‘Mr Turner’ and ‘Mrs Lowry and Son’: The Art of Timothy Spall

It doesn’t bother me one iota that most of my career has been playing people who are not —well, let’s say that people wouldn’t aspire to be like them.  —Timothy Spall

In 2014 and 2019, the British actor Timothy Spall appeared in leading roles in two films about major English painters, respectively, J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) and L.S. Lowry (1887–1976). No two dramatic portrayals of major artists could be further apart.

Spall portrays the cockney Turner as large, robust and lumbering, like a character from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, solitary in his private life, but engaged socially in his professional duties, and supremely self-confident of his stature as a major British artist. According to Spall, when Turner met the French painter Eugene Delacroix, who had been strongly influenced by his work, Delacroix remarked, “Is that Turner? He’s like a smelly old farmer. He just grunted all the time.” Turner said, “Every time I look in the mirror I see a gargoyle.”

Joe Dolce appears in every Quadrant.
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Five years later, for the role of Lowry, Spall seems to have lost almost half his body weight: he appears fragile, thin and wiry. The self-confident artist has been replaced by an awkward middle-aged son, in a co-dependent relationship with an elderly mother who dominates him. He lacks confidence and does not paint for profit but is merely, as he says, “A man who paints, nothing more, nothing less.”

Mr Turner (2014) was written and directed by Mike Leigh. The sumptuous cinematography, drenched in the beautiful light so representative of Turner, was done by Dick Pope, who received a number of awards for his work on the film, including a Special Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

The film takes in the last twenty-five years of Turner’s life. We first encounter him sketching in a Dutch landscape. He returns to his London home and is met by his housekeeper, Hannah Danby, who calls him Mr Billy. Hannah is subservient and quiet, with hunched shoulders, more like a faithful pet. He enters his studio and throws back the shutters, letting in light, intermittently grunting. Hannah stands close to him waiting for something more. Finally he puts his hand on her bosom.

Turner visits the local paint supply shop, ordering chrome yellow, flat white, Indian red and poppy oil. On returning to the studio, he is embraced by his father, whom Hannah calls Mr William. Father and son have a very affectionate relationship. His father had once been a barber and a wigmaker, and is now mixing the paints, making frames and stretching canvases.

Sarah Danby, Hannah’s aunt by marriage, and a previous lover of Turner, arrives with his two unacknowledged daughters. Turner is not pleased to see them.

He travels to Margate, renting a room from a seaside landlady, Mrs Sophia Booth, checking in as Mr Mallord (his middle name). Mrs Booth is married and her husband had worked as a carpenter on slave ships, an experience that has deeply traumatised him. Turner is served “shackles” for supper and when Mrs Booth cautions him that they might be salty, he replies, “They can never be too salty for me, madam,” his first flirtation with her, to which she replies with embarrassed laughter. He reminisces with the Booths on the friends they have lost to scrofula, a form of tuberculosis that presents symptoms outside the lungs.

Back in London, Turner’s father’s health is failing. Father and son talk about Turner’s mother, who died in 1799 at St Luke’s Hospital for Lunaticks, and they concur: “She made our life a living hell.” A few days later, his father dies while Turner sits beside him.

He visits the local brothel in order to sketch a twenty-two-year-old prostitute, but overcome with grief over the loss of his father, and triggered by the beauty of this girl, he breaks down. Returning home, he has a quick liaison with Hannah up against a bureau. Turner now returns to Margate more frequently, leaving Hannah by herself for days. He discovers Mr Booth has died.

Turner is scheduled to be part of the Summer Exhibition of 1832, presenting the work of Royal Academy of Arts members. His fellow artists are putting light finishing touches on their paintings the day before the opening, known as “Varnishing Day”. There appears to be a predominance of red in the exhibition paintings, especially in the landscape of Turner’s rival, John Constable, in his scarlet-flecked The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, which has been mounted directly next to Turner’s blue, grey and white seascape, Helvoetsluys; the City of Utrecht, 64, Going to Sea. In a sudden and unexpected move, Turner dabs a small blob of red in the centre of his painting. Some of his associates stare at it, thinking perhaps he has lost his wits, ruining a perfectly good work; others, knowing him well, suggest they haven’t seen the end of it. The latter prove correct, Turner returning later to smudge the blob, with his thumb and nail, into a delicate red buoy bobbing in the choppy waves. One member says, “A shot has been fired,” and Turner’s clever action becomes the talk of the exhibition.

