Early on in Mr. Turner, the painter’s father goes to buy paints for his son. There, he enquires after the cost of the ultramarine. The shop owner says that he has the best price and the best pigment. The ultramarine comes from far away Afghanistan, says the shop owner. The senior Mr. Turner buys some and also asks for some Indian red and some chrome yellow.
And with that little, insignificant detail, the colonies imprint themselves upon the work of an artist who is considered an epitome of British art. Ultramarine came from Afghanistan because it was obtained from lapis lazuli. Indian red was called that because it was made of natural iron oxide from deposits near Madras. These colours show up in so many of JMW Turner’s paintings. As I was watching the film and its glorious shots of the English countryside — many of which were supposed to remind the viewer of specific paintings — I kept thinking about the pigments from the colonies that would render that British-ness on canvas.