Q interview: Timothy Spall

The actor tells Art Quarterly magazine how he learned to paint for his role as JMW Turner in Mike Leigh's Mr Turner.

One day in 2010 I was walking down Maiden Lane, where JMW Turner was born, and I went into this pub [the Porterhouse] for a quick pint, and I saw Turner’s name on a plaque. So I phoned Mike Leigh because about seven years before he’d mentioned that he was thinking about doing something about Turner, and thought I might be right for it. So I left a message saying I was sitting right under where he was born. I was about to go home when I got a call asking me to come to his office, where he said: ‘Untitled 2013 is going to be the film about Turner I mentioned. I want you to play him, and I want you to start painting.’

You always spend a lot of time working on a character, but preparing for Mr Turner is the most I’ve ever done. They found me a wonderful teacher, Tim Wright, who was absolutely brilliant. His portrait of me is in the BP Portrait Award exhibition [at the National Portrait Gallery until 21 September]. I had two years of lessons. We did life drawing, still life, speed drawing, working in ink, watercolour and then oils. I did about 300 images in all, including maybe 10 quite large watercolours and oils, culminating in a full-size copy of Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Edge, which is just so wonderful. Even having studied it so closely, it’s still one of my favourite paintings. Look at it, and you can tell that he was on that deck, you can see he went to the top of that mast. You know he was there.

It also made me realise the enormous concentration it takes to make a huge painting. When I look at a Rubens, Rembrandt, Poussin, Claude Lorraine… I now really appreciate the time and skill went into their works. Though of course to paint anywhere near as well as them – or Turner – you have to have the hand of God upon your shoulder too.

Another work of Turner’s I love is Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight. Not only is it beautiful, it has everything that arc-ed his world: nature and the industrial revolution. He was a painter of the sublime. That word has come to mean something rather camp how, something you say after you’ve tasted something nice in a restaurant. But ‘the sublime’ then was the power of nature, and man’s irrelevance within it and the futility of attempting to conquer it. That’s what Turner painted, that ferocious competition between beauty and horror.

I’ve always had an interest in art. I grew up in Battersea, and my school was not far from Chelsea Bridge, so it wasn’t far to walk to the Tate, and I used to go quite a lot. An A in art A-level is all I’ve got in the way of exams. So I really had to knuckle under and do the research for this film. But the Clore Gallery let me go through all Turner’s drawings and watercolours, even handle them, which was amazing. It’s fantastic that we have places like that in this country.

My obsession when I was young was Surrealism. I used to go straight to Dali’s Lobster Telephone. I loved [Jacob] Epstein. And for a long time, Max Ernst was my favourite artist: that incredible way his paintings seem to look into the crosswires of your imagination. But one day I wandered into the Turner section and I remember thinking: ‘F***! What are these?’ They were magnificent, so free. I was absolutely fascinated.

I wouldn’t call myself an aficionado. I do go to exhibitions and I’ve always done a bit of drawing, but I’ve never exhibited before. I have to add that the angels I paint couldn’t be further from Turner. Some people have said, which is incredibly flattering, that they remind them of Blake, and people do seem to like them.

I still don’t know if having an exhibition was the right thing to do. But I’ve known Michele Wade, who owns Maison Bertaux in Soho, since we were at RADA together. Her sister, Tania, who runs the gallery there, had asked me about doing an exhibition long before we started on Mr Turner. And then I started learning to paint. I couldn’t tell her why, but I said: ‘Tania, if you can wait a few years, my paintings will be much better.’

And she waited. So it’s not a piece of blatant opportunism that I’m exhibiting now, just coincidence. That’s God’s honest truth.

Mr Turner opens on 31 October. Imperfect Angels is at Gallery Maison Bertaux, London W1, until 15 September.

This article appears in the Autumn 2014 issue of Art Quarterly. To subscribe to the magazine, buy a National Art Pass.

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