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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Notes by Turner Concerning the Start of his Journey in France 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 1 Verso:
Notes by Turner Concerning the Start of his Journey in France 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXIII 1 a
Pencil on white wove paper, 114 x 185 mm
Inscribed by the artist in pencil (see main text)
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The four-line inscription on this page comprises notes concerning the start of Turner’s 1819 journey to Italy through France. The writing resembles a diary entry and represents a rare, albeit very short, first-hand account of the artist’s travels. First transcribed by Finberg and repeated here with only minor variations,1 the text reads as follows:
Left Dover at 10 arr at Calais at 3 in a Boat from the Packet Boat beset as usual. began to rain ^next morn^ on the seting out of the Dil. | Conversation in the Diligence the Russe, 2 Frenchmen and 2 English Cab. 3 Engl. Russe great par example the Emperor Alexander | toout part tout the French tres bon gens but the English everything at last was bad, Pitt the cause of all, the King’s death and fall | and Robespierre their tool. Rained the whole way to Paris, Beaumont sur Oise good
It is believed that Turner set out from London on 31 July 1819 and therefore it is likely that he left Dover on either Sunday 1, or Monday 2 August.2 As the entry records he crossed the Channel on the packet boat and the reference to being ‘beset as usual’, probably recalls his experience in 1802 when he was ‘nearly swampt’ arriving at Calais Pier (see the Calais Pier sketchbook, Tate D04960; Turner Bequest LXXXI 58). The voyage should have taken three to three and a half hours but instead seems to have lasted for five hours suggesting inclement weather.3 At Calais he transferred to a diligence, a large public stagecoach where the luggage was kept covered by canvas on the roof (for a sketch see folio 32 verso, D14041). The diligence took him to Paris, and either because of the aforementioned rain, or because he was already familiar with this part of the journey from earlier European tours, he made virtually no sketches of the passing landscape during this part of the itinerary. The only exception is a view of the cathedral at Beauvais, fifty miles to the north of Paris, see folio 1 (D13991), although he remarks here that ‘Beaumont sur Oise’ (a town approximately twenty miles north of the capital) was ‘good’.
In the French diligence there were four places for travellers to sit: the coupé, or front compartment of the interior, generally believed to be the most desirable location; the berline, or middle part of the interior; the rotonde, or back of the interior, the least recommended placing, described by one guidebook as a ‘receptacle of dust, dirt and bad company’; and finally, the banquette or imperial, which was outside at the front of the carriage above the coupé.4 Turner’s reference to the ‘Cab[riolet]. 3 Engl[ish]’ probably means that there were three of his fellow countrymen sitting in the banquette, which since it was often covered like a cabriolet meant that it could be quite a pleasant place from which to savour the journey. In addition, he seems to have shared the vehicle with two further Englishmen, a Russian and two Frenchmen, and it is notes on the conversation and opinions of this mixed company which form the largest part of the inscription. One contemporary guidebook noted that to travel in a diligence was a wonderful experience encompassing: ‘life, and motion, and joy. The moment you enter, you are on terms of the most perfect familiarity with the whole set of your travelling companions. In an instant, every tongue is at work, and every individual bent upon making themselves happy for the moment, and contributing to the happiness of their fellow-travellers.’5 The passage adopts a curious mixture of French and English suggesting that he was listening to the conversation in French and had enough knowledge of the language to follow the gist of the discussion and to record snippets which interested him.6 The main subject at hand appears to have been the French Revolution, still a contentious topic despite the events having occurred twenty to thirty years earlier.7 According to Turner, the Russian believed that the ‘Emperor Alexander’ (I of Russia) was a great man, that the French were all ‘tres bons gens’ (very good fellows), but that the ‘bad’ English were the cause of all the troubles in France, including the overthrow of the monarchy and the execution of King Louis XVI. He cited the main offender as the English Prime Minister William ‘Pitt’ the Younger (1759–1806), who had made the Revolutionary leader, Maximilien ‘Robespierre’ (1758–1794) his ‘tool’.8
The fact that Turner felt inspired to try and write about his experiences indicates how important and exciting this first trip to Italy was for him. However, after these brief lines the text is abandoned, never to be taken up again. It seems as though the artist wished to record his thoughts and impressions at a greater speed than he could form them in words and so he reverted to the medium with which he was most comfortable, that of sketching. Indeed, one observer during the artist’s lifetime noted that Turner sketched with a fluency that was more akin to writing than drawing.9

Nicola Moorby
February 2013

Finberg 1909, I, p.503.
See Powell 1987, p.20 and Hamilton 2009, p.39.
Finberg 1930, p.14.
Brockendon’s Road Book from London to Naples, London 1835, pp.11–12.
William Coxe, Galignani’s Travellers Guide through France, Paris 1819, p.xxxiv.
Gage 1987, pp.65–6.
Warrell 1999, p.18.
Finberg 1930, pp.14–15.
Quoted in Andrew Wilton, Turner as Draughtsman, Aldershot and Vermont 2006, p.77.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘Notes by Turner Concerning the Start of his Journey in France 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, February 2013, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, August 2013, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-notes-by-turner-concerning-the-start-of-his-journey-in-r1142851, accessed 26 May 2024.