British Painter J.M.W. Turner Was a Frugal Genius (and Cheapskate)

J.M.W. Turner/Illustrations © Nathan Gelgud

There was a comic strip in Mad magazine in the late 1980s in which, as I remember it, people are waiting in line at a grocery store. An obviously wealthy man finds a penny and picks it up off the floor. One customer remarks to another that it’s strange that the rich guy would bother to pick up a penny. The other customer says something like “Maybe that’s how he got so rich!”

I’m reminded of this comic while reading Franny Moyle’s biography of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner, as Moyle relays an anecdote that “reveals the combination of ceaseless graft and Spartan lifestyle that lay at the heart of Turner’s success and mounting wealth.”

The story isn’t about picking up pennies but about a time, around the turn of the 19th century, when Turner refused to let friends order wine with lunch because he was afraid of the tab. It was a shameless move, since both friends knew that Turner had more money than both of them, but he claimed the indulgence was beyond his means.

Moyle’s biography is about much more than Turner’s frugality – it carefully traces the artistic evolution of the man who would become one of the great painters of landscapes and tumultuous sea scenes. Turner was a visionary whose work continues to inspire contemporary curators and museum goers, and he was the subject of an acclaimed 2014 film which earned Timothy Spall awards and accolades for his depiction of the painter.

But Turner’s relationship with money and his business sense is a constant thread, something that grounds the story of the career of a painter whose work was at times otherworldly. Of course, we know that nobody gets rich picking up pennies or cheaping out on a lunch tab – wealth is primarily inherited or stolen, not scraped together bit by bit – and Turner didn’t exactly come from poverty. But his attention to the details of every bit of his income – the way he sold his work and often created it with buyers in mind – provides great insight into the way the career of an artist is not born only of creative inspiration, but with careful attention to advancement and ways to increase income.