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.
Just consider “The Fighting Temeraire”, which was voted Britain’s “greatest painting” in an online poll conducted by Radio 4 in 2005, more than one hundred years after Turner painted it in 1839. In Mr. Turner, director Mike Leigh recreates the scene in which Turner saw the warship. The Temeraire was a French ship that had been defeated by the British Navy. It was renamed Saucy and played an important part in defeating the Spanish during the Battle of Trafalgar. WhenTurner saw it — or read about it. He claimed to have seen it, but there are some who believe he just read about it because there are no sketches of the scene and there are factual inaccuracies between the painting and the reality — it was being towed into the breaker’s yard, to be broken. “The Fighting Temeraire” brought together Britain’s might and the nostalgia for a bygone era against a spectacular background.
Minus the bit about it being a warship that was a symbol of British victory twice over, much of Turner’s painting is fiction. For one thing, it appears to be going in the wrong direction, considering the sunset. Also, at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, the British Navy had renamed the warship. It was called Saucy. “The Fighting Saucy” doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?
But watching Turner’s fiction recreated in Mr. Turner, all I could do was wonder how much of the colonies that were considered the anti-thesis of ‘civilization’, how much of that ultramarine from Afghanistan and Indian red from Madras, went into creating a painting that’s Britain’s favourite and by an artist considered quintessentially British.