J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Self-Portrait' c.1799
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Self-Portrait c.1799
Tate N00458
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
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.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'View in the Avon Gorge' 1791
Joseph Mallord William Turner
View in the Avon Gorge 1791
Tate D00114
Turner’s varied activities indicate wide interests as well as a need to fund his Academy education. The flourishing market for landscape and antiquarian topography, whether watercolours for exhibition and sale or reproduction in prints and books, provided his first real income. Early trips outside London, including a visit to friends of his father’s at Bristol in 1791, alerted him to the value of sketching on the spot as the basis of studio and commercial work; he seems to have thought of having his views of the Avon Gorge – which won him the nickname ‘Prince of the Rocks’ – published as prints (fig.3). From the mid-1790s he settled on the routine he maintained for much of his life: touring in summer and working in the studio in the winter months, for the following year’s exhibitions, on commissions or for the engraver. The first engravings after his topographical drawings appeared in the Copper-Plate Magazine (1794–8) and the Pocket Magazine (1795–6). Post-revolutionary wars in Europe confined his first tours to home ground; the Midlands in 1794, the North in 1797 and Wales on several occasions up to 1799. In 1801 he visited Scotland.
Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1790, showing watercolours until 1796 when he sent his first oil, Fishermen at Sea (Tate T01585, fig.4), its marine subject signalling wider ambitions as a painter and his refusal to be typecast as a topographer. In the following years his exhibited works diversified into history, literature and myth, challenged the styles of the Old Masters and made rapid advances in technique. While some of his first important commissions were for architectural and topographical watercolours such as views of Salisbury and its cathedral and his country estate, Stourhead, ordered by Richard Colt Hoare in 1795, prominent patrons soon supported his wider endeavours. William Beckford commissioned views of his new Gothic palace, Fonthill, but also bought Turner’s first history painting The Fifth Plague of Egypt (Indianapolis Museum of Art), an essay in the manner of the French painter Nicolas Poussin, in 1800. The same year, the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned Dutch Boats in a Gale (private collection) as a companion for his Rising Gale by Willem van de Velde the younger (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio). In 1802, during the Peace of Amiens, a consortium of noblemen sponsored a visit to Paris, enabling Turner to study the Old Masters in the Louvre, and a tour of the Swiss Alps. Newbey Lowson, a gentleman from County Durham, travelled with Turner as paymaster, providing a French-speaking guide and a small coach (fig.5).
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Fishermen at Sea' exhibited 1796
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Fishermen at Sea exhibited 1796
Tate T01585
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'The Post House, Voreppe with the Grand Aiguille Beyond, with Turner's Cabriolet' 1802
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Post House, Voreppe with the Grand Aiguille Beyond, with Turner's Cabriolet 1802
Tate D04515

Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Petworth, Sussex, the Seat of the Earl of Egremont: Dewy Morning' exhibited 1810
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Petworth, Sussex, the Seat of the Earl of Egremont: Dewy Morning exhibited 1810
Tate T03880
Elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799 and Academician in 1802, Turner was recognised as a prodigy who promised to be the outstanding painter of his generation. About this time he painted his self-portrait (Tate N00458), rather flattering his looks and attire to signal that he had arrived. Already prosperous in 1800, he moved to a smarter address at 64 Harley Street, sharing a studio with the marine painter J.T. Serres, some years his senior. He took over the garden and outbuildings in 1802 and the sole tenancy in 1803, and in 1804 opened a gallery on the corner of Harley Street and Queen Anne Street (from 1810, his address was 47 Queen Anne Street West). Turner’s Gallery could accommodate up to about thirty works in more sympathetic conditions than in the crowded Academy. Among early exhibits were spectacular watercolours based on drawings made during his tour in 1802. One enthusiastic buyer of these, Walter