Returning to Margate, he compares Mrs Booth’s profile to Aphrodite: “You are a woman of profound beauty.” He kisses her and she takes him to her room.

During a snowstorm, Turner asks the captain of a local ship to strap him to the mast so that he can experience the maelstrom directly. This aggravates his bronchitis and he has to recover in Mrs Booth’s care. They spend many days together, but one afternoon Turner collapses. Mrs Booth’s doctor, who has now recognised the famous painter, diagnoses “a disorder of the heart” and advises “moderate living with no exertion”.

Young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert attend an exhibit at the Academy but are unimpressed with Turner’s latest paintings. Some of the comments overheard are “clearly losing his eyesight”, “a dirty yellow mess” and “wretched and abortive”. Two society women giggle, remarking, “Mr Turner seems to have taken leave of form altogether. He has on former occasions chosen to paint with cream, or chocolate, yolk of egg or currant jelly …”

On his next visit to Margate, Turner, now referred to as Mr Booth, has his image made, in a daguerreotype, by J.E. Mayall, and is pleased with the result, bringing Mrs Booth, much against her will, to have a portrait made of the two of them.

A wealthy businessman, Joseph Gillott, inventor of the Gillott high-quality dip pen, offers Turner 100,000 pounds for his entire oeuvre: paintings, sketchpads, everything, but Turner turns him down, preferring to bequeath his estate to the British nation. When Gillott asks him how much he expects to be paid, Turner replies, “Nothing.”

Turner’s memory is gradually faltering; he misplaces sketchbooks. Hannah finds a letter addressed to him in Mrs Booth’s handwriting, with the Margate address. She has also been suffering from increasing psoriasis of the neck and face, which she begins to keep hidden.

Hannah makes her way to the address in Margate but is too shy to knock on the door. She asks a neighbour if there is an old gentleman living there and is told there is one with his “lady wife”, who has “the sickness”. Embarrassed, she returns to London.

When Turner dies, Mrs Booth is by his side. His final words are, “The sun is God!”

Mr Turner covers only the last twenty-five years of the artist’s life, not covering his extraordinary youth, when he became a member of the Royal Academy at fourteen.

The director, Mike Leigh, said that the sexual relationship between Turner and his housekeeper, Hannah, was “an invention not based on any historical evidence”. Some people mistakenly believe Leigh has implied Hannah acquired a venereal disease from her liaisons with Turner.

Turner denied vigorously the paternity of Sarah Danby’s two daughters but left them a generous legacy in his will. There is another theory that the mother of the girls was actually Hannah, who died two years after he did, but little is known about Turner’s private life.

The Melbourne art historian and cultural critic Dr Christopher Heathcote said:

[Constable] was himself an eccentric of sorts, and he had a county accent, which led the urban toffs to look down on him. As well, Constable was obsessive about how he finished his pictures, putting these little dabs of white over the foliage of trees. Some look like someone has dotted away with a whiteout pen. What he was trying to do is suggest the reflective sheen on each single leaf after a rain shower—so, in the Royal Academy, Turner and the others all teased Constable, saying his paintings were covered in dandruff. The point is that the famed collision with Constable in that big show: they hung Turner and Constable side by side, the intention of the committee being to have Turner outshine poor Constable. Well, Constable fiddled about to try and make his work somehow stronger, so Turner walked in and put on that shapeless lump of Red Lead pigment, then turned and walked out again. Constable shrieked, and his exact words recorded by several people are, “He’s shot it!’

Mrs Lowry & Son (2019) was directed by Adrian Noble, with a screenplay by Martyn Hesford, from his play of the same name.

The film opens with Lowry (Spall) speaking over the credits, in a mantra we hear several times throughout the movie, “I paint what I see. I paint what I feel. I’m a man who paints. Nothing more, nothing less.”

We first see a thin man walking up a cobbled street in Pendlebury, Lancashire, in 1934, followed by a group of ragtag children. Lowry plays with them by pretending he cannot see them.

His elderly mother, Elizabeth (played by Vanessa Redgrave), sits by the window reflecting on how she could have been a concert pianist. When Lowry comes in the door she starts nagging him to hang his coat up properly and not get the floor wet. She is bedridden and he tends to her every need, lifting her onto her pillows, bringing tea, cooking, but she takes this as her due. She tells him to make sure he’s washed his hands and when he assures her they are clean, she replies, “I’ll be the judge of that,” meticulously inspecting his nails.

