Most of the information about Turner’s youth comes from his first biographer Walter Thornbury, who interviewed many people who knew the artist, but this is unfortunately a rather unreliable source. This article, based on research by Dr Tim Marshall and Dr Selby Whittingham, aims to correct some of the inaccurate information about the time Turner spent as a boy staying with his maternal uncle in Brentford, and to show how this influenced his later life. Many of his friends and associates first came into his life at this time.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, the great English landscape painter, was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden in April 1775, the son of a barber. The family was of modest means but Turner’s father had chosen a good place to establish his business right in the heart of London with the busy market, taverns, coffee houses and theatres nearby.
Interestingly it was also an area known for its connections to art. The homes of several well known artists were in the vicinity, along with print sellers and picture dealers. The Royal Academy was only just down the road at Somerset House and even the house where the family lived, and Turner’s father had his shop, had formerly been the premises of the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain and used as their school of drawing and painting. So the young Turner was growing up in a busy colourful area of London with the River Thames and its shipping only a few minutes’ walk from home, and the concept of Art in the form of pictures and prints on display in the shop windows all around.
Turner in Brentford
However, he was soon to become familiar with another reach of the same River Thames. His mother’s brother, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, after whom he was named, had moved to Brentford a few years earlier and, by the time his nephew was two years old, William had married Ann Haines of Hanwell and was established as a butcher in a house next to the White Horse public house in the Market Place.
Brentford was by no means a bad place to set up in business and despite the intense trade of the areas near the High Street and the river banks, the overall sense would have been of wide open spaces, all intensively cared for but nevertheless rural, whether cultivated for food or for the enjoyment of the rich. If one motive of Turner’s uncle or of his parents was to find some rural tranquillity, then this was in some degree a good place to come. Despite the noxiousness of several local industries, one could find genuinely far cleaner air and surroundings than farther east. No doubt Turner and his parents would often have visited Brentford over his years of growing up so when in about 1785, when he would have been about ten years old, he was sent to live there with his childless uncle and aunt he would not have been arriving in foreign territory.
Thornbury, quoting from a now lost manuscript by Edward Bell, an engraver who had known Turner, says this move was ‘in consequence of a fit of illness’ or ‘want of air’. He does not specify whose illness, it could have been Turner himself or more probably that of Turner’s mother, who suffered from bouts of insanity and died in an asylum in 1804. Some sources say that it was the illness of Turner’s sister Mary Anne, based on the fact that there is an entry in the burial register of St Paul’s Covent Garden recording the burial of a Mary Anne Turner from the parish of St Martin in the Fields on 20 March 1786. However there is an earlier entry in the register, for the burial of another Mary Anne Turner ‘daughter of William Turner’ on 8 August 1783, and this seems more likely to be Turner’s sister since she is obviously a child, with the correct father’s name and from the Turners’ parish.
The currently existing property on the site of Turner’s uncle’s house must have been rebuilt in the 19th century. It has now been absorbed into the pub – which has been renamed The Weir – and is called the Turner Bar. Thus it is not possible to guess the nature of the Marshalls’ accommodation, other than that it is described in the 1792 Survey of the Parish of New Brentford as ‘dwelling house, yard and sheds’. William Marshall first appears in the list of ratepayers in 1777. The rateable value of his house was initially £4 per annum, rising to £6 in 1782 and to £7 the following year, at which it remained until Marshall left the area in 1802. The rise in the early 1780s, two or three years before Turner came to live with them, probably indicates some improvements and rebuilding.
The property, along with those either side, was owned at this time by Abraham Harvest, a prominent brewer from Old Brentford, with property also in Brentford Butts and in adjoining parishes, according to the land tax records. At Harvest’s death in 1790 his property passed to his son in law, Abraham Trimmer. William Marshall’s landlord was therefore part of the Trimmer family, influential in the Brentford and Ealing area in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and with significant later connections to Turner. Whilst the activity of the Market Place was right at the front door, only round the corner from the pub was The Butts, the select development of houses for the wealthy created from the 1690s onwards, with the countryside beyond. At the back of the property was the Brent, probably not a very salubrious river, but nature in some shape was immediately to hand.
Turner’s uncle is described as a butcher in the Vestry records for 1787, the year when he served as one of the Overseers of the Poor, and in the Universal British Directory of 1793, but it is by no means clear that this meant retailing from the property. It is rather more likely that he was in wholesaling, using Brentford’s position on the main route to the west to buy up stock at good prices, and maintaining the links with central London butchers created during his apprenticeship to a butcher in the City of London. Along with a number of other centres around the edge of London, Brentford had long had a role in wholesaling, where such activities as the sale of cattle could take place with little fear of civic interference as it was well clear of the City authorities.