Fawkes, became an avid collector of Turner’s work. Also seen at the gallery were English landscapes, smaller and more intimate than the pictures Turner sent to the Academy. These attracted another collector, the 3rd Earl of Egremont. Fawkes and (mainly in later years) Egremont became friends as well as patrons, their seats at Farnley, Yorkshire and Petworth, Sussex becoming homes from home for Turner. He stayed at Farnley almost annually from 1808 and the following year visited Petworth and Egremont’s Cumbrian seat, Cockermouth Castle, to paint them (fig.6). His watercolours of shoots on the moors around Farnley and the sparkling but bohemian gatherings at Petworth vividly recall country house life and the higher social milieus in which he sometimes moved. The more formal country house ‘portrait’, presenting a mansion in its parkland, became a staple of his work, treated with exceptional freedom and atmosphere.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Tabley, Cheshire, the Seat of Sir J.F. Leicester, Bart.: Calm Morning' exhibited 1809
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Tabley, Cheshire, the Seat of Sir J.F. Leicester, Bart.: Calm Morning exhibited 1809
Tate T03878
Fawkes, Egremont and Sir John Leicester who was forming a gallery of modern British art split between his Cheshire seat at Tabley where Turner also stayed in 1808 (fig.7) and his London house, were staunch admirers. Turner’s dominance did not go unchallenged, however. At the Royal Academy he could be bumptious, pushy or rude, at times trading insults with colleagues. A senior Academician, Joseph Farington, who had supported Turner’s election summarised him in 1803 as ‘confident, presumptuous – with talent’2 but came gradually to regard him with ‘puzzled incomprehension’.3 The Academy’s President, Benjamin West, another early advocate, denounced Thames views exhibited in Turner’s Gallery in as ‘crude blotches’4 while Turner and other artists associated with him were dubbed ‘white painters’ because of their use of luminous, sometimes pale tones. Sir George Beaumont, a fashionable arbiter of taste, was particularly hostile. As aesthetically conservative as he was progressive in literary matters (avidly promoting Wordsworth’s poetry), Beaumont thought Turner debased Old Masters like the seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain while Turner resented Beaumont’s enthusiasm for the young Scottish painter David Wilkie. In 1811 Turner was upset when the Prince Regent did not buy a picture that he had apparently praised at an Academy dinner, thereby putting off other buyers who felt obliged to defer to royal interest. Running through the notes and drafts of verse that Turner was now confiding to his sketchbooks, there is a vein of bitterness at the vagaries of critics and patrons verging, uncharacteristically, on self-pity.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Lecture Diagram 26: Interior of the Great Room at Somerset House, London' circa 1810
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Lecture Diagram 26: Interior of the Great Room at Somerset House, London circa 1810
Tate D17040
Although their attacks did not go away, Turner’s critics made little lasting impact, and he grew used to and even courted controversy. Wary of the British Institution founded in 1804 which held rival exhibitions and in which Beaumont and his friends were leading figures, he exhibited there only rarely and, in 1814, in a manner evidently designed to undermine its ethos and governance. Despite earlier frictions he was fiercely loyal to the Academy, once referring to it as the ‘mother’ of artists. In 1808 he was appointed as its Professor of Perspective, having proposed himself when the post proved hard to fill. He was proud of the title, sometimes adding ‘P.P.’ to ‘R.A.’ after his signature. He began lecturing in 1811 after prolonged research and preparation. His poor delivery drew mixed reviews but his catholic approach to his brief, ranging widely over history and theory, and the illustrations he prepared for his lectures, including one depicting the Great Room at the Academy where they were delivered (fig.8), were praised. He retained the post until 1837 although he had not lectured for ten years. He might have preferred to be Professor of Landscape, a post he first suggested to the Academy in 1811. From 1806, encouraged by an artist friend, William Wells, he classified the history and practice of landscape art from mountainous to marine, natural to ideal, and his own dominance of all these aspects in a series of original prints, the Liber Studiorum (Book of Studies). The title echoed Claude’s graphic record of his work, the Liber Veritatis, and perhaps also a Liber Nauticus 1805–6 by his former house-mate, Serres.