Lowry tries to make light conversation to brighten things up but everything she says to him is filled with gloom, creating tremendous anxiety in him. Behind it all is a depressing sense of manipulation. Over the years, Lowry has become adept at shrugging off her criticism. She tells him, “I’m never cheerful. I haven’t been cheerful since 1868, the year of my Confirmation. I blame your father for everything.”

In a flashback to 1894, we see Lowry’s father, a rent collector, collecting overdue accounts, while the young son sits on a stoop sketching with a piece of coal. Lowry’s mother tells him she had wanted a business man, “but he wasn’t capable and neither are you”.

She refers to his painting as a hobby. “And where has it got you, this hobby? Nowhere.” Lowry has been slowly paying back his father’s debts, working as a junior clerk and collecting rents as his father did.

To prove her point, she shows him a negative newspaper review, by an art critic, Mr Denby, of one of his paintings. “An insult to the people of Lancashire,” it says.

His mother is trying to show him that this “important” man is not impressed. Lowry says, “What does he know?”

She replies, “What does he know? He knows more than you do. He knows everything. He’s an art critic.”

Lowry tells his mother that he paints what he feels, but she replies, “What about how I feel? I don’t want to feel like everyone’s laughing at me … oh, give it up, Laurie, for my sake,” she pleads. “Try and find another hobby … I know everything about artistic attributes … you’re not an artist and you never will be.”

His mother blames his father for failing to provide for her in the way she was accustomed to. She says: “I belonged in Victoria Park, a place with starched white collars and the scent of lavender soap on people’s skin. It was a different world. I cannot abide ugliness. I haven’t the constitution for it. I’ve never stepped near the mill in my life; the very idea is abhorrent.”

She has a visit from her neighbour, Mrs Stanhope. Lowry’s mother tells him that Mrs Stanhope has admired one of his paintings, Sailing Boats, 1930, and she asks him to bring it into her room so she too can “savour” it. “Oh yes,” she says, “I see what Mrs Stanhope sees.”

Lowry is dumbfounded with this longed-for recognition. He tells her that he painted it for her and she replies, “This is what I call a proper painting. Why can’t you paint like this any more?”

He tells her, “When I first gave it to you, you turned your head away and closed your eyes.”

“Well, that must have been one of my hazy head days.”

She offers to pay the submission fee for him to enter Sailing Boats in the Manchester Academy summer art show so he can get a good review from the art critic, Mr Denby. She watches daily for some mention of the painting in the paper but to no avail. She becomes furious. “The man knows nothing about art!”

Lowry says, “Quite!’

A few days later, Lowry comes home from a walk and finds his mother despondent. She tells him that Mrs Stanhope has visited again and shows him a cheque for twenty pounds, from Mr Stanhope, who wants to buy his painting Coming from the Mill, that he saw at the summer show. Lowry assures his mother that he did enter both works, but his mother says that she and Mrs Stanhope think the mill painting is “a sordid ugly picture”. Mrs Stanhope has made Lowry’s mother promise not to let her son sell the painting to her husband. She argues with him, “Mr Stanhope? What does he know about art? He’s a Socialist. It’s Mrs Stanhope I care about, and her friends, her cultured friends. And I want to belong.”

Lowry shows his mother a letter from a gallery owner who wants to exhibit his work, but she rips it up in front of him. Storming out of her bedroom, he goes into his attic studio and trashes it, throwing paintings down the stairs and taking piles out into the lane to burn. He returns the twenty-pound cheque by putting it into the Stanhopes’ mailbox. His explosive out-of-character behaviour scares his mother and she asks him if he has really burned the paintings. He’s silent at first, but then says, “No, I didn’t want to ruin Mrs Stanhope’s washing.” In a spirit of compromise, she asks if he would now hang Sailing Boats on her bedroom wall.

The film ends with mother and son looking nostalgically at the work, remembering the seashore they visited when they were younger.

The film’s director, Adrian Noble, was the artistic head of the Royal Shakespeare Company for thirteen years, receiving over twenty Olivier Award nominations, but he had little experience in directing film, having only directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1996), a filmed adaptation of his stage version, and The Importance of Being Earnest on Stage (2015), filmed live at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.

No wonder Mrs Lowry and Son feels like an exquisite theatrical two-hander. Vanessa Redgrave was called by Tennessee Williams “the greatest actress of our time”. She has received the triple crown of acting: an Academy Award, an Emmy Award and a Tony Award. Only twenty-four actors have this distinction.