Thornbury says that while in Brentford Turner attended the school run by John White, consisting of 50 boys and 10 girls, near the Three Pigeons, a well known pub on the corner of the Market Place. Research in the lists of ratepayers has established that John White took over the school from the previous schoolmaster, Henry Harrington, in 1766; at that date it was based in one of nine houses in Boars Head Yard, and it was not until late 1787 that White moved to a larger property next to the Magpie and Stump in the High Street. This is the property identified as Turner’s school by Fred Turner in his book The History and Antiquities of Brentford, but it was probably a baker’s shop when Turner first came to live in Brentford. No pictures of the school building in Boars Head Yard survive.
According to Thornbury, recounting a story he had heard from the son of Henry Scott Trimmer, it was at the Brentford school that Turner’s talent first showed itself:
In his way to and from that seat of learning he amused himself by drawing with a piece of chalk on the walls the figures of cocks and hens. I have authority for this anecdote: it was told by Turner himself to my father.
We do not really know how long Turner stayed at the school; though the normal estimate is about one year, it could well have been longer. Joseph Farington, the landscape painter and diarist who was influential in the affairs of the Royal Academy (and no friend to Turner), wrote in his diary on 12 May 1803:
A Clergyman has complained of T[urner] neglecting an Uncle, a Butcher, who once supported him for 3 years. He has become Academical.
Among Turner’s fellow schoolmates were two sons of Sarah Trimmer, the educational reformer: John, who was about Turner’s age, and Henry Scott, who was three years younger. The Trimmers lived on the south side of the main road near Kew Bridge, near to the family’s flourishing brickworks. John was suffering from consumption, and Henry Scott and their older sister Elizabeth were also showing signs of the disease, so Sarah decided to take all three to Margate, hoping that they would benefit from the sea air. Several drawings of the Margate area by Turner survive, dating from about 1786: did Sarah take an interest in the young Turner and invite him to go with them to keep her children company, or, as Thornbury suggests, was he sent there to a school kept by Thomas Coleman, a Methodist preacher.
John Lees and the coloured book
The only other ‘definite’ anecdote connecting Turner with his stay in Brentford is that which describes how he coloured in some three quarters of the plates from a copy of a book published in November 1786, Henry Boswell’s Picturesque Views of the Antiquities of England and Wales, belonging to a certain John Lees. This would imply that he was still living with his uncle in Brentford in 1787. We are told (the original source of the anecdote is not clear, certainly it appears in Cosmo Monkhouse’s Dictionary of National Biography entry for Turner in the 1890s and has been repeated ever since) that Turner was paid two pence for each plate he coloured in. Maybe this was Turner’s first experience of the beauties of landscape and picturesque ruins, and also of the commercial possibilities of art as a career. His sensitive colouring of the skies prefigures his later interest in skies, clouds and light. It has been suggested that in later life his choice of places to visit on his sketching tours was influenced by the engravings he had studied and coloured as a child. Certainly when he joined with the engraver Charles Heath to produce a series of watercolours, which were then engraved and issued as Picturesque Views in England and Wales from 1827 onwards, over half of the views depicted were the same subjects as the views he had chosen to colour in as a boy.
Accounts say variously that John Lees, the commissioner of Turner’s first paid artwork, was a friend of Turner’s uncle, a gentleman of the town, and a distillery foreman. The name was clearly correct as the book was donated to Brentford public library in 1921 by Miss Elizabeth Lees, the grand daughter of John Lees. Research on Lees reveals a little more about him and his life. In 1786 Lees was a 31-year-old bachelor. Given his age he could have been a pupil at John White’s school. But there is no sign of earlier Lees families in the area, and so he may have arrived in the town more recently. There is in fact no evidence of his presence in Brentford at all until 1802-4, when his name appears as a ratepayer, somewhere near the Drum Lane (later called Ealing Road) corner with Brentford High Street, in Old Brentford. This was just after his marriage and it is likely that he set himself up in independent business then, so he might well have been a distillery foreman before that. It is possible that he worked for Thomas Cracknell, a distiller with three stills, who was a near neighbour, and a witness at his wedding. However, an alternative employer could have been David Roberts, the major industrialist of the area, distilling in association with others in Brentford since the 1760s. The link here is that when Roberts’ widow died in 1798 ‘John Lees of Brentford Gentleman’ had to confirm the authenticity of her will, which had been witnessed by Sarah Trimmer, by swearing that he had known Mrs Roberts for years and that this was her handwriting. So Lees evidently knew the Roberts family well, who were in turn very close to the Trimmers.
