May 29, 2013
“The Turner Erotica,” a daring new historical novel by Robert J. Begiebing, not only illuminates a very dark corner of 19th century art history. It reformulates a question raised by such contemporary artists as, say, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Where does one draw the line, exactly, between art and pornography?
Begiebing—who founded the low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program at Southern New Hampshire University—is the author of a prize-winning trilogy of novels
spanning two hundred years of New England history: “The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin” (Algonquin, 1991); “The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton” (University Press of New England, 1999); and “Rebecca Wentworth’s Distraction” (UPNE, 2003).
The action for his new novel roams the world, but—thanks to a role played by the adventurous Allegra Fullerton—Begiebing may now be the author of a tetralogy of novels linked by themes of art, crime, and deception. “The seed for this one was planted back in 1969,” Begiebing said. “I was in graduate school at Boston College, and a course I took on Victorian prose—featuring John Ruskin’s ‘Modern Painters’—kindled a lifelong interest in both Ruskin and J.M.W. Turner.”
Turner, of course, was the great English landscape painter championed by Ruskin in his classic book. Many years later Begiebing read the John Batchelor biography of Ruskin (“John Ruskin: A Life,” 2000) and learned about the existence of a secret collection of erotica painted by Turner. According to art world legend, Ruskin burned most of this collection after Turner’s death. Batchelor finds evidence to suggest the legend is true.
What remains a mystery is how a certain number of sketches and watercolors survived that holocaust. Begiebing spins a plausible tale that has strong roots in documented events. His protagonist is William James Stillman, an American artist and diplomat friendly with Ruskin and acquainted with Turner. Other important characters are other friends of the historical Stillman: the brothers Dante and William Rosetti, who dominated London’s Pre-Raphaelite art scene; painter Marie Spartali, Stillman’s second wife and a frequent model for Dante Rossetti; the great adventurer and linguist Richard Burton, and his wife Isabel.
Begiebing’s respect for history and commitment to research is such that most of the words, actions, and movements of these characters is cut right from the historical record. But to tie them all together Begiebing needed one fictional character, a woman he summoned from a previous novel.
“Allegra Fullerton is a composite character drawn from the diaries of itinerant American painters of that time, of whom only a dozen or so were women,” Begiebing said. “And I found her very useful as a catalyst for the action here, and for keeping the various historical strands of the story connected.”
However it happened, what exists today of Turner’s erotica is still considered dangerous, and has been kept under lock and key in London’s Tate and Margate galleries. “Within the past month, though,” Begiebing said, “a book has come out analyzing the sketches, and the two galleries have mounted a joint exhibition.”
And how many of the pieces are still extant? “Perhaps a dozen,” said Begiebing, who has gone to see them. “But it comes down to what you want to describe as ‘erotica.’ There are a number of pieces that are more like sensual life studies.”
“Erotica,” of course, is a gentler term than pornography. Whichever word you choose, it could get you arrested in Victorian London. But Begiebing would not choose the latter term in connection to these works.
“There’s nothing sexist in them,” Begiebing said. “This is a great artist using his pen and sketchbook to confront and commune with a force of nature, and he treats his subjects—one of whom was probably Mrs. Booth, the woman he was living with at the end of his life—with as much love as sensuality.”
Scheduled for April release from the Ilium Press, the novel is hitting the shelves early. “Quotes from Ruskin, cameo appearances by famous Victorians, and portraits of artists as young men and independent women all enhance this attempt to unveil what the Turner erotica has to tell us about art, love, and life,” said Publishers Weekly.
“Bob continues to disappear into the archives and come back with narratives that are timeless, relevant, and beautifully told,” said fellow novelist Diane Les Becquets, who now directs the program Begiebing founded at Southern New Hampshire University in 2006. “He inspired us as a teacher until his retirement in 2011. Now he’s inspiring us by his example, again, as a writer.”
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