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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Inscription by Turner: Historical Notes on the Hardships of Writers c.1808-11

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 3 Recto:
Inscription by Turner: Historical Notes on the Hardships of Writers circa 1808–11
Turner Bequest CXIV 3
Pencil on white wove paper, 117 x 87 mm
Part watermark ‘J What | 180’
Inscribed by Turner in pencil (see main catalogue entry)
Inscribed by John Ruskin in red ink ‘3’ top right, ascending vertically
Stamped in black ‘CXIV – 3’ top right, ascending vertically
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
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.
Among the Italians, Paulo Burghese, almost as good a poet as Tasso, knew fourteen different trades, and yet died because he could get employment in none. Tasso himself, who had the most amiable character of all poets, has often been obliged to borrow a crown from some friend, in order to pay for a month’s subsistence: he has left us a pretty sonnet, addressed to his cat, in which he begs the light of her eyes to write by, being too poor to afford himself a candle. But Bentivoglio, poor Bentivoglio, chiefly demands our pity. His comedies will last with the Italian language: be dissipated a noble fortune in acts of charity and benevolence, but, falling into misery in his old age, was refused to be admitted into a hospital which he himself had erected.
In Spain, it is said, the great Cervantes died of hunger; and it is certain, that the famous Camoens ended his days in a hospital.
If we turn to France, we shall there find even stronger instances of the ingratitude of the public. Vaugelas, one of the politest writers, and one of the honestest men of his time, was surnamed the Owl, from his being obliged to keep within all day, and venture out only by night, through fear of his creditors. His last will is very remarkable: after having bequeathed all his worldly substance to the discharging his debts, be goes on thus. “But as there still may remain some creditors unpaid, even after all that I have shall be disposed of, in such a case, it is my last will, that my body should be sold to the surgeons to the best advantage, and that the purchase should go to the discharging those debts which I owe to society; so that if I could not, while living, at least when dead, I may be useful.” ...
But the sufferings of the poet, in other countries, is nothing when compared to his distresses here: the names of Spenser and Otway, Butler and Dryden, are every day mentioned as a national reproach; some of them lived in a state of precarious indigence, and others literally died of hunger.
Turner’s immediate source evidently interpolated more and later stories of the British poets, since Chatterton’s death in 17705 and the role of ‘[Dr] John[son]’ in the publication of Goldsmith’s own Vicar of Wakefield (1766)6 postdate the 1762 piece. Some of the same incidents are related in various editions of Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature7 and the New Wonderful Museum of 1802.8 As was typical with general-interest articles at the time, versions appeared anonymously and unacknowledged in periodicals and compilations over many years; some are very close in their wording to Turner’s, and evidently derive from a common, as yet unidentified text based on Goldsmith’s.
The earliest closely comparable version traced is in an 1808 edition of a New York women’s magazine, although the British examples including Chatterton are cited before Homer and the Europeans,9 making it even less likely to have been Turner’s actual source; however, it demonstrates that the passage was in circulation by the time the present sketchbook was in use. Another close variant appeared rather later, as ‘The Fate of Genius’, in an Australian newspaper of 1820 (where the ‘Imperial Magazine’ is credited as the source).10 Although too late and with slight variations or omissions which rule it out as Turner’s source, ‘Calamities of Genius’, a version published in a sensationalist London compendium of true crime and horror in 1825, is worth quoting as its epigrammatic wording is so close to Turner’s:
Homer was a beggar; Plautus turned a mill; Terence was a slave; Boethius died in gaol; Paul Borghese had fourteen trades, and yet starved with them all; Tasso was often distressed for five shillings; Bentivoglio was refused admittance into an hospital he had himself erected; Cervantes died of hunger; Camoens, the celebrated writer of the Lusiad, ended his days in an alms house; and Vaugelas left his body to the surgeons, to pay his debts as far as it would go. In our own country, Bacon lived a life of meanness and distress; Sir Walter Raleigh died on a scaffold. Spencer [sic], the charming Spencer, died forsaken, and in want; and the death of Collins came through neglect, first causing mental derangement. Milton sold his copy-right of Paradise Lost for fifteen pounds, at three payments, and finished his life in obscurity; Dryden lived in poverty and distress; Otway died prematurely, and through hunger; Lee died in the streets; Steele lived a life of perfect warfare with bailiffs. Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield was sold for a trifle to save him from the gripe of the law; Fielding lies in the burying-ground of the English factory at Lisbon, without a stone to mark the spot; Savage died in prison at Bristol, where he was confined for a debt of eight pounds; Butler lived in penury, and died poor; Chatterton, the child of genius and misfortune, destroyed himself.11
Many of the writers would have been familiar to Turner,12 and Homer, Spenser and Milton served as source material for him and other painters.13 As discussed in the Introduction to the Perspective sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest CVIII), Turner was also gathering personal stories from art history at this time, in the course of research on perspective for his Royal Academy lectures, first delivered in 1811 (see also the Introduction to the present sketchbook).
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, http://www.spamula.net/col/archives/2005/01/poverty_of_the_learned.html.
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

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Inscription by Turner: Historical Notes on the Hardships of Writers c.1808–11 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, January 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-inscription-by-turner-historical-notes-on-the-hardships-of-r1134739, accessed 27 January 2022.