Thanet Writers Spotlight J. M. W. Turner

L R Griff highlights the life, works and legacy of artist and poet J. M. W. Turner, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

Image Credit: 
J. M. W. Turner / Public Domain

There’s no secret to J. M. W. Turner’s love affair with Margate, but there was more than just that light that brought him, and there more than paintings were inspired here.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in early 1775 at 21 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London. The only definitive date we have around the time of his birth is the day he was baptised at St Paul’s in Convent Garden on 14th of May that year. The son of William Turner (1745–1829), a barber and wig-maker, and his wife Mary, née Marshall (1739–1804), who came from a line of wealthy London butchers, J. M. W. Turner only had one sibling; a sister, Mary Anne. She was born in 1778 but died in 1783, just before her fifth birthday.

In 1785, due to his mother’s failing mental health, Joseph was sent to live with his maternal uncle J. M. W. Marshall in Brentford – a small town at the time – where the earliest known inclinations of an artist were exercised. In 1786, at age 11, Joseph was sent to Margate in Thanet for schooling, and whilst at home he was encouraged by his father to paint and draw. His work would be proudly displayed in his father’s shop and sold for a few shillings a piece.

Only three years later, in 1789, Joseph was invited to study at the Royal Academy Schools following a three-month probation. He went from studying at the Plaister Academy to the Life Study classes, whilst supplementing his studies with other work experience, with architects and architectural draughtsmen – later citing Thomas Malton as ‘my real master’ – as well as painting scenery for theatre shows in London.

Mary Turner’s mental health gradually declined and she was admitted to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in 1799, and then to Bethlem Hospital in 1800, where she died four years later. Interestingly, only a few years earlier, Joseph had attended evening classes by Dr Thomas Monro, who would later be responsible for his mother’s care in Bethlem.

J. M. W. Turner / Public Domain

Joseph had an eclectic taste in art, fuelled by both passion and a desire to fund his education. Luckily for him, landscape paintings, as well as antiquarian topography, were growing popular and provided him with his first real income.

This eclecticism was also a sign of a restless artist, dedicated in not being stereotyped as a topographic artist, or even conforming to the styles of the Old Masters. He submitted watercolours to the Royal Academy every winter, while spending the summers travelling throughout Great Britain – particularly Wales – where he sketched what would later become paintings, culminating in the piece that catapulted him into the collective interests of his contemporaries: Fisherman at Sea. A nocturnal moonlit scene of the Needles off the Isle of Wight, the image of boats in peril contrasts the hauntingly cold light of the moon with the seemingly flickering glow of the fishermen’s distressed lantern.

J. M. W. Turner was considered a prodigy, with a promising career ahead of him, but that didn’t stop him courting controversy. His use of colour within his works and the pale palette caught the eyes of artists and critics alike. Yet, he brushed off these remarks, travelled Europe and collected paint with more vibrancy, and excelled with his trademark aesthetic. There is no denying that his work contributed to the shift in attitude towards landscape art until it was on par with Historical paintings. Turner became a household name in the art community, but in Thanet he was better known as ‘Admiral Booth.’

By the early 1830s he had become reclusive, especially during stays at Margate where he was looked after by his landlady and companion, widow Mrs Booth. The seaside town inhabitants often compared him to a retired sailor, and, quite fondly, Turner took to calling himself ‘Admiral Booth’ in response. He had long stated his love for Margate due to its light, and would demonstrate this with the idyllic, picturesque paintings of the sea, beach, harbour and town.

Yet, Turner wasn’t just a painter and draughtsman. Sure, his name still hangs in galleries and magnetise awe from those who view them, but he was also a poet. Turner was inspired by the stories told to him and the things he’d seen whilst on his travels. One such occasion resulted in the piece ‘Fallacies of Hope,’ a poem that accompanied his oil masterpiece ‘Slave-Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On),’ after a Captain had told him of throwing dead slaves overboard for compensation.

It isn’t uncommon for poetry to be a companion piece for art (and vice versa), but Turner’s poetry was a gateway to his point of view, and in the case of ‘Fallacies of Hope,’ it was a way to express a discontent for the treatment of those into the sea. Many people believe, though it was never proven, that he wrote the piece to get the attention of Prince Albert, in an attempt to spark the abolition debate.

Turner was also an avid supporter of poets, including Woodworth, and included an epigraph from the famous Waterloo Stanzas in Byron’s recently-published poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ for his painting ‘The Field of Waterloo.’ He frequently used other poets in his literary topography, as his own often stayed by the wayside. This may be due to his talent being most crafted in painting as opposed to poetry, but that didn’t stop him from sharing his own written work with his art.

Living comfortably on his fortunes made with art and investments, Turner succumbed to cholera in 1851. He was looked after by Mr Bartlett, a surgeon, and Dr David Price from Margate. It is said he died “without a groan” under a spontaneous sunbeam at 10am, 19th of December 1951. He was taken to his gallery, at Queen Anne Street, to be painted by long-time friend George Jones, before finally being laid to rest at Turner’s request 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.”

An obituary in The Times acknowledged both the criticism and admiration he had received, but concluded that 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.” This was another example of how Turner’s poetry was well-received, furthering the shame that his written works weren’t displayed with the same level of affection as his paintings.

Art has often been described as a way to speak when words fail you, but Turner used poetry to supplement his work, his masterpieces; but his poetry could just as easily have stood on its own. His passion flowed beyond the paintings and his desire to cast a voice was emphatic, either with a brush or with a pen. He told vibrant stories in the silence of oil or watercolour, but complemented this with the emotive and evocative colours of words. He didn’t need to, and he didn’t have to, and that surely makes his poetry that much more interesting.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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