Will Turner arrives at Harewood House in the summer of 1797 in a turbulent frame of mind. His invitation from ‘Beau’ Lascelles, the eldest son of Baron Harewood, could be the beginning of something big. Will’s talent has been noted by his contemporaries and by the press. Now he might be able to win the greatest prize of all: an understanding patron. On the other hand, in order to achieve said prize, Will is going to have to endure several days in the company of frivolous aristocrats without causing offence which, for an obstinate working-class Londoner with a chip on his shoulder, won’t be easy. And worse is to come. For Will isn’t the only painter who’s been invited to Harewood this summer. When his boyhood friend (and fellow – rival? – painter) Tom Girtin unexpectedly turns up, looking mightily comfortable in this aristocratic milieu, Will bristles, assuming they’ve been set up to compete for the nobles’ amusement. But the truth – if truth it is – turns out to be more peculiar than even he could have imagined.
Based on the young J.M.W. Turner’s stay at Harewood, and the drawings and paintings which resulted from it, this is one of the most successful art-historical novels I’ve read. It’s helped by the fact that Plampin, a Courtauld PhD graduate and lecturer on 19th-century art, knows whereof he speaks. He allows us to step seamlessly into this Regency world and into the mind of the young Turner, whose obstinacy and dyspeptic prickliness hide an acute social anxiety. Will isn’t used to social graces: he comes from an honest but hardscrabble background, with a barber-wigmaker father and a mother who suffers, distressingly, from mental illness. He’s had good press, but needs help. At this period, aristocratic support was vital for someone in his position. With it, an artist became fashionable: one titled commission attracted others, offering a series of stepping stones to greater things. Without it, youthful talent would wither for lack of financial support. And so, for all his qualms when he arrives at Harewood, Plampin’s Will knows that he really has to try to make it work. It should be simple: he just has to make a few drawings of the house, some sketches of picturesque views in the nearby countryside, and then he can get on with the rest of his northern tour and indulge his own interests.
It should be simple. But Will seems to have arrived in the middle of a house party, and his patron is more interested in drinking with his rambunctious friends than sitting down for earnest discussions with a talented artist (for all his social awkwardness, Will’s own self-esteem is perfectly robust). Faced on one hand with boorish philistines like the obnoxious Mr Purkiss, and on the other with aristocratic iciness, such as that emanating from Beau’s younger sister Mary Ann, Will is at his wits’ end almost before he’s started. And that’s even before Tom arrives: Tom, so easily urbane and charming, who moves among these aristos as if he’s born to it. Tom, who can shrug off his radical beliefs with hypocritical ease, just as long as he gets something out of it. And Tom clearly does expect to get something out of his visit to Harewood, but what is it? Does he think his chumminess with Beau Lascelles will lead to automatic victory in any artistic contest with Will? Or is Will’s presence actually incidental to whatever’s going on here? Who is the sultry Mrs Lamb, the still-room maid who slips Abolitionist prints into Will’s hands along with candles for his room? Why is Mary Ann Lascelles in disgrace? And what role is Will Turner meant to play in all this? Surely he isn’t just some kind of patsy?
Plampin writes with wit and immediacy, his use of the present tense adding to the increasingly bewildering sense of urgency that Will feels. Moreover, he achieves that rare thing of creating an authentic and lyrical period feel without the dialogue (or descriptions) feeling over-stuffed. Admittedly there are a few moments which feel slightly too sensationalist to be convincing, but they’re very few and far between. A much-appreciated author’s note points out Plampin’s inventions, chief among them the very presence of Tom Girtin at Harewood that summer. He explains that he was inspired by the presence of two figures, apparently artists, in the foreground of Turner’s eastern view of Harewood Castle. (I’m obviously blind, because I’m yet to locate any such figures – all I see are a couple of countrymen at lower right – but that hasn’t impeded my enjoyment of the novel). Fresh and lively, this is a far more sympathetic Turner than we normally get shown, on the rare occasions he appears at all in fiction, and it’s likely to appeal to those who, like me, found Timothy Spall’s performance in Mr Turner to have swerved too far into the realm of caricature for it to be enjoyable. If you’d like to find out a bit more about the two artists’ connections with Harewood, take a look at this article about a 2015 exhibition which reunited their works back at the house.
Highly recommended for a dash of period summer intrigue (and I can almost claim that I was reading it for work…). I shall have to look into some more of Mr Plampin’s books, I think, as I like his style. Fortunately, I have The Street Philosopher and Mrs Whistler (the latter offering more art-historical goodness) on my Kindle, so watch this space.