Demeaning Turner:
the Daft Punking of Britain’s Greatest Artist

Having previously spent 20 years in television I am well aware that making interesting and appealing arts programmes isn’t easy. It’s one thing for producers to dream-up novel and entertaining ideas but the pool of potential broadcasters is shallow and their selection criteria necessarily narrow. “Necessarily narrow?”, I hear you ask. Yes. Let me explain.

When green-lighting projects on 19th century British art channels in the UK are aware they have three subjects to choose from: John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, or the Pre-Raphaelites. I know that sounds wrong but no matter how much I believe it would be possible to make exiting and provocative programmes on the likes of Charles Henry Sims, Francis Danby, John Linnell, the Fairy Painters, and Social Realists etc. the truth is a producer would have a hard time convincing a broadcaster that anyone would watch them. Constable, Turner, and the Pre-Raphs always find an audience but programmes about their relatively unknown (though no less fascinating) peers are a ratings risk and therefore their stories remain untold.

The notion that audiences won’t watch a programme about something they aren’t already familiar with is regrettable and rather awkward if you’re a broadcaster dedicated to arts and culture. The sharing of new ideas and innovations is a key component of artistic and cultural learning and therefore the advancement of civilization, so it’s the duty of any arts channel to push back against this attitude. But this is simply a matter of self-preservation. TV com eds and channel heads are constantly bombarded with viewing figures and well know that careers live and die by their peaks and troughs. Commercial channels especially are notoriously risk averse.

There is, however, a danger of becoming too sympathetic to the broadcasters’ predicament and I fear a new feature-length documentary on J.M.W. Turner has tipped me over the edge. Just when you thought it was impossible to scrape more telly from the bottom of the Turner barrel Castle Entertainment turns up with a mucky sieve claiming to have uncovered something in the sediment. Unfortunately for Sky Arts, the viewers, and the Great Man himself that something is ‘Decoding Turner: the Hidden World of Britain’s Greatest Painter’’.

If the BBC’s ‘Constable: a Country Rebel’ – which attempted to persuade us that that green-eyed old gossip John Constable was in fact the restless James Dean of Dedham Vale – was a drowning man clutching at straws then ‘Decoding Turner’ sees the same drowning man now reduced to using a golden-haired child as a buoyancy aid. According to the accompanying PR drivel this unedifying spectacle is “a bold and somewhat controversial analysis of the life and work of JMW Turner”; “bold” in that it’s impudent and “controversial” in that it’s pure rannygazoo.

The film follows Dr. Nick Wilkinson and his wife Erica as they try to convince a series of eminent art world figures that the paintings of Turner are full of previously undiscovered “hidden” images. The Wilkinson’s claim to have spent the past five years closely examining the paintings of Turner, and they do indeed come across as two people who’ve spent the past half decade staring at a wall. These images, in no particular order of absurdity, are as follows: Napoleon’s head on a spike, the Trojan Horse, a camel, Casanova, Vivaldi, Zeus, various bears, a pair of boobs, and a goose.

Erica and Dr. Nick Wilkinson staring at a wall

During the programme’s interminable one and a half hour running time one or two of the more easily persuaded guests do admit to seeing these mirages, but the majority are left shaking their heads in disbelief and looking generally uncomfortable. So preposterous are the couple’s claims that, during filming, the likes of Dr. Raj Persaud must surely have suspected they were being punked and that ‘Dr. Wilkinson’ was in fact a character created by Sacha Baron Cohen. Over the years comedians like SBC and Chris Morris have been able to coax the most preposterous nonsense from the mouths of people when they know they are on camera and perhaps it was this example the Wilkinson’s were hoping to emulate.

Thank Zeus for artist Cornelia Parker who is one of the few talking heads to emerge from this cluster foxtrot with their hair in place. Firmly in place. Asked to endorse Dr. Wilkinson’s proposition that JMW Turner included a ‘magic eye’ doodle of Emma Hamilton’s breasts in his painting of ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’ she remains – like her sturdy bob – unmoved and invited to see Turner’s own face in the latter’s painting of the Ducal Palace simply raises her eyebrows (not easy considering they support her cast iron bangs) and retorts, “That’s not a credible man!”. For a moment I thought she said, “That’s not credible, man!” which would also have been perfectly reasonable and a more fittingly impish retort from a former YBA.

Cornelia Parker encounters Dr. Nick Wilkinson and his iPad of Horrors

At this point a very valid question needs to be asked; can’t the Wilkinson’s theory be very simply explained away by the nearest nine-year old? After all, as every child knows, if you stare at something long enough you will inevitably begin to think you see something else. Something that really isn’t there. It’s called pareidolia and is the human brain’s habit of imagining it sees familiar images in random objects (like faces in the fire) and finding meaning where there is none (like the song lyrics of Oasis). The producers of ‘Decoding Turner’ do at least include mention of this phenomenon but clearly hope that we’re not big fans of common sense and sanity and – taking time off from fretting about chemtrails and bigfoot – continue to watch anyway.

I dare any rational person to make it more than ten minutes into ‘Decoding Turner’ before concluding that, in its groundbreaking revelation, the Wilkinson’s theory tops even that of Monty Python’s Anne Elk who famously posited that Brontosaurus’ were “thin at one end, much, much thicker in the middle and then thin again at the far end”. At least Miss Elk did have a point.

With their all-too-vivid imaginations Nick and Erica Wilkinson struck me as being less like art detectives and rather more like those credulous parents who made such a fuss about Satanism in rock music back in the 1980s. This was the ‘backmasking’ controversy when Christian groups in the US became concerned that young people were having their brains washed by evil pop stars whose records – when played backwards(!) – supposedly contained hidden diabolical messages. The most famous example of ‘backmasking’ is probably the Beatles’ track ‘Revolution 9’ on which John Lennon can supposedly be heard to say, “Turn me on, dead man” when played in reverse. Anyone who has tested out this theory will know that what can actually be heard is “Tumyerndumdum” but hysterical parents want to hear what they want to hear just as Ma and Pa Wilkinson want to see what they want to see. The backmasking hysteria (which died down when American parents realised the real threat to their kid’s futures was the latest release by Big Pharma rather than Big Country) was of course promulgated by the record labels in order to increase sales, and no doubt the producers of ‘Decoding Turner’ nurtured the Wilkinson’s delusions in the (optimistic) hope they may shake the art world to its very foundations. Sadly, for them, the “hidden” images alleged in ‘Decoding Turner’ will not, I guarantee, cause such a furore.

In closing, we must ask, are these people for real? Are they trying to pull a fast one? Could the Wilkinson’s be to Turner and codes what Konrad Kujau was to Hitler and diaries, or do they actually believe the sugar they’re shovelling? Are they, to put it another way, just a little… eccentric? Well, having sat through the whole 90 minutes I do not doubt that Nicholas and Erica are genuine in their beliefs, just I have no doubt that, in retrospect, Sky Arts wishes they had at least waited until April 1st to transmit their documentary.

by Gavin Claxton

© Academy Fine Paintings Ltd 2023

Images courtesy of Sky Arts, Castle Entertainment, BBC Telelvision