The lectures and the Liber showed Turner at his most didactic, and with his gallery and other exhibited works demonstrated his extraordinary energy and determination to command the public sphere. All this excluded much in the way of a private life and such as he had was closely tied to his work, although it revealed a contrary need for seclusion which, in later years, mutated into secrecy or deliberate mystification. From Thames-side lodgings at Sion (Syon) Ferry House, Isleworth, 1805–6 (fig.9) and Upper Mall, Hammersmith, 1806–11, he explored the river and pursued his favourite hobby, fishing – characteristically, a solitary one. Sketches of the Thames in watercolour and oil exemplify the naturalism then emerging in British painting. Others transform it into an antique land, inspired by Claude’s classical seaports and the Greek and Roman literature that Turner’s friend Henry Scott Trimmer, a clergyman and classicist, was trying to teach him to read. Acutely conscious of the cultural history of the Thames riverside, the former home of poets and painters, Turner was disgusted at the demolition by a philistine baroness in 1807 of Alexander Pope’s famous villa at Twickenham – the subject of a picture and anguished outpourings of verse. In 1807 Turner bought his own plot at Twickenham where he designed and built a villa, Sandycombe (sometimes ‘Solus’) Lodge (fig.10). In retreat there he was looked after by his devoted father, who cooked and gardened. His mother had died in 1804, probably at Bethlem, and he had not married, once remarking in a sketchbook that ‘Woman is doubtful love’. For a few years he had been close to Sarah Danby, the widow of a well-known musician but, inevitably, they were often apart. She bore two daughters, Evelina and Georgiana, who have been widely recognised as Turner’s, although a recent theory suggests that they were his father’s, and thus his half-sisters. Hannah Danby, niece of Sarah’s late husband, was Turner’s housekeeper at Queen Anne Street until his death.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Sion Ferry House, Isleworth: Sunset' 1805
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Sion Ferry House, Isleworth: Sunset 1805
Tate D05952
William Havell 'Sandycombe Lodge, Twickenham, Villa of J.M.W. Turner, engraved by W.B. Cooke' published 1814
William Havell
Sandycombe Lodge, Twickenham, Villa of J.M.W. Turner, engraved by W.B. Cooke published 1814
Tate T06433

Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Crossing the Brook' exhibited 1815
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Crossing the Brook exhibited 1815
Tate N00497
In 1813 Turner visited Devon, in glorious summer weather, and, encouraged by friends, sketched in oil outdoors. A resulting picture, Crossing the Brook (Tate N00497, fig.11), exhibited in 1815, weaves together the strands of private and public, natural and classical in his life and art at this period. The Tamar Valley and distant Dartmoor are cast in Italianate, Claudean terms but in Turner’s distinctive colouring that his detractor Beaumont called ‘peagreen insipidity’.5 Two girls at the riverside might be Evelina and Georgiana. With tours including visits to Sussex and Kent in 1810 and another to the West Country in 1811, the 1813 trip supplied material for Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England. Produced 1814–26 by the engravers George and William Bernard Cooke and the publishers John Murray and John and Arthur Arch, this was the first substantial series of topographical subjects based on Turner’s watercolours. It was followed by surveys of rivers, ports and harbours and the magisterial (but unfinished) Picturesque Views in England Wales for Charles Heath(published 1827–38). Although the last had to be abandoned as a commercial failure, for many years these projects made significant contributions to his income and brought his work to a wider public. As rich in memory and association as in depictions of contemporary life, industry and leisure, the prints reflected the nation to it itself and ensured that even today, early nineteenth-century Britain is seen though Turner’s eyes.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'The Field of Waterloo' exhibited 1818
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Field of Waterloo exhibited 1818
Tate N00500