In the ITV documentary Looking for Lowry (2011), directed by Margy Kinmonth, narrator Ian McKellen remarks:

Until Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot, nobody had noticed that most of our lives are to do with waiting. And until Lowry painted these crowds, no one had noticed that that’s how human beings behave and you cannot now go out, watch a football crowd, going to a play, watch people come out of a theatre or any place where they’ve assembled or just going up and down a busy street without saying, “It’s a Lowry painting.”

We are all in a Lowry painting and that’s what he discovered. You don’t need any other message from Lowry—that this is how human beings behave.

Laurence Stephen Lowry was born in 1887, an only child, in Stretford, Lancashire. His mother continually expressed her disappointment to him that he wasn’t born a girl. She died in 1939, when he was fifty-two; the same year he had his first major exhibition in London. Her death depressed him so much that he considered suicide. He said, “I have no family, only my studio; were it not for my painting, I couldn’t live. It helps me forget that I am alone.” The movie doesn’t touch on his life after her death.

Lowry holds the record (five) for rejecting the most British honours. Turning down an OBE and a knighthood in 1968, he remarked, “There seemed little point … now that mother was dead.”

After he became financially successful as an artist, he started collecting work by Honore Daumier, Lucian Freud and his favourite painter, Rossetti.

When he was seventy years old, he formed an unusual relationship with a thirteen-year-old girl named Carol Ann Lowry (no relation). In 1957, her mother had suggested that her daughter write a letter to the famous artist. Lowry was so moved by the letter that, unannounced, he arrived at the family’s house and introduced himself. The friendship lasted twenty years.

She remained silent for decades about their relationship but in Looking for Lowry, she appeared, now in her sixties, on film for the first time, and related that he was more of a mentor and there was never anything untoward in his affections. She said:

Very much later, when I was grown up, people put it into my head that he might have felt differently towards me, as a man feels towards a woman, but I absolutely cannot believe it to have been so. I don’t think there was ever a physical thing for him, with any woman.

Lowry confessed, just before he died, “I have never had a woman.”

Lowry also became friends with Carol’s father, who had been a cotton spinner, and loved listening to his stories of the mills. Lowry brought gifts when he visited, helped with rent, paid Carol’s school fees, and even enrolled her in art classes. He took her on bus and taxi trips to Manchester, to restaurants, galleries and the theatre.

When she qualified as an art teacher, Lowry gave her a five-figure sum as a reward and, after she married in 1974 he remained good friends with her and her husband.           

In the documentary, she reveals notebooks left to her in Lowry’s will, showing another—some say darker—side of the artist: drawings of women in tightly fastened high-collared mechanical corsets, some with their breasts exposed, drawn in an almost Bauhaus and 1960s pop art style. She believed these drawings were inspired by the ballet Coppelia, about a life-size mechanical doll. Lowry loved this ballet and took her to many performances.

Michael Simpson, from the Lowry Museum, in Salford Quays, commented on the so-called erotic drawings:

I date them between 1972 and 1974, just a few years before he died. It was a time when young women in miniskirts were occupying the High Street and Lowry, by then well into his eighties, was obviously fascinated by what he saw. Lowry was born into the Victorian age. He was still with us in the seventies, saw society changing so much around him and I think they appealed to his darker side.

Lowry died of pneumonia in 1976, at the age of eighty-eight, leaving his entire cash estate of 300,000 pounds (the equivalent of several million dollars today), and a sizable collection of his very valuable paintings, to his “fairy goddaughter”. It came as a complete surprise and shock to her, as he had only promised to leave her his piano.

Timothy Leonard Spall was born in London in 1957. He told Adam White of the Independent that his childhood was the complete opposite of Lowry’s:

My mum especially encouraged me to pursue [acting]. Once I got into the National Youth Theatre … and decided that I wanted to be an actor, she just backed me all the way. I wasn’t in any way hampered; I was encouraged and enabled by my parents.

Spall trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he was awarded the Bancroft Gold Medal as the year’s most promising actor. He first became known to the general public in the 1983 television series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. He starred in Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies (1996), for which he was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and in 2014, won the Best Actor award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of Turner. He has collaborated with Mike Leigh, so far, on six films. He portrayed Winston Churchill in the film The King’s Speech (2010).

Spall was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in 1996, but after two decades is still in remission.

