Acclaimed director Mike Leigh is renowned for the way he works with both subjects and his actors, researching extensively and developing his scripts through improvisation. When approaching the story of beloved master painter JMW Turner, a known user of Winsor & Newton oil paints and watercolours, for biopic Mr Turner, it made sense that the production team would come in for a workshop with our experts.
Winsor & Newton UK resident artist Paul Robinson introduced Leigh, actors including Timothy Spall, and members of the film’s art department to the archival material we have of Turner’s, and the nature of pigment and making paint. Working closely with the art department prior to production, Robinson even ended up with a cameo appearance in the film itself.
Before the film’s release in 2014, he spoke to Leigh about all things Turner.
It’s a warts and all depiction of Turner. You tend to think of the paintings before the man, so I found it very interesting seeing that side of it. Did you know about his life beforehand?
Obviously we did a massive amount of research. Anything you think we will have done, we did. You can’t know it all about anyone, especially about an artist who is by definition enigmatic, and he really was. For me this is true of any film I make: it is a journey of exploration.
But you’re asking me about the facts. There were constant revelations, there were constant nooks and crannies and things.
You look at the man himself, you look at the Royal Academy and you look at the social conditions at the time. Things like, I know what the word “strand” means, and I know that Joseph Bazalgette built the great sewage system and the London main drainage system that the Embankment is. But it didn’t really occur to us that Maiden Lane runs parallel to the Strand; where Turner lived as a kid is right on the river and we know that river at that time was a massive, busy, working thoroughfare.
Then you realise. Ah, yes! Of course! He grew up on the water and then they sent him to school at Brentford. You start to open a whole cornucopia of stuff and then it feeds into what you are doing.
Turner lived long before modern times, where everything is recorded. I suppose that gives you some freedom in terms of facts?
Well, it does to a degree but actually if I wanted to make a film about a more recent artist – which I have no intention of doing – you’d also have the freedom if you wanted it.
In a way the converse is as interesting, in that the more we could find the better. All the descriptions of Turner, of which there are lots, were very useful. Somebody even logged how he spoke and that was useful in a way. In the end, it’s not a documentary and the job is really to be accurate within that convention. It’s certainly an age where people wrote things down prolifically.
I find it interesting to reflect on the fact that Turner died only 92 years before I was born, the equivalent of 1922 to now, which is no time at all. And that’s not to tell you that I’m ancient, but that it’s quite recent and these things hang in the recent air.
If, for example, I wanted to make a film about Chaucer it would be a might more difficult proposition.
But what was it about Turner and his work that made you want to make a film about him?
It’s not for me to tell you what’s great about the work, it just is.
There’s no feature film that’s been made about Turner, that’s a start. There’s a whole bunch of films in the canon about artists and there should be one about him. He’s a great painter and I just felt I wanted to.
The work itself is cinematic and demands a big screen. The character, once I started to investigate the guy, is such a fascinating, complex, enigmatic… this eccentric, flawed, passionate, generous but selfish [man]. All of that’s there, so he absolutely qualifies as a central character in a Mike Leigh film!
So taking that and his sublime, epic work I felt that was a chemistry that invited a film.
Did you think any of the paintings and their composition affect the making of the film?
It informs completely. Dick [Pope – the films’ cinematographer] and I had years to talk about and think about this, as it took us years to raise the money.
We looked at the paintings and as you have probably seen in the Turner bequest, in the archive in Tate Britain, in the Clore department. Amongst the other 20,000 bits of Turner they have Turner’s colour charts which we made use of and the job was obviously to make the film evoke Turner in the choices in the colouration of the film. We were very conscious of this and we asked you questions, Paul, when you gave us the lecture about colour. That aspect of the film is very deliberate.
And here we are shooting digitally with the amazing tool which is there to be used. It’s just affording the possibilities of really going for it. Sometimes with scenes in the film it’s just a question of colour and tone, and in some scenes you are actually looking at pretty much a reconstruction of a Turner painting. Sometimes we’ve evoked what looks like a Turner painting just by the way we are looking at it.
This is the first time you have used CGI in a feature film, but it’s very subtle.
Well, I hope it’s subtle. As far as I’m concerned the joy of the movie camera is getting out into the street and capturing the real world, and when you make a film on this kind of subject, set 100 to 150 years ago, you want to make it as though you were out on the street then.
One of my favourite scenes in the film is when he’s with Ruskin and his family and Ruskin is almost sycophantic with Turner, who eggs him on and ridicules him. Did that really happen?
No, it comes from a general impression of Ruskin – it’s completely concocted. There’s an article in today’s Guardian that wants to sue me on behalf of Ruskin. I mean, sense of humour deficit!
If you think about Turner, if you think about someone who works as a painter as he did, this is someone who mixed in all parts of society. He went to brothels, mingled with royalty. Was that in your mind when you were making the film?
Well, yes. As you probably know a lot of the academicians were a lot of toffs but a lot of them had been caravan painters or were from artisan backgrounds. Turner was a scene painter at one stage.
Did you always have Timothy Spall in mind for the role?
After immersing yourself in the art world to the extent you have in making this film, have you felt the urge to pick up a brush at all?
I did go to art school. Tim Wright, who taught Timothy Spall how to paint, I did go to his life drawing class. I used to love life drawing and I can draw. It was funny because for the first two lessons I thought, I can’t draw anymore. You do have to keep drawing. I’d quite like to get on with it but I keep having to do other things.
You came into Winsor & Newton while you were making the film?
Yes, well you 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 and had a good wheeze and we walked away with goodies which was good. The real meat and bones of it was your talk, which you did a couple of times for us. It was very important.
It’s great that your resource exists for people doing what we were doing – remarkable, really.
I guess it’s important not just for the actors, but for other people involved in the film to understand these things?
Oh, everybody! Absolutely. The art department took it very seriously, well, because you see here’s the thing: I looked at a whole bunch of films about artists. I don’t normally do that but I did before I made this film, just out of interest really. 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.
Do you have a favourite Turner painting?
Difficult really. The thing about Turner is that he’s so diverse that you have to talk about it from a different perspective. I like that winter frosty one that’s in the Tate – A Frosty Morning – which is quite early, about 1806.
The other day I did an interview inside the Met in New York. Apparently the curator of that museum doesn’t like Turner so there aren’t that many in there. There’s one famous one on display there, though, which should be in the late Turner show: Whalers, which is fantastic. It really is Turner at his most radical, anticipating 20th century art. An incredible painting. And you cannot but be fond of Rain, Steam and Speed.