In 1817 Turner visited Holland and Belgium, to see the battlefield of Waterloo, and the Rhineland. His picture The Field of Waterloo exhibited in 1818 (Tate N00500, fig.12) was modern, humane in its mingling of the dead of all sides, and accompanied by an epigraph from the famous ‘Waterloo Stanzas’ in Byron’s recently-published poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. As a reflection of recent events it stood in total contrast to pictures of the rise and fall of ancient Carthage – his greatest Claudean works, exhibited in 1815 and 1817 – that allegorised the collapse of Napoleon in historical terms (fig.13). A set of fifty Rhine views in watercolour and gouache was bought by Fawkes, who in 1819 and 1820 exhibited his collection, now numbering some seventy Turners, at his London house. Also in 1819, Sir John Leicester opened his town house to the public, with other important Turners on the walls. These shows, where Turner mingled in the crowd of visitors, and others of his watercolours held by publishers and engravers in succeeding decades placed him at the heart of the diversifying exhibition culture of the time. They complemented his exhibits at the Academy and Turner’s Gallery, where distinguished visitors included, in 1815, the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova who pronounced Turner a great genius.6 Following a period of closure for improvements, the gallery reopened in 1822, thereafter evolving from a showcase of new work into a museum (fig.14), housing a representative collection from which the artist was reluctant to part or to which he added, when possible, by buying back pictures – for example at the sale of Lord de Tabley (the former Sir John Leicester) in 1827. Turner’s plans for his legacy, including a gallery of his pictures at the new National Gallery or attached to almshouses on his land at Twickenham, became a preoccupation in later years.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire ...' exhibited 1817
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire ... exhibited 1817
Tate N00499
George Jones 'Interior of Turner's Gallery: the Artist showing his Works' c.1851
George Jones
Interior of Turner's Gallery: the Artist showing his Works c.1851
Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

John Doyle 'Samuel Rogers at his Breakfast Table, engraved by Charles Mottram' c.1823
John Doyle
Samuel Rogers at his Breakfast Table, engraved by Charles Mottram c.1823
Tate T04907
In 1819 and 1828, Turner visited Italy. The first time he travelled to Venice, Rome and Naples but on his second visit based himself in Rome, where he painted and exhibited new works; his bright colouring and impromptu handling bemused German artists, who expected more finish. In the intervening years Turner continued his routine of touring, painting and working for publishers at home and on the continent. On successive visits to France he explored the Loire in 1826 and Seine from 1821–32. A larger plan to portray the great rivers of Europe was never realised, but three volumes of prints were published by Heath with letterpress by Leitch Ritchie as Wandering by the Loire and Seine (1833–5). Marketed as ‘Turner’s Annual Tour’ and later combined as Rivers of France,they were pitched at new middle class readers who might expect to follow in the artist’s footsteps. Meanwhile, in 1818 Turner had opened a seam of overtly literary topography, visiting Scotland to illustrate Walter Scott’s Picturesque Antiquities. Illustrations to Scott’s poetry, novels and Life of Napoleon, Byron, the banker-poet Samuel Rogers, Thomas Campbell and Thomas Moore as well as John Milton and the Bible, often designed as vignettes – a form Turner made very much his own – followed in the coming years. Among living poets, Turner was fondest of Byron’s writing, borrowing more passages from Childe Harold as themes for pictures, but he knew Rogers and Scott best. With other luminaries of literary and artistic London, he was pictured among the guests who frequented Rogers’s celebrated breakfast-parties in St James’s (fig.15). He visited Scott at Abbotsford, and Scott’s role as stage-manager of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 was a factor in his attempt at a set of paintings recording the royal progress. These were left unfinished but in 1823 Turner finally obtained a longed-for royal commission, an immense picture of the Battle of Trafalgar (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich).