Turner’s early training
After his sojourn in Brentford Turner returned to his parents’ home in Covent Garden and started working for the architect Thomas Hardwick the Younger, son of the New Brentford mason and builder of the same name. Hardwick had been commissioned to repair St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, the church where Turner’s parents had been married, and Turner himself baptised. However, Hardwick soon realised that the rigid discipline of architectural draughtsmanship was stifling the young man’s creativity, and Thornbury says that he was told by the architect’s son Philip, who became another of Turner’s long standing friends that:
Mr [Thomas] Hardwick…not desiring to enslave the boy for seven years…went to Hand Court and informed the barber [his father] …that the boy was too clever and too imaginative to be tied down to severe science. He recommended him to be sent as a student to the Royal Academy, for the purpose of qualifying himself for the profession of an artist.
Turner’s father, who had earlier encouraged his son’s talent by hanging small examples of his watercolour drawings round the entrance door of his shop ‘ticketed at prices varying from one shilling to three’, is reported to have told one of his clients proudly ‘My son is going to be a painter’. Turner was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy School in December 1789, after the usual term on probation sketching from plaster casts.
Turner and the Thames
However, the western reaches of the Thames never lost their attraction for Turner, and on later visits to the area he enjoyed going on sketching trips along the river. One of his earliest drawings, of Isleworth church from the river in 1789, was made into a watercolour for Thomas Hardwick. In 1805 he returned and rented Syon Ferry House on the river bank at Isleworth. He spent the summer sailing a small boat along the Thames, sketching the scenes along the river banks, fishing and writing poetry, and visiting his friend Henry Scott Trimmer, who was by then Vicar of Heston. He later bought a plot of land in Twickenham, near the river, and in 1812-13 he designed and built a small villa for himself and his father, originally called Solus Lodge, and subsequently Sandycombe Lodge. Turner lived on or near the banks of the Thames most of his life, and died at his cottage in Cheyne Walk in 1851 within sight of the river he loved.
Turner’s Brentford friends
Turner’s friends and associates included many whom he first met in Brentford; when he lived with his uncle and aunt he would have become part of their circle of friends and neighbours, and would have met the families of his schoolmates. The Rev Henry Scott Trimmer, whom he first met at Mr White’s school, remained a lifelong friend and was also one of his executors. The Hardwick family were probably friends of Turner’s uncle: Thomas (1725-98), the stonemason and builder, owned property on the north side of the High Street, just east of Brentford Bridge near William Marshall’s house; Turner worked for a short time as an architectural draughtsman for his son Thomas (1752-1829) and painted several watercolours for him. Thomas’s son Philip became a friend and was also one of Turner’s executors. Another local family with Turner connections were the Cobbs: the brothers William and Hewett Cobb were market gardeners at Brentford End. Hewett’s son, also called Hewett, became Turner’s solicitor, and after he died in 1822 his nephew George Cobb took over looking after Turner’s legal affairs; George said he had known Turner for forty years, so this was not just a business arrangement. Turner also visited and kept in touch with his uncle William Marshall in Brentford, and later when Marshall retired to Sunningwell near Oxford in 1802. Marshall’s first wife Ann died in 1798 and is buried in St Lawrence’s churchyard in Brentford. He then married Ann’s younger sister Mary. Marshall died in 1820 and was buried at Sunningwell, not at Brentford as some sources wrongly state. Turner inherited a third of his uncle’s estate, and looked after the interests of his aunt Mary and her sister, who were his uncle’s other beneficiaries.
Thus Brentford and the people he met there played an important role in Turner’s life.
Thombury, Walter, The Life of J M W Turner, RA, 2nd edition, 1897; Whittingham, Selby Brentford to Oxford, 2010; Chiswick Library Local Studies Collection: New Brentford parish records, including vestry minutes, poor rate books and the 1792 Survey; John Lees’ copy of Boswell’s Picturesque Views of the Antiquities of England and Wales which is now kept at Chiswick Library – appointments to view it should be made through the Local Studies Librarian
The Editor wishes to thank Dr Tim Marshall, who has extensively researched Turner’s local connections and particularly the life of Turner’s uncle William Marshall, and Dr Selby Whittingham, the Secretary of the Independent Turner Society, for generously allowing her to base this article on their research material.