Lynn Barber, of the Guardian, said, “He used to be a flamboyant dresser—I remember seeing him around Soho dressed in bookies’ check suits and flashy waistcoats but that’s all gone. Today he is drably dressed in a pinstriped jacket, blue shirt and cotton trousers.”

When Leigh asked Spall to play Turner, Leigh told him not to get too excited as it wouldn’t begin shooting for three years. But if he was up for it, he said, “I’d like you to learn how to paint.”               

Spall talked to Adam White about his extreme weight loss between the two films. Directly after Mr Turner he decided to cut out sugar and alcohol to prepare for a role in the Sky mini-series The Enfield Haunting (2015). By the time he was offered the part of Lowry, he had slimmed right down. He said:

I knew it was risky because it can shut doors but I knew that if I was lucky, it would also liberate me. I don’t know whether I’ve missed out on [parts], but only because nobody’s ever called me up and said, “Ahh, we were gonna use you when you were fat but now we can’t.” I’m in my “thin Louis Armstrong” period. Louis Armstrong went through a whole period of being this big, big guy, and then all of a sudden he lost a load of weight and people said, “Oh god, is he ill?” But then for the last 20 years of his life, he was thin and nobody cared.

In Mr Turner, the art critic, poet and writer John Ruskin, is a fop and lisping prig. But according to Heathcote, “Ruskin was, and is, revered as the most important British critic who ever lived—we are all indebted to him and his way of looking.” Why Leigh chose to represent such a major figure, in not only the arts, but also Turner’s own life, in such a disparaging way is perplexing, but both of these films show a low opinion of art critics.

Ruskin is such a complex figure that it is impossible to give but a brief glimpse of him here, but perhaps a few words about his relationship with Turner.

Ruskin was the only child of first cousins. When he was thirteen, he was given a poem by Samuel Rogers, “Italy”, and was particularly fond of the poem’s illustrations, by Turner. He won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for Poetry at Oxford University in 1839. His father, John James Ruskin, had been collecting watercolours by Turner, a frequent guest in their home, and hoped that his son would, one day, become Poet Laureate. In 1843, Ruskin published a long essay defending Turner’s work in a book titled Modern Painters and after the painter died, catalogued nearly 20,000 of his sketches. Ruskin once said, “To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion all in one.”

There is innuendo that Ruskin had a predilection for young girls, and perhaps that is one of the PC reasons Leigh trivialised his character. However, according to James Spates, in his book Ruskin’s Sexuality: Correcting Decades of Misconception and Mislabeling, as with L.S. Lowry, “there is no evidence that Ruskin ever engaged in any sexual activity with anyone at all”.

He was highly respected by women novelists, such as Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell and supported, bestowed books and was generous to educational institutions for women. Tolstoy described him as “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times” and translated his work into Russian; Proust did the same in French, as did Gandhi in Gujarati.

It can be disconcerting watching films or series  adapted from well-loved novels, or biopics on artists whose work and life you have come to know over the years. Roberta Smith of the New York Times commented:

For an art critic, you watch art movies with a great emotional investment, making you more like a nervous parent at a child’s soccer game … You want films about artists to help decode art for the public, too. But you also want them to ring true in terms of your own knowledge and experience, to portray the world of art honestly and respectfully … Mr Turner is high on my list of best art biopics ever … Genius is by definition strange and also hard work.

Spall concurred:

[Turner] knew he was a man of destiny … like a lot of difficult geniuses do, they have something in them that drives them. I don’t advocate that as a way of carrying on for every genius … but in this case it was his motor.

Adam White of the Independent said:

Amid his research into Turner, Spall took up painting, reigniting a talent he hadn’t seriously explored since his teens. By the time he was playing Lowry, painting had turned into “a compulsion” for him, he says. A number of his landscapes and watercolours are currently hanging in Manchester’s The Lowry [Arts Centre], the world’s largest collection of the painter’s work.

Turner once told Mrs Booth that the unrealised dream of his life had been to visit Niagara Falls, straddling the American-Canadian border, one of the natural wonders of the world. I visited Niagara Falls often as a child with my parents and never forgot the massive scale of the thirteen-storey cascading waters, often lit at night in colourful hues; the Horseshoe Falls, and the Maid of the Mist boat ride. We would take the Cave of the Winds walk down rock paths to the Journey Behind the Falls and stand there amidst thunderous sounds with light streaming through the water. One can only imagine how Turner might have painted it.

Joe Dolce adds: Thanks to Dr Christopher Heathcote for reading the manuscript and for his invaluable comments.

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