In 1825 Fawkes died. Turner never revisited Farnley but, in the decade until Egremont’s death in 1837, he had the run of Petworth where he used the Old Library as a studio. From contemporary accounts and on the evidence of Turner’s many drawings (figs.16 and 17) it was a special place, its treasures and varied company at his behest. Egremont’s unconventional household of rival mistresses, swarms of children and visiting artists would in due course arouse Victorian censure but gave Turner a grand extended family, the more welcome after his father died in September 1829.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'The Artist and his Admirers' 1827
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Artist and his Admirers 1827
Tate D22764
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Petworth: the White Library, looking down the Enfilade from the Alcove, 1827' 1827
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Petworth: the White Library, looking down the Enfilade from the Alcove, 1827 1827
Tate D22678

The loss was followed by that of Thomas Lawrence, West’s successor as President of the Royal Academy, in January 1830. Lawrence had judged Turner ‘indisputably the first landscape painter in Europe’7 and not long before the President’s death, in his first will made in 1829, Turner had endowed a chair and gold medal for landscape painting at the Academy. In Lawrence’s memory, Turner exhibited a watercolour of his funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral (Tate D25467). Later, in 1842, he commemorated, from imagination, the burial of Wilkie (to whom he had long been reconciled) at sea off Gibraltar (Tate N00528). By such gestures Turner assumed the mantle of a leader of his profession, acting on behalf of his colleagues. In 1832, he joined a committee to investigate the provision of space for the Academy alongside the National Gallery, and in 1836 proposed a farewell dinner in its old premises in Somerset House. One reason for extensive European tours in 1833 and 1835 may have been to investigate newly-built cultural institutions such as those designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in Berlin (figs.18 and 19).
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Berlin: The Internal Courtyard of the Schloss' 1835
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Berlin: The Internal Courtyard of the Schloss 1835
Tate D31078
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'Berlin: View down Unter den Linden and across the Lustgarten to the Zeughaus, Lustgarten, Fountain, Museum and Domkirche, from the North-Eastern Corner of the Schloss (Detail of Schloss Façade in Sky)' 1835
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Berlin: View down Unter den Linden and across the Lustgarten to the Zeughaus, Lustgarten, Fountain, Museum and Domkirche, from the North-Eastern Corner of the Schloss (Detail of Schloss Façade in Sky) 1835
Tate D31079

William Parrott 'Turner on Varnishing Day' 1846
William Parrott
Turner on Varnishing Day 1846
Museums Sheffield
Turner’s public status was reflected, too, in his choice of subjects and in his exhibited work. While he continued to show historical and classical subjects that, save for their dazzling atmospherics, were old-fashioned by the 1830s, he was also highly responsive to contemporary subjects, especially those that marked a transition from the past. In 1834 he grasped at once the pictorial power and national symbolism of the burning of the old Houses of Parliament, happening as it did just two years after the Reform Bill of 1832 changed the political landscape. He watched the blaze from a boat on the Thames, made a series of colour studies and the following spring sent a picture each to the Royal Academy and British Institution. Surely sensing a warning from history for his native London, more than any other painter he caught the post-Romantic allure of Venice, transforming itself from decaying trading metropolis to modern tourist-trap, that Byron had expressed in verse; from 1833 Venetian subjects were among his most sought-after pictures. In 1839 he turned a sighting of the old warship Temeraire towed by a steam tug up the Thames to the breaker’s yard into an elegy for the passing age of sail, a picture William Thackeray (writing under his pseudonym of Michael Angelo Titmarsh) described as a ‘magnificent national ode or a piece of music’.8 No other artist was attempting such definitive renderings of the emergent modern world, its moral preoccupations of slavery or machine labour, and inventions of steamships and railways, nor doing so with such panache and sense of theatre. In famous performances at the Academy Varnishing Days he took mysterious sketches into the rooms and brought order from chaos in front of his colleagues (fig.20). Looking at the many watercolour studies and trials (as well as studio oils) from these years, there can be little doubt that such staged, public displays were fuelled by a compulsive private exploration of the power and potential of paint.
