The Exhibitionists

This is not a plug for my novel, The Exhibitionists (well, not really) but among the artists included in the story are Holman Hunt, Benjamin Haydon and JMW Turner.  They are gold-dust for the novelist.

William Holman Hunt, most famous perhaps for his religious picture, The Light of the World, was a large and powerful man, a workaholic, obsessive, dogmatic and flummoxed by love.  His first known affair (which may have been no more than an affair of the heart; certainly it was brief) was with Emma Watkins, the model for the temptress in The Hireling Shepherd, but his long-lasting, hopelessly fraught and misguided romance was with the urchin model Annie Miller, shared in every sense with the other Pre-Raphaelite artists.

Annie is described to us as one of the earthiest and filthiest creatures the Pre-Raphaelite artists had seen. A charwoman’s daughter whose mother died when Annie was a child, she lived with her invalid ex-soldier father, his brother and his wife and the various children, together with four young working men (three were chimney sweeps), all crammed together in a cellar.  Hunt came across her when she was working as an 18-year-old, flirtatious if foul-mouthed barmaid, and she agreed to pose for him – often in the nude, which didn’t worry Annie one single jot – and Hunt was soon wildly infatuated.  His strict morality forbade him to touch her, though Annie had few qualms.   One solution would have been for him to marry her – but to Hunt she appeared wildly lower-class, physically dirty, and frighteningly animal.  He courted her, became engaged, tried to educate, struggled with her even after he knew she’d been unfaithful, and eventually he lost her to a more worldly-wise and richer man about town.

Hunt’s useful if self-aggrandising memoirs, published in 1905, annoyed the descendants of his Pre-Raphaelite companions, but helped cement his own position as ‘The True Pre-Raphaelite’: the title of his biography by Anne Clark Amor, published in 1989.  His ashes lie in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was England’s greatest colourist – a revolutionary, in that he can be said to have anticipated Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism; an often cantankerous, never obsequious misfit from the lower classes who was lauded by the aristocracy; a lecturer who was barely articulate; and eventually, a private man who bequeathed all his paintings to the public.  Poorly educated, he struggled to express himself in words, his lectures were gap-filled mumbles and the texts he wrote to accompany his pictures were well-nigh incomprehensible.  He was a secretive man: how he achieved his effects was not something he imparted willingly, though it is known that his range of methods included throwing paint at his paper and soaking it in a bucket of water, then watching the paints run when he hauled it out.  In this, as in so many things, he was a modernist.

Turner was a Londoner, the son of a barber, and made little attempt to elevate his status or to pretend to be anything other than he was.  He dressed shabbily and lived at addresses he wouldn’t give out.  In the last years of his life he kept a shambolic, badly maintained, leaking studio in Queen Anne Street but lived secretly in a small house off Chelsea’s Cremorne Road with his presumed mistress Mrs Booth (he was known to the neighbours as Mr or sometimes Admiral Booth, never as Mr Turner).

An artist this individual, self-willed and innovative was bound to be inconsistent.  Not every picture worked.  Although, like most artists, he destroyed many of his failures, he kept many too – leaving them lying around his dreadful studio among the clutter.  Some have come onto the market or have been exhibited and, if Turner had known they’d still exist a century and a half after his death, he would have laughed.  In his studio when he died, among works he had refused to sell, was The Fighting Téméraire.

The legacy he gave to the nation comprised some 350 of his paintings and an astounding 20,000 drawings and watercolours.

But what of Benjamin Robert Haydon, you may ask – who was he?  He was the roaring dinosaur of the age, anti-Academy, anti-progress, a severe (though often perceptive) critic and, in his opinion, the country’s last great historical painter.  His monumental works (which he often failed to sell, despite having worked on each for years) were impressive in a gloomy way, but flawed: he was too ambitious, and he couldn’t handle the epic subjects, let alone the epic scale, of his vast visions.  He scorned his smaller works, often portraits, never realising that these were far better than his larger ones.  Nevertheless he managed to sell to the Queen and several of the nobility (though not often enough to save him), he played a large part in securing the Elgin Marbles for the nation, he pushed successfully to have the new Palace of Westminster graced with freshly commissioned British frescoes, he championed the forgotten poet Keats, and he left one of the greatest sets of diaries – which are still wonderfully readable and still in print, albeit reduced in scale, unlike his paintings.  The diaries end, sadly, with his suicide.

These three are just some of the real-life characters in The Exhibitionists, available from your favourite book store or, inevitably, from Amazon: The Exhibitionists


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