MY STORY Nicola Moorby, art historian and Turner expert
In February the Bank of England issued the new polymer £20 note, the first banknote to feature a British artist. The chosen artist is J M W Turner with a self-portrait painted in about 1799, and to coincide this week the art historian and Turner authority Nicola Moorby launches a lecture series for The Arts Society Connected with her talk An Artist of Note: Turner and the new £20 note
The Arts Society, formerly Nadfas, is a network of over 90,000 art lovers worldwide and 380 societies which have been enjoying its lectures for more than 50 years. Arts Society Connected is its new online presence, aimed at enriching lives through the arts, even if we cannot leave our homes. https://www.connected.theartssociety.org/talks-lectures
When and how did you fall in love with Turner?
I've always admired Turner's oil paintings, particularly those strikingly hazy masterpieces in the National Gallery which I often visited as a child, but I truly “fell in love” when I had my first job at the Tate Gallery, working in the prints and drawings rooms, and saw for the first time close up his exquisite and bewitching watercolours. Turner is truly the greatest painter in watercolour and I don't think anyone could fail to be blown away by the sheer beauty, inventiveness and quantity of his achievements. It was such a privilege to be able to work with them so intimately.
On April 23, the date when both William Shakespeare and St George are remembered, the artist Albert Irvine used to host a lunch in honour of another whose birthday fell on that day, Turner, believing that he was unfairly neglected by society. When did that cease to be true, if it has?
It's true that Turner's birthday is traditionally celebrated on the 23rd April although his exact date of birth is actually unconfirmed (his baptism date was recorded but not his birth date). It's certainly a fitting co-incidence but it's also possible that Turner claimed this auspicious date (St George's day and William Shakespeare's birth and death date) in order to underline his own status as Britain's most important and celebrated artist. I'm not sure he's ever been neglected as such but, probably due to his rather humble origins, he did miss out on the royal endorsement of a knighthood during his lifetime which was a shame. One of the lovely things about his appearance on the £20 is that he gets to feature on the opposite side of the monarch which would never had happened while he was alive.
Does the choice of Turner for the new note have wider significance for appreciation of the arts?
I think the choice of Turner for the new note demonstrates an increased interest and pride in the arts in this country which has been steadily growing in the last couple of decades. There's tremendous enthusiasm for visiting museums and galleries and accessing arts in various ways and I really hope those audiences continue to expand. I also hope that the role of the arts in this country is recognised and supported for the enormous benefits its brings to society, particularly in these challenging times when funding is going to be a huge issue.
What does the banknote’s depiction tell us about Turner?
As I explain in the film, the new banknote reveals not only Turner's varied achievements but also his extraordinary legacy. His art holds a place in our national consciousness so that we talk readily in common parlance about “Turner sunsets” for example.
The legend on the note is “Light is therefore colour”. Is that a quote?
“Light is therefore colour” is a quote taken directly from a lecture that Turner gave in 1818 to students and colleagues at the Royal Academy, Britain's premier art establishment. Turner was a professor at the Royal Academy and although his subject was ostensibly perspective he used this platform to talk about many of the things which most interested him in his landscape practice, for example the perception of light and colour, shade and tone and how that influences our understanding of the world. That particular quotation is a really good summation of Turner's whole approach - his obsession with depicting light and making paint behave as though it was light in his works.
The polymer £10 note features Jane Austen, but the new £50 has Alan Turing, the computer pioneer. Should another figure from British culture have been chosen, and if so who?
I'd love to see more cultural figures represented on banknotes in the future - there are so many deserving candidates in so many different fields, but I think Alan Turing is a worthy and inspiring choice for the new £50.
With a film about his life, the rescue and restoration of the house he built in Twickenham and the success of the contemporary gallery named after him in Margate where he was a frequent visitor, Turner is perhaps as well-known as ever. Should there be more – perhaps a national museum devoted to his life and work?
Turner has a national venue devoted to his life and work - the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain in London, the home of the extraordinary Turner Bequest, comprised of the thousands of paintings and drawings left unsold in Turner's studio when he died. In addition to being able to see the full scope of Turner's genius exhibited in the galleries it is also possible to make an appointment to visit the Prints and Drawings Rooms and view works on paper not on display and this is a really special experience that I would encourage anyone to take advantage of, when we're all out of lockdown of course! In the meantime, you can see works by Turner on Tate's website as well as those of many other galleries across the country.