When Anthony Bailey, a prolific British writer of fiction and nonfiction books on history, art and travel, was seven years old, his life took a dramatic, unexpected turn. "It has left me," he wrote 40 years later, "with a sense of being different, of being a passenger still on a special sailing, which has outlasted the usual but perishable feeling of uniqueness a child has."

It happened in 1940, when he was sent from his home in Southampton to stay with a family in Dayton, Ohio, to escape the threat of the Nazi invasion of Britain. His parents' decision to send him and his willingness to accept the unknown were rewarded by four very happy years with a wealthy midwestern family, the Spaeths. They took him as a gesture of support for Britain, and as a companion for their own son, another Tony, and their opulent lifestyle contrasted sharply with the modest home Tony Bailey, the child of a bank manager, had left behind in Britain.

Many years later, he was to recall the experience in America, Lost &Found (Random House, 1980), subtitled An English Boy's Wartime Adventures in the New World, in which he describes how as a small boy he became American while never ceasing to be British, and began a relationship with the two countries that continues today. Both America and its sequel, England, First &Last (Viking, 1985), which describes what happened when he returned home, are touchingly evocative of life in the early 1940s. "I felt a responsibility to put this down," he tells PW. "There really isn't much about children in war, and it deserved at least a footnote in history."

Traveling has been a consistent motif in his career, but he shrugs off the tag of travel writer impatiently. "I've written travel books, but I've also written novels, p ms, short stories, biographies and autobiographies. If I have to have a label, I wouldn't mind being called `a miscellaneous writer.' It's a phrase I found describing a very bad 19th-century p t who lived in our previous house in Greenwich. But I suppose it wouldn't please publishers and booksellers, who prefer one to specialize. So if I have to have a label, perhaps it should be as a writer on painters and places."

Artistic Rites of Passage

Among the immediate benefits of being raised by a well-to-do American family were the large house complete with servants, three cars, holidays on Cape Cod and extravagant presents. But it was the artistic interests of the Spaeth family that had the most long-lasting influence on the young Bailey. "I've always loved pictures, and the Spaeths' collection, which included paintings by Cezanne, Modigliani and Mary Cassatt, must have had some effect. I used to haunt art galleries, but I've never had any formal training in art history. I'm a complete interloper as far as art historians are concerned. It's a matter of responding to pictures, a gut feeling that they're one of the great things in life. I've never wanted to be an art historian writing for other art historians. I really do want to write for the ordinary reader."

That desire to share his excitement and curiosity about art is the impetus behind Standing in the Sun, a life of the 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner, just out from Michael di Capua Books at HarperCollins. Turner's seascapes have long been a source of fascination for Bailey. "I'd gone to the Tate Gallery at the age of 19 or 20 and been absolutely bowled over," Bailey recalls. "Turner seemed to be inside nature and keyed into the elements. He was painting weather and storm and sun the way painters didn't usually. Over the years I've read quite a lot about him, but most of the books didn't give you much sense of the kind of person he was. So, arrogantly, I thought I'd have a go."

The result is an enthralling and meticulously researched biography that displays Bailey's talent for bringing the past vividly to life. It d sn't offer a critique of Turner's work, but concentrates instead on the minutiae of his days, on his habits and lifestyle, his friends and patrons, his dealings with his fellow artists, his journeys and the scenes of his pictures, his quarrels with engravers, his attitude to money and his ambivalent relationship with the Royal Academy. The reader gets to know the man Bailey describes in the book as "both lovely and gregarious, private and vainglorious...a confused speaker, a muddled writer and an artist who could with a grunt and a gesture suggest to a colleague what was wrong with his work and how to put it right. His contradictions have puzzled many, but they endear him to me. He was and is a challenge."

Bailey's earlier books on art include two on the Dutch painter Rembrandt. The first, Rembrandt's House (1978), was sparked by a visit to the Frick Collection in New York, where he encountered the artist's 1658 self-portrait. "He was sitting there in a chair looking like a Venetian nobleman, and I was overwhelmed. I decided that I wanted to write a biography of him, and I went to Sandy Richardson, who was at Knopf in those days. He gave me a $250 advance, but I didn't get round to finishing the life until 20 years later. Some books, like the Turner, take a long time to germinate and gel."

Ideas tend to stay with him. "I keep cardboard boxes with little labels on them at my bolt hole, a cottage in Essex, and I throw stuff into them from time to time. They're compost heaps that I hope are maturing and germinating. But I don't feel writing gets any easier."

Bailey talks with PW at his home in Greenwich, the cite of the Prime Meridian line where the world's time is measured. Greenwich is on the Thames, offers riverboat service to London and, as a center for Britain's seafaring heritage, is where the 19th-century clipper the Cutty Sark is moored. "On winter nights," Bailey says, "I walk down to the Cutty Sark, listen to the wind in the rigging, and imagine what it must have been like going round Cape Horn."

