A few weeks back I got round to watching the excellent Mike Leigh film, Mr. Turner. The clip I have embedded above shows him arriving at the Royal Academy on varnishing day and greeting various recognisable figures. There is a warm greeting for Sir John Soane - "As I live and breath", "My old friend!" - but a frosty one for John Constable. There follows the oft-related incident of the red buoy. This is how it was retold a few years ago in one of several newspaper articles on the artists' 'feud', prompted by an exhibition at the which put their their two paintings side by side again.
Back in 1832, Constable was at last exhibiting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 'a painting on which he had been working for almost 15 years, at the Royal Academy. In the final days, he laboriously put his finishing touches to the busy scene in the gallery. But Turner stole the show with a single daub of red paint. Seeing that in comparison his serene seascape, Helvoetsluys, was a little lacking in colour, he entered the room, painted a small red buoy in the middle of his canvas - which had only taken him a few months to compose - and left without saying a word. Constable, mortified by Turner's deft touch, remarked: "He has been here and fired a gun."'
J. M. W. Turner, Helvoetsluys, 1832
Watching these two landscape artists portrayed on screen prompted me to wonder about other possible films. Perhaps a prequel, like The Godfather Part II, concerning Turner's younger days could be made, with another actor brought in to play him - the De Niro to Timothy Spall's Brando. I can imagine Martin Gayford's book Constable in Love, which I recently referred to here, being successfully adapted (but Google for films about this artist and you get Carry on Constable, which suggests a rather more irreverent approach to the subject). There are numerous other possibilities... humour, conflict and good scenery in films about artists abroad for example - John Robert Cozens on his travels with the eccentric William Beckford, or Thomas Jones and Francis Towne encountering bandits in the hills of Italy. A drama based on the relationship between William Blake and his acolytes The Ancients would be fascinating. With a big SFX budget, John Martin's cinematic paintings could somehow be translated into film, and his life story was not without incident (his brother set fire to York Minster).
There was an article in Sight and Sound last year by Michael Brooke about artists on film, but very few of them could be considered landscape artists. Perhaps their lives have been relatively undramatic. Van Gogh is an exception, of all artists probably the most frequently portrayed. I recall enjoying two films which came out in fairly quick succession: Vincent and Theo (1990) with Tim Roth (long before his recent turn as Sepp Blatter in that FIFA-funded movie about FIFA), and Vincent (1987) which was particularly effective because it used the artist's wonderful letters, voiced by John Hurt. Of course Paul Gauguin, another revolutionary painter of landscape, will normally have a prominent role in films about Van Gogh - Anthony Quinn won an Oscar for portraying him in Lust for Life (1956) - but there don't seem to have been major films featuring contemporaries like Monet or Cézanne. Notwithstanding the success of Mr. Turner, more artist biopics would I think be less welcome than more oblique takes on their art - Michael Brooke mentions unusual treatments of Munch, Hockney and Picasso. He also refers to The Quince Tree Sun (1992), a film perhaps reminiscent of Monet's experiments or the doubts of Cézanne, as it concentrates on a painter 'as he tries – and frequently fails – to capture the effect of light reacting to the leaves and fruit of the quince tree in his garden'.