I ENJOYED Mike Leigh’s artist biopic Mr Turner but can’t say I was pleased to learn so much about his private life. Studying an artist’s work can be a spiritually uplifting experience; inspecting the contents of his laundry basket less so.

It’s easy to decry the cult of celebrity as a modern pop culture phenomenon, but it’s part of high art too. Ever since Giorgio Vasari published Lives of the Artists in 1550 after going through the laundry baskets of Michelangelo and the rest.

What interests me about Turner is his relationship to the landscape and how he conveyed that to paper. The film touched on these themes, but they are hardly box office gold, particularly the more technical details, so we learned instead about his relationships with his housekeeper, the mother of his children and his mistress.

So it’s best to return to the paintings themselves. There are two shows on offer, one currently at Tate Britain and the other opening at Salisbury Museum.

The Tate Britain show focuses on Turner’s later works, painted in the looser style which now defines him in our imagination. See this until January 25 before the May opening of the Salisbury show, which has its focus on local scenes, much of it from an earlier period.

There will be loans from the Tate, The V & A, National Galleries Scotland, the Fitzwilliam, and others, and I hold out high hopes for a good show. A comparison with Constable, exhibited by the museum in 2011, can’t be avoided as they were contemporaries and didn’t enjoy a good relationship.

I’ve seen some truly great works by Constable, but they have all been studies. Making preparatory work not intended for sale freed him from constraint, and in my view he was always held back by second-guessing the public taste. Consequently he never sold well! He was right in the sense that he didn’t attract derision as did Turner, who in later years was assumed to be going mad, blind, or both.

Their life experiences differed, and I find it curious that Constable, from a wealthy merchant family, did not travel as widely as Turner and never travelled abroad. I feel you can see this outlook reflected in the work. Turner had an innate classical approach to composition, with something of an ‘Italian’ style, while Constable remained the Little Englander. Constable’s compositions are perhaps more original, and he had a mission: to depict everyday life and ennoble the commonplace.

True, but Turner managed to ennoble nature with splendour and grandeur, and from this point in time, that is the more seductive. Constable had so many imitators that much of his work now seems trite.

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