Winsor & Newton has been making artists’ materials since 1832 – which means not only that we’ve have had all those years to perfect our trade, but also that we’ve worked with some of the most famous artists in the world. One of those is JMW Turner, a confirmed user of Winsor & Newton oil colour.
When making the biopic Mr Turner, film director Mike Leigh, together with members of the cast and crew, visited our innovation and development department to make use of our archive and learn about pigment and making paint.
Leigh is famous for his process as a filmmaker and the system he uses involves a huge amount of research. As he and his actors improvise and create the script step-by-step, they must have as much contextual information as possible with which to bring the story to life.
When we caught up with Leigh months later, as Mr Turner was being released, he told us: “It’s great that your resource exists for people doing what we were doing – remarkable, really.”
Paul Robinson, our UK resident artist, ran the workshops that Leigh and his team took part in. “I ended up running two sessions,” he explains. “The first was for a larger group of cast and crew that included Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall [who played Turner]. This was followed by a more focused group, including Dorothy Atkinson [Turner’s housekeeper, Hannah] and Paul Jesson [Turner’s father, William], who were also at the first session.
“In this second group we focused more on the making of paint and practised this with a muller from the period. This method is expertly demonstrated by Paul Jesson, as we see him in one scene making up some chrome yellow oil colour.”
Leigh said of the experience: “Paul [Robinson] talked to us about the background of the technology, which was immensely useful, and then we all went into a room and messed about with paint for a bit, had a good wheeze and walked away with goodies. The real meat and bones of it was Paul’s talk which he did a couple of times for us and it was very important.”
Atkinson told us the workshop was just one step in the research process the role of Hannah Danby required. “As you’re working on building a character you’re working on research and we did a lot with Paul Robinson when we went to Winsor & Newton,” she said “We learnt how to mix paint and got to know all about that, so it’s kind of in tandem, all the research and the development of the character.”
Danby, who according to some was Turner’s lover as well as his housekeeper, worked for the artists until his death in 1851. “Turner gave Hannah a life, a purpose and a home,” Atkinson explained, “and because of the nature of him being an artist in that period in time he would have been quite bohemian, so she wouldn’t have been servile. She was part of the family.”
Marion Bailey, who plays Turner’s wife, Mrs Booth, didn’t take part in the workshops as her character didn’t demand it but she did find a renewed love of Turner through the making of the film.
“I was a fan of Turner’s paintings although I am much more of one now, but yes I always loved his work,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about the man except he was a working class Londoner.”
“For Mrs Booth, she would never have imagined that coming from a mariner’s family on the coast of Kent, which was a hard working life, she would have felt lucky to survive. She would have thought it extraordinary to have shared a life with one of the greatest artists in British history. Plus she outlived him and she paid for everything but kept a few paintings for herself as well.”
Atkinson also learnt a great deal about the artist while making the film. “I knew his top ten and I hadn’t lingered in front of them any more than anything else in the gallery,” she said. “But now I’m a super-fan, just because we had the privilege of going into the Clore Gallery and seeing all the works. If you needed to see something then you could ask and they’d bring it out, which was particularly helpful.”
Through the workshops and working with the film’s art department, Paul Robinson ended up landing a cameo role in the film, securing another place in history for Winsor & Newton. But the other story here is how with the help of Winsor & Newton Mike Leigh and his team were able to more accurately bring to life the process of painting and mixing paints that Turner would have used in his day to day life.
“I looked at a whole bunch of films about artists,” Leigh said. “I don’t normally do that, but I did before I made this film. But you don’t see the artists rolling up their sleeves and getting down to actually doing it a lot in these films. Obviously because of the nature of the way I look at things, that’s what I wanted to do. In a way, therefore, your contribution and the practical stuff was of central importance.”