Joseph Mallord William Turner

Traitor’s Gate, Tower of London, for Rogers’s ‘Poems’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 185 × 306 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 177

Catalogue entry

This vignette, Traitor’s Gate, was published in the 1834 edition of Rogers’s Poems, as an illustration to a poem entitled ‘Human Life’.1 It was engraved by Edward Goodall.2 At the end of the poem, Rogers’s anonymous hero is now a noble politician who despite ‘struggling in his Country’s cause’, is nonetheless cast as a traitor and imprisoned in the Tower of London:
    On he moves,
Careless of blame while his own heart approves,
Careless of ruin – (“For the general good
’Tis not the first time I shall shed my blood.”)
On thro’ that gate misnamed, thro’ which before
Went Sidney, Russell, Raleigh, Cranmer, More,
On into twilight within walls of stone,
Then to the place of trial; and alone,
Alone before his judges in array
Stands for his life; there on that awful day
(Poems, pp.88–9)
Turner annotated part of this passage with a box drawn in pencil in the margin of his own copy of the 1827 edition of Poems (see Tate D36330; Turner Bequest CCCLXVI p.98). By tradition, high-ranking offenders imprisoned in the Tower of London were made to enter through a gateway from the Thames known as Traitor’s Gate. In the boat entering the gates Turner portrays one of the men named by Rogers as preceding his hero to the Tower, Sir Thomas More (1478–1535). Despite the fact that More and the other passengers in the boat are dressed in sixteenth-century costume, the appearance of gate, the ships, and uniforms of the soldiers on the bridge reflects the 1790s. This anachronism illustrates Rogers’s assertion that the despotism that suffered by More and other so-called fighters for civil freedoms during the sixteenth century had again flourished in the wake of the French Revolution.3 Jan Piggott has observed that the poem and the accompanying illustration also allude to the imprisonment of Rogers’s friend, Horne Tooke, who was arraigned for high treason at the time of the French Revolution.4 Rogers himself was a participant in Tooke’s trial.
The Tower of London was the subject of an early topographical view supplied by Turner for The Pocket Magazine, published 1795. 5 Furthermore, it features within a several sketches by Turner of shipping along the River Thames (see for example Tate D17821; Turner Bequest CCIV 35) and a view based on these sketches which appeared in The Literary Souvenir in 1831, engraved by William Miller.6 It is therefore possible that Turner may have referred to these earlier works for details of his vignette composition. He also produced one preparatory study for this watercolour (see Tate D27610; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 93). However, like Greenwich Hospital (see Tate D27693; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 176) Traitor’s Gate shows a local London landmark that would have been extremely familiar to Turner but which rarely appears elsewhere in his oeuvre.
Samuel Rogers, Poems, London 1834, p.88.
W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.II, London 1913, no.383. There are two impressions in Tate’s collection (T05116 and T06166).
Shanes, Joll, Warrell and others 2000, p.184.
Piggott 1993, p.40.
Wilton 1979, no.103; Rawlinson, vol.I, no.16.
Wilton 1979, no.515; Rawlinson, vol.II, no.318.
Anne Lyles and Diane Perkins, Colour into Line: Turner and the Art of Engraving, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.68.

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

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