Artinfo has reported that director Mike Leigh and British actor Timothy Spall have signed on to do a film based on the life of 19th century British landscape painter Joseph W.M. Turner. While Turner is well known in the art world and beyond for his eponymous Turner prize which has in recent years become synonymous with the resurgence of British art in the 90s especially in regards to the controversial YBA artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin, his life as commonly reported was somewhat staid. Lacking the overt sexuality and controversy of artists such as Caravaggio and Schiele, in terms of Hollywood storylines Turner likely ranks slightly above artists such as French artist Édouard Vuillard who lived most of his life living with his mother doing paintings of the interior of their shared apartment and Italian artist Giorgio Morandi who lived a quiet life with his three sisters and mother painting bottles and vases. Turner spent his time painting open bodies of water as opposed to the open legs of nubile models.
However, Turner was believed to have had a dynamic relationship with his father who eventually became his studio assistant and with whom he lived until his father’s death when Turner was 54 years old. Turner did have a relationship in his late 20s with an older widow with whom he had two daughters and eventually died in the home of his mistress Sophia Caroline Booth at age 76. These elements alone would seem to give director Leigh who did both Vera Drake and the quirky comedy Happy-Go-Lucky, plenty of wiggle room to develop a compelling human interest story around a man best known for staring out into the sea. Leigh has been working on a Turner film for a long time and it is likely for the reasons above that his resolve was able to overcome the reticence of producers to eventually set the wheels in motion. As Leigh puts it in an interview with the Guardian in 2008 (via Artinfo),
JMW Turner is that it is to me, obviously, a great cinematic subject. And he’s a great character. To me the tension between this extraordinary Londoner who spoke with a cockney accent and had himself strapped to the mast of a ship so he could paint a storm … a cinematic investigation and reflection of how he looked at the world and what he painted seems to me, with all those amazing characters in his life, would make a splendid Mike Leigh film. I say that because I’ve been very closed about this idea for a long time and we’ve endlessly approached people for money and nobody gives a fuck. People are just not interested and it makes us very sad and very angry. People have said no way will we get the kind of money we need to do that, even people who are otherwise sympathetic won’t even contemplate it, which is very frustrating indeed. And so I say a Mike Leigh film because one of the reasons that you don’t talk about a film is because you worry that somebody else will do it first, and that is one of my fears.