Joseph Mallord William Turner

Inscription by Turner: Historical Notes on the Hardships of Writers


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 117 × 87 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXIV 3

Catalogue entry

The whole page, turned vertically, is taken up with the following notes:
The [‘Fate’ or ‘Tale’] of [‘Man’ or ‘Men’]
Homer a beggar Plautus turn a mill | Terence a slave Essop do Boethius | died in gaol Paulo Borghese had 14 | trade and starve Tasso was distrs | for 5 S. Bentivoglio was refused [?into] | his own hosptal Cervantes hunger | Camoens in alms House | Vauglas [‘e’ inserted above, i.e. ‘Vaugelas’] [‘sold’ inserted above] left his body for hs debts | Bacon in distrs Spenser forsakn | Collns mad Milton 15 for | P. Lost Lee died in the str | [?Porter] do John sold Vicar of W | for Goldsmith 10 keep out of gripe
The passage concludes on folio 2 verso opposite (D07962):
Savage Newgate Bristol | Otway starvd [?Penrose] | Steele at war and fear | of Bailiffs Butler died | Poor Chatt kill 18
Kathleen Nicholson took this text to be ‘a rough draft of a poem or essay’ and notes the pessimistic tone of the ‘tally’ of ‘ingratitude and abuse’ and ‘ignominious ends’.1 Similarly, Jerrold Ziff has called it ‘stark’, as ‘Turner bleakly tells of the plight of the ill-used artist’,2 and Gerald Finley has terms it ‘poetic lines reflecting on the condition of the wronged poet’, typical of Turner’s outlook.3
In fact, the origin of these literary anecdotes is ‘Letter LXXXIV’ of The Citizen of the World: or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to his Friends in the East, written by Oliver Goldsmith (?1730–1784) for the Public Ledger between 1760 and 1761 in the satirical, imaginary character of Lien Chi Altangi, and first collected as a book in 1762.4 In the London edition of 1809, the relevant passage appears in volume 2 (pages 83–5):
Homer is the first poet and beggar of note, among the ancients: he was blind, and sung his ballads about the streets; but it is observed, that his mouth was more frequently filled with verses than with bread. Plautus, the comic poet, was better off; he had two trades; he was a poet for his diversion, and helped to turn a mill in order to gain a livelihood. Terence was a slave; and Boethius died in a jail.
Nicholson 1990, p.111.
Ziff 1991, p.16.
Finley 1999, p.218 note 94; see also pp.107, 145.
See ‘Citizen of the World, The’ in Margaret Drabble (ed.), The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th ed., Oxford (1985) 1988, p.200.
See ‘Chatterton, Thomas’ in ibid., pp.187–8.
See ‘Vicar of Wakefield, The’, in ibid., pp.1027–8.
Transcribed as ‘Poverty of the Learned’, Curiosities of Literature by Isaac D’Israeli (1766–1848), accessed 26 February 2010,
New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine, vol.1, 1802, p.159.
Lady’s Weekly Miscellany, vol.7, no.21, 17 September 1808, p.332.
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 14 October 1820, p.4.
The Terrific Register; or, Record of Crimes, Judgments, Providences, and Calamities, London 1825, vol.I, p.279.
See Andrew Wilton and Rosalind Mallord Turner, Painting and Poetry: Turner’s ‘Verse Book’ and his Work of 1804–1812, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990.
See Richard D. Altick, Paintings from Books: Art and Literature in Britain, 1760–1900, Columbus 1985.

Matthew Imms
January 2012

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