During the varnishing days for an exhibition at the British Institution in 1835, J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), a squat, unprepossessing, difficult man, stood before his canvas at dawn with an array of brushes and vials at his feet. Turner had a tendency to submit for exhibition barely roughed-in paintings, then rework them on the wall in the days prior to the opening. This was not fecklessness on his part but a calculated tour de force, a piece of theatrical one-upmanship staged for the benefit of his fellow artists. An account, by E. V. Rippingille, of Turner completing his iconic Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), appears in James Hamilton’s biography of the painter, recently out in paperback:1

For the three hours I...


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