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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Notes for a Letter or Speech (Inscriptions by Turner) 1809

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Inside Front Cover:
Notes for a Letter or Speech (Inscriptions by Turner) 1809
Inscribed by Turner in ink (see main catalogue entry) on off-white wove paper, 115 x 190 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner’s inscription reads:
Perhaps you have seen the following from the Examiner: of to-day | promising us a literal cudgeling unheard. I could wish the Constant | Reader to be one of your Party to-day. Your turtle and venison [which deleted] | might improve his taste, which | appears at present a little spleenic. |
So we may expect a thrashing unheard next Sunday. It is hard you | cannot have a few friends to-day and if you please give them | turtle soup and venison without giving umbrage to a constant reader | who, by the following address to the Examiner of to-day to tickle up the | Professors, seems to be spleenic in affairs of taste | The constant reader must be a sly rogue to know that you give | turtle soup and venison to-day. Would he were one of the party to | improve his taste
Turner’s notes are rehearsals of a reply to a letter in the radical journal, The Examiner, 8 January 1809:
SIR.– It was with a great deal of pleasure (some time ago) that I read a paragraph in your Paper, declaring your intention to lecture Mr. Soane, if he did not condescend to lecture at the Royal Academy:– I now think you ought to take up your literary cudgel, and thrash all the Professors – for during the whole of last season, not a single lecture was delivered;– and turtle soup, and haunch of venison, promise fair to consume the present. If you have the goodness to lay about these sons of indolence lustily, you will much oblige,–
       Your humble servant,
       Margaret Street, Jan.3
The correspondent refers to the Royal Academy’s Professor of Architecture, Turner’s friend John Soane, and his colleagues including Turner himself, the Professor of Perspective, none of whom had delivered any lectures during 1808. Soane’s predecessor, his old teacher George Dance, had never given a single one. Fees were unpaid, leaving the Constant Reader to infer that this left the Academy more to spend on good living. The nom de plume was presumably inspired by Charles Churchill’s poem The Ghost which Turner had sent to Soane at the time of his friend’s appointment in 1806, following the resignation of Dance:
Professors (justice so decreed)
Unpaid must constant Lectures read;
On earth it often doth befall
They’re paid and never read at all1
The Constant Reader’s identity is unknown and Margaret Street lay in the heart of London’s cultural quarter, but Matthew Imms has plausibly suggested one resident (at number 65) who might qualify; the artist Henry Edridge. An old acquaintance of Turner from their attendance at Dr Monro’s ‘Academy’ in Adelphi Terrace, and well connected, Edridge nevertheless had a recent gripe with the Academy, which in the summer of 1808 had refused to consider him for election on the grounds that he was a watercolourist. Turner’s response to the letter seems amused and ironic rather than angry, a joke for his colleagues over a good dinner at the Academy Club or especially for Soane. With some assistance from Turner, Soane gave his inaugural lecture in March 1809 but Turner managed to delay his own until 1811.
There seems to be some similarity of expression between Turner’s note and one in the Soane Archive, allegedly handed to Turner anonymously. Dated 2 February (1810) it invites the reader to attend Soane’s lecture the next day when it ‘is expected that he will conspire to make most illiberal attacks on Smirke’s Theatre. If you are an admirer of the Theatre, You will of course feel disgust as I shall ... I wish you would go and judge for Yourself’. This refers to Soane’s criticism of Robert Smirke’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, opened in 1809. Turner passed this note to Soane before his lecture, to warn him against attacking a colleague’s work. Publishing it, Helen Dorey observes that the writer cannot have realised the close friendship between Turner and Soane,2 but one might wonder whether Turner had written it himself or put someone else up to do so with his friend’s best interests at heart. In the event, Soane went ahead with his comments, causing such offence that he was forced to suspend his lectures for two years.

David Blayney Brown
March 2009

Turner to Soane, [29] March 1805 [1806], in John Gage ed., Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 1980, p.30.
For the note and the outcome of Soane’s lecture see Helen Dorey, John Soane and J.M.W. Turner: Illuminating a Friendship, exhibition catalogue, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London 2007, pp.11–12; also David Watkin, Visions of World Architecture: John Soane’s Royal Academy Lecture Illustrations, exhibition guide, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London 2007, p.5.

How to cite

David Blayney Brown, ‘Notes for a Letter or Speech (Inscriptions by Turner) 1809 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, March 2009, 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-notes-for-a-letter-or-speech-inscriptions-by-turner-r1130549, accessed 27 January 2022.