He lives in an unpretentious mid-Victorian terrace house that radiates civilized comfort. The rooms are small and cozy, with open fireplaces, bookcases, a grandfather clock, walls hung with paintings that range from 18th-century seascapes to watercolors by his wife, Margot. Bailey writes in longhand at a desk in a sitting room that overlooks the small back garden, and also in his cottage in Essex, where he keeps a little gaff cutter on the Blackwater estuary and indulges his passion for sailing. Like Turner, he is fascinated by wind and water, tides and flat calm, things floating. Now in his mid-60s, he has the healthy complexion and bearing of a sailor, while his mushroom corduroys, white sweater and lemony polo-shirt suggest an artist's feeling for color.

Mr. Shawn's New Yorker

While still in the sixth form at school, with nothing more to show than a pastiche of T.S. Eliot in the school magazine, Bailey confidently decided to be a writer. After national service in West Africa, he read history at Oxford and wrote the sort of pieces he hoped would open doors in Fleet Street. They didn't and, disappointed, he went to New York in 1955, where he again failed to find work as a reporter. Finally he got a job selling books for Scribners, and later worked for the British publisher Robert Maxwell. His lifestyle was typical of many young literary hopefuls: he lived in a basement in Greenwich Village and wrote reviews and p try in his spare time.

One day a friend suggested he should try the New Yorker, so he submitted a piece about parking meters and an account of a day spent with the charismatic Russian Catholic priest Ivan Illych, who worked for the poor in Harlem, hardly realizing that these were just the sort of stories that New Yorker editor William Shawn had made the magazine's trademark. Shawn sent for him by telegram, and ended the interview by saying, "I'm very sorry but we don't have any room on the eighteenth floor. Would you mind an office on the sixteenth floor?" It was the beginning of a connection that was to last until Tina Brown's regime, when he and the magazine had a mutual parting of ways. "I'd run out of ideas that were New Yorker-worthy," he says wryly.

Under Shawn, Bailey was a "Talk of the Town" reporter and also worked briefly in the fiction department, where the horrors of the slush pile didn't deter him from writing a couple of novels, Making Progress (Dial Press, 1959) and The Mother Tongue (Macmillan, 1961). John Updike had the next office, and his typewriter was enviably on the go from dawn to dusk. Working at the New Yorker, Bailey says, was like having a fellowship, with a directive to produce serious and thoughtful pieces. "You approached things obliquely. Shawn was a great editor, and he sent us out to find out things he wanted to know about."

Around this time, Bailey met his future wife Margot, a Yorkshire woman, in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village (the bar where Dylan Thomas had his last drink). Drawn together by mutual homesickness, they went back to England to marry in 1957, before returning to live in a small apartment in Manhattan. Later they moved to Stonington, Conn., where they bought a house and lived for 10 years. In 1971, Bailey published In the Village, an affectionate portrait of the small New England town that nevertheless caused an uproar and was denounced by the local Catholic priest, mainly, Bailey says, because he made the mistake of using some people's real names.

The couple returned to settle in England in 1970, partly because they now had four daughters, and both sets of grandparents wanted to see more of them. He was also reluctant to instill in them the divided loyalties he has experienced, though two daughters now live in North America, one in Spain, and only one in Britain.

Bailey has traveled to Holland, Ireland, Wales, and the New England coast, recording both people and places with an attractive immediacy. He admires classic British writers like Def , Cobbett, Kilvert, Stevenson and Orwell, who looked at places closely. In the spring, the University of North Carolina Press is to republish The Outer Banks, Bailey's account of his journey along the coast of North Carolina in the footsteps of the first English colonists. Originally published by FSG in 1989, and hailed by Library Journal as "a classic travel book," it is an entertaining look at the region's history, landscapes and people, highlighting Bailey's skills as an alert and sensitive present-day explorer.

For the forseeable future, however, Bailey's travels will be confined largely to museums and libraries. Penny Hoare, his editor at Chatto &Windus, has commissioned a book on Delft and its painters, including Vermeer, from 1650 to 1675, and he then plans to write a life of Constable.

Bailey admits that he has been fortunate to earn a living writing the kind of books he wants without pressure to please the market. "I have a wonderful agent, Candida Donadio, whom I've known since I was 23. There aren't many agents who would have taken the kind of trouble she did. If I wrote a p m and the New Yorker didn't want it, I could send it to Candida and she'd find a home for it, even if it only brought in $15." Since Donadio has taken a less active role at Donadio &Ashworth, Bailey has been represented there by Neil Olson.

If Bailey hasn't compromised in his determination to pursue his many, wide-ranging interests, he may nevertheless have paid a price. Sailing freely from topic to topic, he hasn't stayed with one publishing house for more than a few books at a time. Whether he has finally found a secure home with Michael di Capua's imprint at HarperCollins is difficult to say.

But Bailey's independence from the popular currents of his day is to be admired. He is an author who began his writing career at a time when publishing was more appreciative of stylish yet unsensational journalism, and publishers had time for a reflective writer more interested in the enduring aspects of life than in the trendy and the ephemeral. His latest success with Turner suggests that there is still room for a quiet, miscellaneous writer.