grey picture, beautiful and true, but with no positive colour in any part of it.” As was the custom of the day, Constable was working on his own picture on the very wall of the gallery — titivating the decorations and the flags of the barges with yet more crimson and vermilion, each fleck of colour somehow detracting from the others.
Then Turner came into the room and stood behind him. He watched as Constable fiddled away. Then Turner went off to another room, where he was touching up another picture, and returned with his palette and brushes. He walked up to his picture and without hesitation he added a daub of red, somewhat bigger than a coin, in the middle of the grey sea. Then he left.
Leslie entered the room just as Turner was walking out, and he saw immediately how “the intensity of the red lead, made more vivid by the coolness of his picture, caused even the vermilion and lake [crimson] of Constable to look weak.” Constable turned to him and spoke in tones of despair.
“He has been here,” he said, “and fired a gun.” Turner did not bother to come back to the painting for the next day and a half—and then, in the last moments that were allowed for painting, he glazed the scarlet seal he had put on his picture and shaped it into a buoy.
It wasn’t just a blob of paint; it was a bullet across his rival’s bows. It was war.
Excerpted from JOHNSON'S LIFE OF LONDON by Boris Johnson. Copyright © 2012 by Boris Johnson. Used by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive