The Dark Clue

Background

This is the edited text of a talk I gave about the novel at West End Lane Books in London.

It's always difficult to trace the genesis of an idea like this, but the first impulse, undoubtedly, was a long-standing fascination with the work of J.M.W. Turner. I would stand for hours gawping at his pictures in the Clore Gallery and the National Gallery. I found them immensely powerful — but also disturbing. Some of the things I found troubling were fairly obvious — the terrifying destructive power of nature in many of the pictures, or the artist's apparent difficulty in portraying the human figure (a puzzling lapse, given his prodigious ability to record inanimate objects). But there were also riddles and enigmas that I couldn't resolve, or even really identify, though I sensed they were there.

It was only when my friend Nicholas Alfrey — who is a Turner expert — took me round the Clore that I realized that Turner's life was every bit as strange as his pictures, and that there might be all kinds of odd connections between the two. Turner's mother went mad and died in Bethlem Hospital. Turner himself was rich and successful, but lived much of the time as a miserly recluse, in the most abject squalor. Contemporaries describe how the rain poured in through the broken skylights of his house, cascading over the masterpieces stacked against the wall — one of which was used as a cat-flap for the hordes of manx cats roaming the place and jumping on visitors' shoulders. The cats belonged to a deformed housekeeper, who kept her face wound in a scarf to disguise the cancer ravaging it.

And it wasn't just the housekeeper: Turner himself was astonishingly secretive. He hated being painted; he always travelled incognito; and it was only after his death that his friends discovered he'd spent his last years living in a cottage in Chelsea under an assumed name, with a Margate landlady called Mrs. Booth. The overwhelming impression is of a man determined to remain an enigma.

And in case you think I was just the victim of an over-active imagination, I wasn't the only person to be disturbed by Turner. Even during his own lifetime, he was known as the 'foremost genius of the age', and he is still considered by many people the greatest landscape painter in history. But, despite his reputation, he never received a knighthood (unlike many less gifted contemporaries), and was never made President of the Royal Academy. Even after his death, he was shabbily short-changed: the terms of his will were scandalously — and very publicly — disregarded by the government, which arbitrarily upheld the bits it liked, and overturned the bits it didn't; and, until very recently, if you looked for a blue plaque where he was born or lived most of his life, you looked in vain. (Contrast this with the house a few streets away where his contemporary Clarkson Stanfield lived, and which has proudly sported a blue plaque for decades. Stanfield was a good enough artist, but no one would have suggested he was the 'foremost genius of his age.') So England — or at least official England — was plainly not very comfortable with its greatest painter.

Most striking of all is the way Turner was treated by biographers. When he died, there was a widespread expectation that someone who had known him would immediately burst into print with a Life. Several contenders were mentioned — Ruskin; the critic and journalist Lady Eastlake; and Turner's fellow-artist George Jones — but, mysteriously, they all remained silent. At last, a hapless young journalist called Walter Thornbury blundered in where they feared, or declined, to tread, and produced a book that was universally reviled, in the most savage language. It's not the greatest biography in the world — but it's entertaining, and nothing like as bad as Lady Eastlake et al. would have us believe. So it's hard to escape the impression that his friends were all protesting a bit too much — that there was something they didn't want revealed.

I thought long and hard about how to approach the subject. Eventually — and very quickly — I came up with the startling idea of taking the hero of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, Walter Hartright, and setting him on Turner's trail. The Woman in White — a book I love —is generally credited with being the first, or one of the first psychological thrillers. In it, Collins explores his obsessions with concealment and truth and identity, and in Walter Hartright he creates a character who is past-master at uncovering secrets and conspiracies — so if anyone could get at the truth about Turner, he could.

But I also chose to use Walter Hartright for another reason. Turner was born in 1775, the year the American War of Independence started, and died in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition. The world that formed him, therefore, was essentially Georgian and Regency and early Victorian — a world of wars and national crises and moral loucheness. The Woman in White was published in 1860, and its world seems to me very different — a high Victorian, pre-Raphaelite world obsessed with mediaevalism and chivalry. In sending this chivalrous knight in pursuit of a figure from the first half — in colliding these two worlds, and seeing what happened — I felt I was dramatising the great gulf in English culture in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Cover of The Dark Clue

Faber and Faber (20 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 0571202764

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