Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), the outstanding British landscape painter, was arguably the greatest British artist of all time and possibly also the most prolific. He deserves a thorough twenty-first century biography, and Franny Moyle has provided an excellent one.

The most interesting aspect of the book is her account of Turner’s rise to pre-eminence in his own lifetime, followed by vicissitudes when he came under bitter attack from critics who neither liked nor understood his later, most innovative work. In his last great years, even John Ruskin, who had always been his champion against all detractors, could not follow where he was going. Ruskin saw Turner’s completed pictures as unfinished and spoke of Turner’s mental decline. If anyone was in mental decline, it was Ruskin, who was now well into his trajectory from being the master art critic, who...


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