Elemental‘Elemental’ by Diane Cutlack at Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham.

29th March, 2014

‘.. …my job is to draw what I see, not what I know.’

As artist, William Turner was driven by his desire to see, his tremendous love for light and what it could do; but in his life he was too much driven by his desire to hide, to be in the dark. ‘Elemental’ is Twickenham resident, award-winning playwright and producer Diane Cutlack’s  most recent play  and was performed at Strawberry Hill House, Horace Walpole’s gothically indulgent home.  ‘Elemental’,  written on behalf of Turner’s House Trust, succeeds as a  well researched, potted ninety minute biography of the artist, William Turner, one of England’s most original painters of landscapes and seascapes.  Scenes alternate smoothly between Turner’s gallery in Harley Street and his home, Sandycombe Lodge, in Twickenham.

The play opens with a viewing in Turner’s private gallery in 1822, a time when he was becoming financially secure and his output had become undoubtedly prodigious. Immediately, through the caricatured Lady (Anneli Page) and Gentleman (Raymond Daniel- Davies), we sense that the artist is used to and even courted controversy, learning to use it to his advantage.

Robert Blackwood as Sir George Beaumont is wonderfully menacing as he slides on stage like a Dickensian Podsnapp parasite.  Like the Gentleman, Beaumont plays the role of an arbiter of taste and tradition: an embodiment of the establishment  who ridiculed Turner’s work and subscribed to many  derogatory anecdotes about him.  Beaumont serves as both Chorus and Turner’s nemesis, passing judgement on his lack of heritage, but also as a reminder of artist’s hubris. It is clear that the public wanted near-photographic realism in the treatment of material objects, not an exploration of the subtle interplay of light and atmosphere.  So Turner’s growing influ­ence was deemed to be dan­ger­ous for young artists. Beaumont concludes Turner was doing more harm in misleading taste than any other artist. Fashion paid lip service to the slower-drying oils which were highly regarded culturally and which delivered the warm tones of the old mas­ters (partly due to the yel­lowed var­nish and dirt accu­mu­la­tion). Therefore Turner was con­sid­ered treach­er­ously too bright. Nevertheless, wealthy patrons took note of Turner’s artistic genius and the latter ironically gained membership and approbation from the organisation that represented the heart of the British art establishment.

Through intimate conversations with his father (Alistair Findlay) and close friend, Rev. Henry Trimmer (Thomas Willshire), we learn much of Turner’s reputation in the art world – the popular confusion between genius and madness:  attributed partly to his mother having spent the last four years of her life confined in a mental hospital. Leigh Stevenson gives us a  convincing portrait of the artist, assured of his own genius yet socially gauche.

A revealing scene, set ironically beneath a painting of the Virgin and Child,  is when a friend, Trimmer, tries to sell Turner the benefits of married life and children. Turner’s private life, such as it was, was secretive. In discussion of  the quality of some of Turner’s paintings where brooding clouds and breaching waves are awe-inspiring characters in their own right, Trimmer unsettles his friend by suggesting that he used his estranged daughter as a model for one of the tiny figures, which often characterised his work, to depict the power of the elements. The truth will out as Turner’s darker history is exposed – he fathered two daughters: Eveline ( also played by Anneli Page) and Georgiana. Their mother was assumed to be Mrs. Sarah Danby, the widow of a London composer. However, many believe the children’s mother was actually Mrs. Danby’s niece, Hannah (Polly Smith), who was employed by Turner as a housekeeper. No hint of the latter is given, though Hannah’s devotion to Turner in the play is palpable; the more so as, at the end of Act 2, she is dismissive of her master’s  relationship with a married woman while he pretended to be a retired Admiral. Here, Hannah is used to accelerate the narrative of Turner’s later years leaving a structural inbalance in pace of the play.

Hannah’s monologue, where she graphically describes a dream of Turner’s Sandycombe Lodge in decline, perhaps serves as a not-so-subtle hint that Sandycombe Lodge  is now on English Heritage’s ‘at risk’ register.  It is certainly requires restoration and therefore financial support from residents, donors and national bodies is needed. Sandycombe was built as a retreat from the London art scene and to house Turner’s ageing father, William.

Throughout both Acts, Turner’s easel, supporting works in progress, remains on stage to reflect the great energy of a man committed to extend himself artistically. Local artists David Bowman and Joy Cuff provide imitations of Turner’s paintings translated into characteristic chords of colour.

In contrast, it is disappointing that, on the death of her father, Evelina ends the play with a cliched scene holding an artificial, commemorative red rose, whilst describing  his legacy. Turner left a sizeable fortune which he hoped would be used to support old and penniless artists in alms houses. Part of the money went to the Royal Academy of Arts, which is occasionally used to award students  with the Turner Medal. Turner’s collection of finished paintings was bequeathed to the British nation, and he intended that a special gallery would be built to house them. This did not come to pass. Nevertheless, at his request he was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Evelina’s tribute to her father as a visionary is fulsome, and it is this that reminds us that his greatest paintings haunt the imagination. Despite attacks from his contemporaries, Turner remains a popular figure yet, as Beaumont hurtfully states, Turner was never satisfied with his finished paintings as he felt that the perfect work still lay in his head. ‘There is rarely any doubt about the things represented on canvas, but they are formed out of a common elemental medium that washes over and through them.’

Despite some shortcomings the play was enjoyable and led me to want to research further into Turner’s life.