Artist biography

Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Self-Portrait' c.1799
Fig.1
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Self-Portrait c.1799
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born, it is thought, on 23 April 1775 at 21 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, the son of William Turner (1745–1829), a barber and wig-maker, and his wife Mary, née Marshall (1739–1804). His father, born in South Molton, Devon, had moved to London around 1770 to follow his own father’s trade. His mother came from a line of prosperous London butchers and shopkeepers. Joseph Mallord William Turner was baptised at the local church, St Paul’s in Covent Garden, on 14 May. A sister, Mary Anne, was born in 1778 but died in 1783, just before her fifth birthday. In 1796 the family moved to 26 Hand Court, on the other side of Maiden Lane (fig.2). Turner remained a Londoner and kept a Cockney accent all his life, avoiding the veneer of social polish acquired by many artists of the time as they climbed the professional ladder.
John Wykeham Archer 'J.M.W. Turner's birthplace in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden' 1852
Fig.2
John Wykeham Archer
J.M.W. Turner's birthplace in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden 1852
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Perhaps because his mother was already showing signs of the mental disturbance for which she was admitted first to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunaticks in Old Street in 1799 and then Bethlem Hospital in 1800, Turner was sent to stay with uncles at Brentford in 1785 and Sunningwell in 1789, and to Margate in 1786 where he also attended school. At home his father encouraged his artistic talent and showed off his drawings in his shop. In December 1789, after a term’s probation, Turner entered the Royal Academy Schools, where he progressed from the Plaister Academy, drawing from casts of ancient sculpture, to the life class in 1792. He augmented his studies with other work experience, with architects and architectural draughtsman including Thomas Malton whom he later described as ‘my real master’,1 and painting scenery for the London stage – the origin, presumably, of a lifelong love of music and opera. By 1794, with his friend Thomas Girtin, he attended the evening ‘academy’ hosted by Dr Thomas Monro at his house in the Adelphi, copying works by other artists. A specialist in mental illness, Monro would later be responsible for his mother’s care at Bethlem.

David Blayney Brown
December 2012

1
Turner quoted by Walter Thornbury, The Life and Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner R.A., revised edn, London 1897, p.27.
2
Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintryre eds., The Diary of Joseph Farington [13 May 1803], vol.VI, p.2030.
3
Evelyn Newby, ‘Joseph Farington (1747–1821)’, in Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann eds., The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 2001, p..102.
4
Kathryn Cave ed., The Diary of Joseph Farington [5 May 1807], vol.VIII, p.3038.
5
Beaumont, via Farington[5 June 1815], quoted by Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.94.
6
Willard Bissell Pope ed., The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon [28 November 1815], Cambridge, Mass., 1960, vol.I, p.484.
7
Letter from Lawrence to Dawson Turner, 26 April 1809, quoted by W.T. Whitley, Art in England, 1800–1820, Cambridge 1928, vol.1, pp.150-1.
8
Fraser’s Magazine, June 1839, quoted by Butlin and Joll 1984, p.230.
9
Elizabeth Rigby (later Lady Eastlake), quoted by Butlin and Joll 1984, p.250.
10
Bartlett quoted by A.J. Finberg, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., Second Edition, Revised, with a Supplement by Hilda F. Finberg, Oxford 1961, p.438.
11
See Thornbury 1897.
12
Besides Finberg 1961, see Anthony Bailey, Standing in the Sun: A Life of J.M.W. Turner, London 1997 and James Hamilton, Turner: A Life, London 1997. For all aspects of Turner’s life and work see Joll, Butlin and Herrmann 2001. A comprehensive new biography is in preparation by Eric Shanes.
13
The Times, 31 December 1851.
14
The Champion, 7 May 1815.