Chris Murray reviews Will & Tom, a novel that features a famous artist fighting for a commission against his childhood friend and rival.
Strange things are afoot at Harewood House, and it’s up to Will to find out exactly what’s going on. Expensive crockery has gone AWOL, unnamed disgrace hangs over the Baron’s youngest daughter, servants dare only whisper the source of the Lascelles’ fortune, and, in a provocative gesture, the family has enlisted two artists to sketch their estate, as though to pit them in competition.
Except it’s not up to Will to get to the bottom of things at all. He’s simply one of the up-and-coming artists commissioned by the ostentatious scion Beau Lascelles. For we are in the company of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). The J.M.W. Turner – you ask – great Romantic painter, seen of late grunting around the Academy in the biopic Mr Turner? The same. Matthew Plampin’s novel is a biographical fiction whose initial dramatic impetus arises from the irresistible fact that toadying to the elite, a necessary evil for the starving artist, was so unnatural to this obstinate figure. Plampin makes clear that Turner was often his own worst enemy:
Father’s warning, given just as he was setting out from Maiden Lane to catch the first coach, sounds unbidden in his ears. Standing at the parlour hearth, the old man recited every expulsion and exclusion that Will Turner had earned over the course of his life – the opportunities missed, the would-be allies lost, through shows of temper.
You fight off your friends, boy, he said. You defy the very men who seek to help you.
The young Turner must swallow his pride in his initial exchanges with the obnoxious Lascelles family. He vows to endure their indignities and reap the benefits of the Lascelles’ patronage, but the plot thickens when Turner’s friend and rival, the artist Tom Girtin (1775–1802), arrives on the same employment. As the intrigue of Harewood House deepens, Will struggles to hold his tongue.
Will & Tom is a big-house novel. The awkward, cockney Turner is comically ill at ease in these grand surroundings. He slides into the genre easily, and there is a feeling of inevitability to the set-pieces: wrong rooms are blundered into; expensive items are broken; hierarchies are offended; garments are inappropriate to posh occasions; unsuitable women are bedded. The strength of the book, though, is that it makes the best of its material. Turner himself is a marvellous figure, and Plampin recreates the artist vividly: socially inept, self-righteous, self-doubting, vain, rough around the edges. The book also has a wonderful sense of historical moment, with its plot contingent on topical aspects of life in the late eighteenth-century that Plampin weaves together gracefully, from the abolition movement to the antics of the bloated Prince George. (The Prince George – you ask – deemed ‘a fat Adonis at fifty’ by radical journalist Leigh Hunt, called the ‘Prince of Whales’ by Charles Lamb, lampooned mercilessly in Blackadder? The same.)
It’s one of those fictions with a great deal of truth to it. Should Will and Tom cling to artistic integrity for a pittance, or sell out by painting theatre scenery? They haunt the nobility, on the fringes of a society that will never really accept them. They argue bitterly with other artists. And, of course, they paint:
The sun is just beginning to rise, the orb itself hidden in luminescent vapour. Will studies the sky as he trudges along. Yellow lake, he reckons, washed very thin, with a smoky hint towards the top, up in the firmament proper; ultramarine would serve best, with possibly the smallest speck of madder brown.
There’s a depth of research to this book concealed by Plampin’s skilled construction. It’s a light entertainment that tells much about these artists and their struggles.
Will & Tom is published by HarperCollins. Chris Murray is the author of Tragic Coleridge (2013). His current work explores how nineteenth-century conceptions of China are informed by classical culture.