Portrait of an artist driven by a sense of destiny

Timothy Spall as Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Timothy Spall as Joseph Mallord William Turner.
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Timothy Spall paints a vivid picture of a great artist in Mike Leigh’s latest movie, Mr Turner, as Film Critic Tony Earnshaw discovers.

It’s the vagaries of an actor’s life that sometimes lead to the greatest opportunities.

For Timothy Spall the chance to play JMW Turner in Mr Turner – his seventh collaboration with director Mike Leigh – came about when, sometime in 2006, he bumped into Leigh in the street. “I’ve got this idea of making a film about Turner. Do you want to do it?” asked the filmmaker.

Four years passed and Spall was “hanging around London, failing to be enigmatic”. He found himself in a pub with Turner’s name on it, which prompted him to phone Leigh. Spall takes up the story.

“He said, ‘Remember that Turner project that I was telling you about? Well, don’t get excited’ – this was in 2010 – ‘but it’s going to be called Untitled 2013. Are you still up for it?’ I said ‘Yeah’ and he said ‘Would you do me a favour and start learning how to paint?’ So I did. For two years.”

At school in Battersea in the 1970s Spall was successful in two subjects: art and drama. He’d seen some of Turner’s work during his visits to the Tate Gallery but as an aspiring artist he was drawn more to the surrealists. So whilst he knew of Turner he was no enthusiast and certainly no expert.

Flash forward 40 years and Spall completed what can only be described as a fine arts foundation course in six months. The intensity of his preparation meant embracing all the various disciplines – “speed drawing, life drawing, still life drawing… all the different mediums. We did oils, acrylic, watercolour” – gave him the wherewithal to copy Turner’s style.

“I ended up painting a full-size copy of Steamboat, in oil, on canvas. And I put it on my wall, actually. I’d look at it in the morning and think ‘How the hell did I do that?’ I did it but I couldn’t do it again.

“There’s the old saying: ‘there’s nothing like being hanged in the morning to concentrate the mind quite wonderfully’. So I took that very seriously and in that process started to understand that there was something much more going on in this man’s ability than just skill.”

Allied to Spall’s crash course in faking Turner’s art was “a massive detective job” on the man’s life and the era of the Victorians.

“The great thing is that he was a mass of contradictions, like we all are, but he really was. You couldn’t be too fast and loose with it but the fact that he is a contradiction is a great thing in itself.”

Mr Turner reveals Turner, as played by 57-year-old Spall, to be a sensitive artistic genius but also a callous and uncouth man. At one point in the film he sings Dido’s Lament. “That’s about a lot of things,” suggests Spall, who says Turner was continually inspired by the Greek myth of Dido and Aeneas, a romance shattered by Aeneas’ realisation and acceptance of his destiny.

“It’s only a small example of his knowledge,” he reveals, “And the fact that this simian-like, mud-like creature was rough [yet] had this immense natural intellect. He was incredibly well read. He was an autodidact of the most enormous extent. And he identified with Aeneas very, very strongly.”

Spall’s take on Turner is that he was a man who accepted his own sense of destiny to the extent that it shaped his character, perhaps for the worse. Like Aeneas, who sacrificed any semblance of ordinary life to fulfil his sense of destiny, Turner mixed with extraordinary people and drew their influences into his life and work.

“That was something I discovered quite late about him. I don’t think he wore it as a badge of honour and I don’t think it was an indication of him being an egomaniacal character but I think like a lot of geniuses they do carry a sense of destiny about them.

“He was amazing. He knew about all the major disciplines of architecture, he knew about Greek mythology and he was knocking about with people who would all have Nobel prizes now. The Royal Society was in the same building as the Royal Academy in those days so the scientists and artists used to spend a lot more time together. There wasn’t so much a distinction. It wasn’t compartmentalised.

“Maybe you’d get Tracy Emin hanging about with Professor Brian Cox. That’s what it was like then. And then when you look at the work informally and when you see the vortexes in Turner’s work you can definitely get a sense of this whole understanding of magnetism.

“Everything is in that as well. It’s science but it’s science as art and art as science, but a far more integrated period. I think he was inspired by that. He was inspired by everything. He was annoyed by it and inspired by it in equal measure.”

• Mr Turner is out on general release today.