Michael Frayn opens exhibition of J.M.W. Turner’s nudes

Image above: Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin at Turner’s House

Latest exhibition at Turner’s house in Twickenham

The eminent author and playwright Michael Frayn, accompanied by his wife, award-winning writer Claire Tomalin, opened an exhibition of J.M.W. Turner’s nudes together on Friday 8 July in the artist’s former home in Twickenham.

Frayn revealed painful childhood memories about his own discovery of art whilst opening the exhibition. The author of an extensive bibliography of critically acclaimed and commercially successful novels, non-fiction and dramas, including Copenhagen and the comedy Noises Off disclosed that the first picture he ever hung on his wall was J.M.W. Turner’s, Rain, Steam and Speed followed by Yacht Approaching the Coast.

However, his introduction to art has painful associations.

A painful introduction

“I was 15 or 16 at the time and I was just discovering Art. A major experience in my life. And it was made more memorable by the circumstances in which I was doing it.”

“I suffered from catarrh” Michael explained, “and I was being taken out of school every few weeks and sent up to Harley Street to an ear nose and throat specialist so he could make holes in my sinuses;” readers of a nervous disposition are advised to avert your eyes now, “as I recall with a hammer and punch!”

This wince inducing revelation elicited gasps of horror from the assembled at a preview of the exhibition in the house Turner designed for himself.

“I first got to know the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists and, of course, their great precursor, Turner as I walked around with the local anaesthetic wearing off and pain gradually filling my face and blood filling the handkerchief I was holding over my nose. And maybe these circumstances made the whole experience of meeting Art more memorable.”

“Now, more than 70 years later another memorable experience; Turner again.”

Thankfully, this occasion was memorable for positive and entirely bloodless reasons.

Frayn had been unaware of Turner’s House 

Despite living locally in the Royal Borough of Richmond, Frayn had not heard of Turner’s House, which made the visit memorable and a “double whammy”.

“Firstly, this house, which I did not know about, which has been beautifully saved and restored. And secondly, this exhibition itself. The only human figure of Turner’s I knew was the self portrait of him as a young man. So, I was surprised, and others will have as big a surprise as I did, when they see this exhibition.”

The exhibition Between the Sheets: Turner’s Nudes has been commanding rave reviews in the media, for its unique focus on the private life and work of the otherwise much documented maritime and landscape artist J.M.W. Turner, and has been awarded the accolade Exhibition of the Week by The Guardian this very week.

Co-Curator Dr Jacqueline Riding, adviser on Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014) and author of Hogarth: Life in Progress, (2021), explained that the House’s exhibition programme is intended to show the many facets of Turner,

“What is so wonderful about the show, and so wonderful about working on the show is that we are teasing out the personal aspect of Turner…a very private man”

“Scholarship has been done on many aspects of Turner and his diverse career as an artist, but this exhibition is the first one to focus on this particular subject”.

Image above: (left to right) Jacqueline Riding, Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn, Franny Moyle

“You can almost feel his breath on your neck”

Co-Curator Franny Moyle, author of the critically acclaimed The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner (2016) and, more recently, The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein (2021), was the person who came up with the idea of exploring this novel theme.

“Here is a man who was called a recluse and a loner” she said. “I think this is a Victorian invention about Turner based on the last few years of his life when he was unwell. But in these intimate works you see him as a traveller, an adventurer, someone joining in social settings.

“You see a fascination with women as an artist compelled to describe them objectively, sometimes as a catalyst for other scenes, but also, we see some wonderful tenderness towards his subject.

“When you see Turner’s landscapes you get a sense of his awe and relationship to the wider world. In putting these very intimate drawings together you get a vision of the man close up. You can almost feel his breath on your neck.”

Between the Sheets will be open to the public from Saturday 9 July until Sunday 30th October 2022, Wednesday to Sunday 10.00am to 4.00pm. Pre-booking is essential via turnershouse.org. Turner’s House, Sandycombe Lodge, 40 Sandycoombe Road, St Margarets, Twickenham TW1 2LR.

You can hear both curators discuss J.M.W. Turner and the exhibition at The Chiswick Book Festival on 10 September at St Michael & All Angels Church.

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