Turner posed a conundrum when he withheld nothing from his bequest to the nation. On the positive side, the unsorted contents gave room to later, highly flattering interpretations of Turner, which a collection pruned to the taste of the Victorians would not have supported. On the downside, the digestive processes of posterity took Turner away from his roots in England between 1775 and 1851. In the 1970s, despite much excellent scholarship, English ideas about Turner’s creativity appeared to be as conflicted as ever: the Tate Gallery’s display of the bequest was an unsorted mix, further decontextualised by modern frames and modernist rooms. The following generation of curators, art history-minded, has sought to resolve the conundrum by showing Turner as an actor of his time and place. Accordingly, Tate curator Ian Warrell rummaged around in the bequest for a biographical portrayal of Turner from the Tate the exhibition now showing in Canberra.
Chancing his arm
A biographical portrayal of a theatrical artist
Turner from the Tate: The Making of a Master
edited by Ian Warrell
Tate Publishing, $39.95 pb, 256 pp, 9781849762083
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Mary Eagle is an art historian, with additional experience as an art critic and art curator. She is former Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, is a Harold White fellow at the National Library of Australia, and is currently writing about the life and work of the Anglo-American artist Augustus Earle (1793–1838).
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