Turner's Snuff Box 1838
Turner's Snuff Box 1838
Presented to J M W Turner R.A. in 1838 by Louis-Philippe of France.
Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum
Turner could no more escape controversy in this later period than when he first came to prominence. In 1836 a virulent review in Blackwood’s Magazine by the Revd. John Eagles moved John Ruskin – then only seventeen – tospring to Turner’s defence. At first wary of his enthusiasm, Turner advised Ruskin not to publish it. Following correspondence, they met in 1840 at the house of Turner’s agent Thomas Griffith, and in 1843 Ruskin published the first volume of his book Modern Painters – placing Turner at their head. While critics accused Turner of extravagance and exaggeration, outdoing each other with comparisons of his pictures to lobster salad, soapsuds and whitewash, beetroot or mustard, Ruskin rooted his analysis (at least at first) in Turner’s truth to nature. He became the standard-bearer of a new generation of Turner admirers, now usually professional, middle class or newly rich, who embraced his work for its modernity. Their enthusiasm for watercolours as well as oils brought an upsurge of work in the medium in the last decade of Turner’s working life, increasingly directed towards independent subjects and watercolour ‘pictures’ rather than the demands of engravers and publishers. From 1842 Griffith was tasked to offer sample studies to clients, to attract commissions. Reflecting the cosmopolitan, European character of Turner’s mature art as well as its most advanced techniques, the subjects were mainly Swiss, arising from summer tours since 1841. Turner made his last visit to Switzerland in 1844. His health was failing and in 1845 he could only manage two short trips to France. On the second he dined with King Louis-Philippe, whom he had known when the future king was in exile at Twickenham, and who had since presented him with a gold snuff-box (fig.21). The previous autumn, he had watched the King arrive at Portsmouth for a state visit to Queen Victoria.
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa' exhibited 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa exhibited 1842
Tate N00372
In 1845 Turner sent The Opening of the Wallhalla (Tate N00533), first shown in London in 1843, to the Congress of European Art in Munich as a tribute to the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria who had promoted cultural regeneration after the Napoleonic War. It was misunderstood, poorly received and returned damaged, reducing Turner to the state of ‘a hen in a fury’.9 However, the same year the American painter C.R. Leslie advised an initially sceptical New Yorker, James Lenox, to buy Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut). Unsold since its exhibition in 1832 it was the first Turner to go to America. The transaction was something of a coup as Turner was now reluctant to sell pictures. That February he was appointed Acting President of the Royal Academy during the illness of the incumbent, Martin Archer Shee. He held the post until the end of 1846, when illness forced his own resignation. In 1847 The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa (Tate N00372, fig.22) became the first of his pictures to be hung at the National Gallery, bequeathed by Robert Vernon. In 1848, for the first time since 1824, Turner showed nothing at the Academy. His last exhibits were in 1849 and 1850. In 1849 he turned down an offer of a retrospective from the Society of Arts and his appearances in public (now noticeably shabbily-dressed) became rare, although he was glimpsed at Academy events as late as spring 1851. Since the early 1830s he had cultivated his private side and was now reclusive, especially during stays at Margate where he was looked after by his landlady and companion, Mrs Booth, whose husband John died in 1833. Often compared to a retired sailor he took to calling himself ‘Admiral Booth’. In London cabs were asked to drop him some distance from his home so as not to discover his identity or address.
