Production designer Suzie Davies on how she transformed a ballroom in South Yorkshire for the pivotal scene in Mike Leigh’s acclaimed new film
Mike Leigh has been planning a movie about J.M.W. Turner since the late 1990s, when he was making Topsy-Turvy, a film about Gilbert and Sullivan. And yet, when you watch the magnificent Mr. Turner, it feels like a life's work; it is possibly the best film he has ever made. We follow Turner in his last 25 years, as the art world is baffled by his brilliance and exasperated with his eccentricity. It is not only an immersive, emotional experience, but also an authentic one; when Leigh directs a film, he expects his cast and crew to share his dedication and rigour. Much of the pre-release coverage has focused on the fact that Timothy Spall, a brusque yet charismatic Turner, spent two years learning to paint, but Leigh's crew deserve huge applause, too. Suzie Davies, the production designer, will surely be nominated for myriad awards, not least because of her recreation of the Royal Academy in 1832 for the film’s pivotal scene, which is a wonder to behold.
Before we discuss the Royal Academy scene, can you tell us about your initial research for Mr. Turner?
Suzie Davies: ‘My first port of call was the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain, which is home to the Turner Bequest, the works the artist left to the nation upon his death in 1851. There are 300 oil paintings, thousands of sketches and watercolours and around 300 sketchbooks. A fantastic artist also took us around the Tate and encouraged us to draw Turner paintings. It was a really useful exercise. When I built Turner's studio, I had to be able to think that he could have painted The Fighting Temeraire in that room.’
The recreation of the Royal Academy must have been daunting, not least because of the sheer volume of paintings on display…
‘I remember walking out of that particular meeting with Mike [Leigh] and thinking, “Okay, how do we do this?” There were over 250 paintings hung really densely in this grand space. Luckily, there is a catalogue from that year, but it still took a long time for me, my assistant and Jacqueline Riding, the historical consultant on the film, to locate all the paintings and find out who all the artists were.’
Presumably you had to be very careful about obtaining permission to use each painting?
‘Absolutely. We wouldn't have been able to make the film without permission. Usually it costs thousands of pounds per artwork, but the Tate was fantastic about letting us use Turner's work. I think they recognised the fact that both Turner and Mike are national treasures and were keen for the film to be made.’
How did you manage to make the paintings hanging in the Royal Academy look so real?
‘We got high-res images from all the galleries that owned the relevant pictures. We printed them on various surfaces, including foam board, canvas and silk, to find out which worked best. Then we painted clear varnish on top to give the pictures texture and depth. We had a factory line going, but it still took days and days.’
What about Helvoetsluys, the painting that Turner completed as it was hanging in the RA?
‘A fine artist called Charlie Cobb painted all the artworks that Tim Spall interacted with. We broke them down in stages from one to ten, basically running from half done to finished. Charlie also mixed a type of paint that looked like oil paint, but that could wash off to accommodate scenes being re-shot.’
Where did you build the Royal Academy?
‘Mike likes to have as composite a set as possible, so we built a temporary structure in the ballroom of Wentworth Woodhouse, a big old country pile near Rotherham, South Yorkshire. We were able to utilise the existing staircase, but then we had to build a room at the top. When we were doing our research at the Tate, we came across invoices from the builders who had created the temporary structure at the RA in 1832. Theirs was a huge, heavy structure, but ours had to be lighter because of the very delicate ballroom. Which meant, in turn, that the paintings needed light frames.’
What was the biggest challenge, other than sourcing and reproducing all those paintings?
‘Mike hadn't decided where the actors were going to stand in the RA scenes, so I had to make that decision for him. Once the paintings are up, it's very hard to move them because they are slotted together like a jigsaw puzzle.’
How did you feel when Mike Leigh first saw your version of the Royal Academy?
‘I felt incredibly nervous because Mike is very exacting. Luckily, he loved it. I had spent a good hour before he turned up standing in the space, marvelling at the art — and they were just reproductions. I could really see why people queued around the block to go to the original show in 1832. I just hope we've done it justice and that the audience get goosebumps when they watch that scene in Mr. Turner.’