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The Lord Nelson of Painting

Give me some mud off a city crossing, some ochre out of a gravef pit, a little whitening, and some coal dust, and I wiff paint you a luminous picture.

—Ruskin

TURNER WAS SAID TO HAVE once used stale beer in his paint vehicle. A hostile witness at a varnishing day in 1834 (but there were sympathizers there too), noticed that the artist was “rolling and spreading a lump of half-transparent stuff over his picture.” No one had courage enough to ask him what it was. Studio lore aside, his contemporaries lavished, when they wanted, some vivid insults on the substance of his paintings. What had been wrought by his “hog tools” they called at different times “dirty putty,” “chalk,” “brimestone and cayenne,” “eggs and spinach,” “stagnant sulphur,” and, of course, the famous “soapsuds and whitewash.” In short, his gorgeous vision could be seen as made of hash and swill. But already in 1816 Hazlitt

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