John Wykeham Archer 'House of J.M.W.Turner, 6 Davis Place, Chelsea' 1852
John Wykeham Archer
House of J.M.W.Turner, 6 Davis Place, Chelsea 1852
© The Trustees of the British Museum
In 1846 Turner moved with Mrs Booth and John Pound, her son by her first husband, to 6 Davis Place, on Cremorne New Road overlooking the Thames at Chelsea (fig.23). The house and gallery at Queen Anne Street, which had become squalid and neglected, were left in the care of Hannah Danby (fig.24). While Turner’s own eccentricities were doubtless exaggerated by Victorian sentiment, the hag-like Hannah, old and ill herself, and the Manx cats that infested the premises only added to the myth. Appearances were deceptive as Turner had long been rich, both from his art and shrewd investments in shares and property. In 1848 he took fresh grip of his legacy, adding a codicil to his will referring to a ‘Bequest’ and proposing biennial rehangs of finished pictures; and employing a studio assistant, Francis Sherrell. No specific provision was made for the many thousands of works on paper that eventually became part of the Turner Bequest. In the winter of 1849 Turner’s health was waning fast and declined further in the next two years. He had been terrified of cholera during an epidemic in 1831–2, needlessly as it turned out, but seems to have succumbed to a severe bout in 185l. By October he was bed-bound, looked after by a surgeon, Mr Bartlett, and Dr David Price from Margate. He died ‘without a groan’ and lit by a sudden gleam of sunshine, at ten in the morning on 19 December.10 First, the body was taken to rest in his gallery at Queen Anne Street, where the lying-in-state was painted by his friend George Jones (fig.25). On 30 December, Turner’s remains were interred in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, close to Reynolds and Lawrence, according to his wish ‘to be buried among my Brothers in Art’.
47 Queen Anne Street West, photographed in the 1880s
47 Queen Anne Street West, photographed in the 1880s
George Jones 'Turner's Body lying in State, 29 December 1851' 1851
George Jones
Turner's Body lying in State, 29 December 1851 1851
Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Plaster cast of death-mask of J.M.W. Turner 1851
Plaster cast of death-mask of J.M.W. Turner 1851 Attributed to Thomas Woolner
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Turner had left funds for a grand funeral and a further legacy of £1,000 for a monument. A marble statue by Patrick MacDowell was erected in the nave of the cathedral in 1862, the same year that the first biography, by Walter Thornbury, was published.11 The statue is an imposing retrospect of a squat, awkward figure that in life had usually resisted depiction. Between his early self-portrait and a death mask showing his face in extreme decay, toothless and hollow-cheeked (fig.26), images of Turner were often made surreptitiously, veering from affectionate to caricature. Along with countless contemporary anecdotes of varying reliability, they convey the enigma of a man whose genius could hardly be denied but who looked like a sailor, a farmer or, in one particularly snobbish description, no more like an artist than a ‘ganger’ or labourer. His art, however, must be the key to a life of which many details remain elusive and, arguably, no completely convincing account has yet appeared.12 A measured obituary in The Times acknowledged both the criticism and admiration he had received, but concluded that the best of his peers had ‘ever admitted to his superiority in poetry, feeling, fancy and genius’ and treated him with ‘that reverential respect and estimation which is given to other artists by posterity alone’.13 Knowingly or not, this echoed the reviewer who, in 1815, had placed Turner among ‘the masters whose day is not so much of to-day, as of “all time”’.14

David Blayney Brown
December 2012

Turner quoted by Walter Thornbury, The Life and Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner R.A., revised edn, London 1897, p.27.
Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintryre eds., The Diary of Joseph Farington [13 May 1803], vol.VI, p.2030.
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.
Kathryn Cave ed., The Diary of Joseph Farington [5 May 1807], vol.VIII, p.3038.
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.
Willard Bissell Pope ed., The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon [28 November 1815], Cambridge, Mass., 1960, vol.I, p.484.
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.
Fraser’s Magazine, June 1839, quoted by Butlin and Joll 1984, p.230.
Elizabeth Rigby (later Lady Eastlake), quoted by Butlin and Joll 1984, p.250.
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.
See Thornbury 1897.
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.
The Times, 31 December 1851.
The Champion, 7 May 1815.

How to cite

David Blayney Brown, ‘Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851’, artist biography, December 2012, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-1775-1851-r1141041, accessed 12 June 2024.