New biopic ‘Mr Turner’ starring Timothy Spall filmed at Petworth House

PUBLISHED: 10:15 27 October 2014 | UPDATED: 10:15 27 October 2014

Timothy Spall as the artist J.M.W Turner. The film is released 31 October - © Entertainment One

Timothy Spall as the artist J.M.W Turner. The film is released 31 October - © Entertainment One

Entertainment One

The artist J. M. W Turner is the subject of a new biopic, directed by Mike Leigh. The film’s producer Georgina Lowe spoke to Jenny Mark-Bell about portraying a mortal man with an immortal talent, and the importance of filming in Petworth House

There is a moment in Mike Leigh’s film, Mr Turner, where the artist is painting before a window in Petworth House. It’s an extraordinary scene: there is Turner; there is his canvas; and there, through the window, is a living facsimile of his painting. It is a virtuoso visual moment. Turner’s paintings are so venerated that it is a jolt to recall that his godlike genius had a mortal instrument.

In Mike Leigh’s film there is nothing of the deity about J. M. W Turner. He is an earthy man, alternately generous and mean, loving and cold, cocking a snook at his contemporaries and taking sexual favours where he can.

The beating heart of the film is the artist’s relationship with his doting father, a beaming former barber now acting as Turner’s studio assistant. The scene where William Senior shaves his adult child is almost unbearably touching.

An artist whose admittance to the Royal Academy came at the age of just 15, Turner is a fascinating subject for a biopic. This one focuses on the last 25 years of Turner’s life, although what marks the passage of time is not title cards or extemporising, but infinitesimal changes of dress and demeanour.

I spoke to producer Georgina Lowe, a long-term collaborator with Mike Leigh, about why they chose this latter period: “It was a very interesting period of his life, particularly after the death of his father and the effect that had on him.”

Leigh, famously an actor’s director, cast Timothy Spall in the title role long before the narrative was decided.

Much has been written about Mike Leigh’s methodology and how much of it is improvised. “He starts with a collection of characters”, said Georgina, “and then the film develops organically through a period of improvisation and a lot of research. Even if it is a contemporary piece, actors research their characters. With somebody like J. M. W Turner there is so much information available. Ultimately Mike will make a decision [on the direction of a character] – he is making a film in a creative way, and that takes over.

“With this film we had a researcher for a couple of years, Dr Jacqueline Riding, and Tim Spall learnt to paint for two years before we started rehearsal, but at the point when we had rehearsals the actual events that would end up being featured weren’t set in stone; it was an organic process.”

Depicting the moment of inspiration is an ambitious enterprise, but the film gives the viewer the sensation of stepping into the pearlescent light of one of Turner’s paintings. Cinematographer Dick Pope, a Leigh collaborator since 1990, won the Vulcan prize at Cannes for his work on Mr Turner. It was, Georgina says, a process of immersion for all the production team, which included production designer Suzy Davies, costume designer Jacqueline Durran and make-up artist Christine Blundell. As well referring to Turner’s paintings themselves, the production team was “really helped by so many wonderful experts at the Tate, the National Gallery, the Royal Academy, National Trust – everyone was extraordinarily helpful in facilitating research and opening doors to us.”

Patronage at Petworth

The production spent a week shooting at Petworth House, with the support of Lord and Lady Egremont. House and Collections Manager Andy Loukes, who curated last year’s exhibition, Turner’s Sussex, gave invaluable advice.

Petworth House provides the stage for around 15 minutes of the film’s action, contextualising the painter’s patronage by George Wyndham, third Earl of Egremont, who bought and commissioned 20 paintings from the artist which can still be viewed at Petworth. He had a huge interest in art and a number of artists visited his home regularly.

It was a “tremendous privilege” to film there, says Georgina. “It was quite humbling and I must admit I got goosebumps when we were up in the library, recreating the moment where Turner is painting and the other visitors are watching and asking questions with the window behind; just being in the space where he had been with reference to the painting. That was pretty special. You could feel his presence.”

In a tremendous boon for the production team, the National Trust has kept the house much as it would have been in Turner’s time. “Obviously we brought props in, but that was a huge advantage for us.”

Shooting in such a venerable building must be a fraught affair, I suggest: “We are very careful and you protect the floors, simple things like that, but we also had their team standing by to protect the precious things.” Georgina remembers with a frisson of nerves the scene where Turner sketches a musical soirée: “Dick Pope lit that evening scene with 175 candles…”

As one might surmise, the project has, from inception to completion, been lengthy. At the 2010 Cannes screening of Another Year, Mike Leigh announced that Mr Turner (then untitled) would be his next film. He had become interested in the artist after reading books about him. 
By 2011, research and preparations had begun and rehearsals started in autumn 2012, before shooting took place from May to August 2013.

“Mike’s films are always crafted,” said Georgina. “They are never spur of the moment. I think people sometimes think that because he rehearses with improvisation we make it up on the spot, which obviously you don’t: they are very carefully planned and crafted.” The film opened to rave reviews at Cannes this year and is released on 31 October.


Look out for

• Joshua Maguire as John Ruskin. Mr Maguire played Mozart at Chichester during the summer and uses a similarly effete lisp in this role.

• Brighton-born actress Lesley Manville, now a resident of East Grinstead, as scientist Mary Somerville, who demonstrates her experiments with violet light.

• A Turner exhibition at Petworth House, from January to March 2015, will feature props from the film and some of Turner’s personal effects. Look out for more information in the January issue.


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