J W T                                                          Initials in the paint



Peter Paul Biró looking for fingerprints just before discovering the letters inscribed into the pier of Shipwreck, the Rescue

 *Beginning of the J.M.W. Turner story            













                                           Shipwreck, the Rescue 
                                                                                                         pier above showing the location 
                                                             of the three blocks of paint that
                                            contain the three letters - J W T











This enlargement of the T shows

 that the paint is underneath the antique

 varnish. The angle of the photographic

 flash-lighting, illuminates the varnish in

 all of the depressions of the surface, including the intaglio inscription of the letters (W and T in

 particular). By this method Paul Biró was adroitly able to image the letters quite clearly.          

Evelyn Joll admits: “great gaps in our knowledge of Turner still remain; of course Turner himself was largely responsible for this, for his love of secrecy was generally remarked upon, and if this self-mystification was often playfully intentional rather than pathological, the result was the same.” [xxxi]

The esoteric nature of the somewhat hidden JWT inscription surely attests to this part of Turner's character. Within the Chinese vernacular this type of inscription is also called 'secret' - meant only for the eyes of a Connoisseur. With the Chinese, such decoration is faintly scratched into the surface of a porcelain vase before glazing.

 In another instance, along the edge of his Forum Romanum Turner did an  inscription that is even more esoteric (seen below). John Anderson Jr. in his book The Unknown Turner assures us that these hidden inscriptions were more likely a common practice rather than a rare occurrence.

                               What are the Implications?
                          Art World’s Dirty Little Secret
r malcolm setters / graham setters

           "If Anderson was right and all of Turner’s paintings are signed and dated in some way, what effect would this have on prominent Turner specialists? Control of ones realm is much easier if there is decision-making flexibility, and with everything effectively firmed up, signed and dated in such a stylized way, expert opinion would no longer be such a powerful criterion for assessment. Experts would lose much control. Anderson was under no delusion; he wanted his readers to understand that for this very reason that self-interested actions of individuals can run amok:
      "But 'human nature is human nature,'" he wrote, 'Let one but announce the fact, as I do now, that this same 'mystery-man' placed his hidden signature and the date on every drawing and sketch that he ever made, and immediately there are cries of 'impossible, unreasonable, incredible,' and the like. Happily, however, this attitude of mind is assumed almost exclusively by a limited number who labour under the mistaken impression that because of such a discovery, their individual work and reputation are affected.'"[xl]

Of his fellow man Turner complained, "you cannot read me...go your ways." John Ruskin clarified this when he added: "There is something very strange and sorrowful in the way Turner used to hint only at these under meanings of his, leaving us to find them out, no word more ever came from him. Down to the grave he went, silent."


"It would be delusional to suspect that J. Wm Turner had forced us back to this area of the painting the following day for a closer inspection by mysteriously wafting the fingerprint flag off the painting with an otherworldly breeze, but what a romantic thought! Regardless of the fateful cause, again, this area was surveyed with great care.

The M for Mallord was not part of his earliest monogram, thus explaining its absence. It has even been suggested that Turner added Mallord to his name later on in deference to his mother’s side of the family. But in a Pall Mall Press publication of 1905, Hidden Treasures, its origin is better articulated, “He was christened William after his father, Mallord after his mother’s eldest brother, and Joseph after goodness knows whom.” [i] Some have even suggested he added Mallord as a play on words—“milord,” for satirical, albeit, aggrandizing reasons. The more one learns of Turner’s wry wit the more this sort of idea can be appreciated. 

                                                      Forum Romanum: un-deciphered letters
                                                          "added specially in small squares"

At this point, after discovering the letters on Shipwreck, the Rescue, a substantial effort was made to compare several of Turner’s signatures, monograms and inscriptions from a number of different sources. “Some letters have been inscribed down the left hand edge near the bottom, scratched into the wet paint, some of it apparently added specially in small squares.” [ii] This was Forum Romanum, and with this there was an even greater mystery, those letters are nonsensical.

At an earlier point Paul had studied this catalogue entry, and being someone who seldom forgets a pattern, or lets one go uninvestigated, he must have subconsciously given the configuration of paint blotches on the pier of Shipwreck, the Rescue a little closer attention. His already established mental image of such a conformation of letters in similar small squares must have made him more sensitive to such discrete markings.

In the Oxford Companion To J.M.W. Turner Martin Butlin agrees that: "illusionistic signatures and sometimes dates appear... The inscriptions were usually painted or drawn on the work, though occasionally they were scratched in the paint while it was still wet."

Only the JWT initials were used on this early letter to Turner's father. It is reproduced in the special Studio publication of 1903.


    With this poignant discovery and the suspicion of ultimate success, Peter Paul insisted, “
let us celebrate with a nice glass of red wine. Cheers

                                              Art World’s Dirty Little Secret

   fingerprint search: Forensics     Art/Science    Christie's   The Unknown Turner


[xxxi] Martin Butlin & Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, Evelyn Joll’s 1977 intro. Revised Edition, 1984), text vol., xix.

[xl] John Anderson, Jr., The Unknown Turner, (pub. John Anderson, printed by The Scribner Press, 1926), 70.

[i] B. P., Hidden Treasures at the National Gallery, A Selection of Studies and Drawings by J. M. W. Turner, (London: “Pall Mall” Press, Holborn, 1905), 71.

[ii] Martin Butlin & Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, Evelyn Joll’s 1977 intro. Revised Edition, 1984), text vol., 143.