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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Verses (Inscription by Turner) 1810

Folio 65 Verso:
Verses (Inscription by Turner) 1810
Turner Bequest CXI 65a
Pencil on white wove paper, 110 x 88 mm
Inscribed by Turner in pencil (see main catalogue entry)
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner’s verse reads:
Coarse Flattery, like a Gipsey came
Would she were never heard
And muddled all the fecund brains
Of Wilky and of Bird
When she call’d either [alike inserted] a Teniers
Each Tyro stopt contented
At the alluring half-way house
Where each a room hath rented
Renown in vain taps at the door
And bids [each deleted] them both be jogging
For while false praise sings
      talent songs
They’ll call for t’other works a... nogging
This skit refers to the current craze for the Scottish-born David Wilkie and his Bristol-based colleague Edward Bird as painters of genre or familiar life. Wilkie especially had become a sensation after moving to London in 1805, with connoisseurs and critics excitedly comparing his small, highly-wrought and sombrely-toned pictures to Old Masters like David Teniers the Younger and inflating their price. Turner had gone head to head with Wilkie in the Royal Academy in 1807, showing his Country Blacksmith Disputing upon the Price of Iron, and the Price Charged to the Butcher for Shoeing his Poney (Tate N00478)1 alongside Wilkie’s Blind Fiddler (Tate N00099). He kept the competition going in 1808 with another genre subject, The Unpaid Bill, or the Dentist Reproving his Son’s Prodigality (collection of the Schindler Family)2 which seems to have been intended as a companion for a picture attributed to Teniers. Wilkie’s Fiddler was painted for his most enthusiastic admirer, Sir George Beaumont, who was also Turner’s harshest critic in fashionable circles. If Turner resented this, his mood cannot have improved in 1810 when the Prince of Wales bought Bird’s Academy exhibit, Country Choristers (Royal collection) and asked Wilkie to paint a companion for it, the first of a series of royal commissions.3 Turner still had none, and, worse, in 1811 the Prince failed to buy his Mercury and Herse (on the London art market in 2005)4 despite rumours that he wanted it and having apparently praised it in his speech at the Academy dinner (see notes to folio 68 verso in this sketchbook, D07701).
David Solkin and Philippa Simpson suggest that Turner was vexed by his ‘failure to convince the public that he was the better artist’ in the 1807 and 1808 exhibitions, and date the verse to 1809. However John Gage is surely right to associate this ‘low satirical ditty’ with the Prince’s patronage of Bird and Wilkie in 1810. Turner lumps them together as inexperienced newcomers, spoilt by too much flattery too soon and typecast as genre painters. The reality was more nuanced as Bird was older than both Turner and Wilkie and his success in 1810 came initially at the expense of Wilkie who was persuaded to withdraw his own more modest exhibit5 from the Academy lest it be outshone – a setback exaggerated by friends like Benjamin Robert Haydon who blamed it on Beaumont’s interference.6 Wilkie must have felt as disadvantaged before his royal commission as Turner did after it and in fact he was ill this year, with some form of nervous exhaustion – accounting for Turner’s reference to ‘muddled brains’.
Andrew Wilton compares Turner’s verse to his satirical drawing The Artist’s Studio (Tate D08257; Turner Bequest CXXI B), noting that its main protagonist is an older artist while a junior ‘tyro’ is in the background, but the drawing is likely to be several years earlier than the poem. A more contemporary and closer allusion to Wilkie occurs in Turner’s unfinished Harvest Home (Tate N00562),7 another Wilkie-like rustic narrative. In the picture, and the related Harvest Home sketchbook (Tate D05351–D05357; D40273; D40342–D40343; Turner Bequest LXXXVI) and the composition study (Tate D08216; Turner Bequest CXX C), Turner shows a Scotsman half-way between the tenants of a country estate and a couple of wealthy gentlemen, perhaps identifiable with the Earl of Essex and John Fuller, patrons of both Turner and Wilkie. Lord Essex had apparently dropped his earlier commission for Harvest Home but visited Wilkie in February 1810 to express interest in his work; Fuller followed in April, surprising Wilkie by his ‘very rough manners’ (see especially notes to Tate D05352; Turner Bequest LXXXVI 2).
Wilkie visited Turner’s Gallery on 8 May 18108 and Turner’s feelings towards the younger artist mellowed over time. He commemorated Wilkie in Peace: Burial at Sea (Tate N00528)9 and owned an impression of Charles Warren’s mezzotint after the portrait of Bird by Edward Villiers Rippingille (Bristol Museum and Art Gallery), which was intended to assist Bird’s widow but left unfinished when Warren himself died.10

David Blayney Brown
May 2011

Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.52–3 no.68 (pl.78).
Ibid., pp.61–2 no.81 (pl.91).
Blind Man’s Buff (Royal Collection); for background see Marks 1981, pp.333–62, and Nicholas Tromans, David Wilkie: Painter of Everyday Life, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London 2001, pp.18–19.
Sotheby’s sale, London, 5 July 2005, lot 40; Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.80–2 no.114 (pl.122).
Man in a Girl’s Cap; or the Wardrobe Ransacked (currently untraced).
Willard Bissell Pope, ed., The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, Cambridge, Mass., 1960, vol.I, pp.151–2, 155.
Butlin and Joll 1984, p.128 no.209 (pl.208).
Wilkie, Diary, 8 May 1810; Allan Cunningham, The Life of Sir D. Wilkie, London 1843, vol.I, p.295.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.248–9 no.399 (pl.402).
David Blayney Brown and Rosalind Mallord Turner, Turner’s Gallery, House and Library, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2001, pp.4 reproduced pl.4, 5, 13.

How to cite

David Blayney Brown, ‘Verses (Inscription by Turner) 1810’, catalogue entry, May 2011, 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/verses-inscription-by-turner-r1131183, accessed 24 May 2022.