Correspondence Turner letter JMW Turner letters John Gage Collected Correspondence of                                                  JMW Turner the source
                          The following letters are recent discoveries and are not found in John Gage's Collected
                                     Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner
, (Clarendon Press – Oxford, 1980)    

                         reference    Art World’s Dirty Little Secret
                                                                                        r malcolm setters / graham setters

"Turner's journeys at home and abroad were frequent and extensive. Unfortunately few itineraries survive. The best records of course are his sketches en-route and the limited number of his letters that survive. The following are newly discovered examples showing the artist’s exuberant writing style. They somewhat contradict Philip Hamerton, who in his Life of J.M.W. Turner R.A. 1879 contends that Turner was lacking social graces, and that he was remiss when it came to answering dinner invitations.

                                                                            Previously unrecorded letter from J.M.W. Turner to (possibly) Sir Francis Graham Moon,

                                                                                 a leading print-seller and publisher who became Lord Mayor of
London in 1854.

                                                 To Samuel Rogers
Hanover Terrace                                                  To Clara Wheeler    

Turner’s first two biographers, Thornbury and Hamerton both confirm the dearth of Turner correspondence. Thornbury writes, “I append here a batch of letters, trifling enough, but valuable, because Turner’s letters are scarce,”[i] and Hamerton; “Of Turner’s correspondence very little is in existence.” In turn Hamerton condescendingly mocks Turner’s literacy: “Like most uneducated men, he disliked letter-writing, and he carried this dislike to a degree involving positive discourtesy to others.”[ii]

 How can Hamerton so confidently declare Turner discourteous? There may have been the odd recorded faux pas made by the preoccupied and possibly forgetful artist, but many such letters, as the ones included here may have been lost or destroyed. We know from Thornbury that the son of Rev. Trimmer, Turner’s close friend and one with whom he often corresponded, burned many of the artist’s letters. There is also the odd twist to Turner’s attitude toward the letters he received; “It is said that letters used to remain unopened on Turner’s table for months. ‘They only want my autograph,’ he used to say.”[iii]

 To challenge Hamerton on this point: although Turner was not Oxford or Cambridge educated, he was educated, and had a curiosity of mind that took him beyond language— into the theater of poetry. Alas, here again, Hamerton has only criticism. Turner’s father was pleased with the “edycation” he was able to afford for his son in those times that few but the elite were formally educated. In 1885 Rev. S.A. Swaine wrote, “considering the number and kinds of schools the boy was put to, no doubt, according to barber Turner’s notions, he had received a good education, especially when it is remembered what the condition of education was in those days. It is true that to the end of his life the great artist could neither spell correctly, nor write grammatical English; but then many others who presumably and professedly have received a good education, have to these two things been woefully weak…Let the dull boys and the dull girls, as they may be pronounced, take heart of grace. Their dullness in one direction may be but the reverse side of genius in another.”[iv]

In keeping with this sentiment there seems to be no argument that Turner had genius. The son of Rev. Trimmer, Turner’s eldest executor, had a special fondness for the normally taciturn artist. He probably knew him very well, for Turner at times played the surrogate father, taking him on sketching trips. Many years later Trimmer wrote: “Though not polished, he was not vulgar. In common with many men of genius, he had not a good flow of words, and when heated in argument got confused.”[v]

Perhaps the secretive and aloof Turner gained catharsis through puzzling prose. We are often reminded that his Cockney accent was unacceptable to the average nineteenth century aesthete—such animosity might make the hardiest of souls dumb, including Turner, but what about his ability to release his innermost sensibilities?

“I trembled wak’d, and for a season after

 Could not believe, but that I was in hell.

       Such terrible impression made my dream. 


“Summer will shed her many blossoms fair

 and Shield the trembling strings in noon tide ray

 While ever and anon the dulcet air

 Will rapturous thrill then sighing sweets decay.

Now, these could either be the confused Turner on a bad day or the lucid Shakespeare on a good one; here it is left to the Shakespeare, or Turner scholar to differentiate. Could these excerpts be leading up to the Fallacies of Hope by Turner, or are they poetic dialogue from Shakespeare? In fact one quote is from Turner’s verse book and one is from Shakespeare’s King Richard the Third. “At times it was difficult to know what Turner meant, but the indistinctness of his thoughts, like the indistictness of his pictures, always indicated either greatness or beauty.”[vii]

According to Ruskin: “To put plain text into rhyme and metre is easy; not so to write a passage which every time it is remembered shall suggest a new train of thought, a new subject of delighted dream. It is this mystic secrecy of beauty which is the seal of the highest art, which only opens itself to close observation and long study. I have been ten years learning to understand Turner…”[viii] This continuum of thought seems to implicate Turner’s poetry as an extention of great art. His poetry is seldom constrained by “ease of rhyme and metre,” but certainly availes itself to “mystic secrecy,” as, apparently, it did to Ruskin’s own need for enchantment.

      With opportunity and encouragement, if the pages of Virgil were splayed before a curious youth, it matters not if the receptive mind is installed at day school New Brentford as was Turner, or Eton in the shadow of Windsor Castle. Although it is impossible to ascertain at this point, but Turner might even have been dyslexic; he was certainly a visual learner, which is often an indicator of this state. Regardless of his outward manifestations and innermost riddles, according to Rev. S.A Swaine, one must nevertheless appreciate Turner for his humanity. And this of course can be instilled anywhere:

 'Turner was as merciful an angler as even the pious and humane father of the craft could have desired. He would impale the devoted worm ‘as tenderly as he loved him’”… and according to a regular fishing companion, “his success as an angler was great, although with the worst of tackle in the world. Every fish he caught he showed to me, and appealed to me to decide whether the size justified him to keep it for the table, or return it to the river; his hesitation was often most touching, and he always gave the prisoner at the bar the benefit of the doubt.

Text Box: The way in which a man treats his inferior fellow-creatures is an index to his heart.
'A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast,” say the Scriptures, and certainly the way in which a man treats his inferior fellow-creatures is an index to his heart.'[ix]



Turner was not entirely oblivious to his own shortcomings. In an 1845 letter to Charles Robert Cockerell, he begs pardon from his wife: “I beg her pardon for being so disorderly and deserve expulsion.” Again, in Turner’s own hand:

                                                                                                           J.M.W. Turner: a letter to Charles Robert Cockerell
                                                                                                               from the summer of 1845 (previously unrecorded).

                                                                      Turner bibliography    new JMW Turner self-portrait


[i] Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, (Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, London, 1862), vol. 2, 228.

[ii] Philip Gilbert Hamerton, Life of J.M.W. Turner R.A., (University Press: John Wilson & Son, Cambridge, 1879), 144.

[iii] Walter Thornbury, Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., (Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, London, 1862), vol. 2, 152.

[iv] Rev. S.A. Swaine, Turner the Artist, (Cassell & Company, Limited: London, Paris, New York, Melbourne, 1885), 9-10.

[v] Walter Thornbury, Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., (Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, London, 1862), vol. 1, 178.

[vi] Ibid. vol. 2, 265.

[vii] George Jones; John Gage, ed., Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, (Clarendon Press – Oxford, 1980), 7.

[viii] John Ruskin, Letters to a College Friend, (MacMillan & Co., New York; and George Allen, London, 1894), 89.

[ix] Rev. S.A. Swaine, Turner the Artist, (Cassell & Company, Limited: London, Paris, New York, Melbourne, 1885), 48.