J.M.W Turner RA, arguably our greatest landscape painter, was born a Georgian - an era when attitudes to sex and marriage were perhaps at their most liberal in modern history. But when he died in 1851 a different set of Victorian attitudes prevailed. By then many considered it scandalous that England's most eminent artist ended his days living with a woman to whom he was not married. Turner's friends and colleagues attempted to conceal the fact he passed away in the modest Chelsea home he had been sharing with his one time Margate landlady Sophia Booth. However, gradually the news got out and invited expressions of disgust at Turner's sordid domestic arrangements. Public denouncements of Turner's propriety at the time of his death undoubtedly influenced the reaction to news, some years later, that a stash of erotica had been discovered amongst his work.
Rumours about Turner's inappropriate domestic arrangements began almost immediately after his death. Elhanan BicknelI, a man who had been a patron of Turner’s before the two fell out in the 1840’s, enjoyed spreading the gossip about the artists disgrace when he was not invited to the painter's funeral. Bicknell “is angry not being asked to funeral” John James Ruskin (father of the famous art critic John) wrote straight afterwards. “He or others speak openly of his (Turner) having died in a Hovel at Chelsea where he had a Woman”.
By early January 1852 the story of Turner's life in Chelsea finally reached the press, though in a comically santised and partially fictional form. A syndicated piece appeared across a range of newspapers, reporting that: “ Some ten days ago a man who had resided in a squalid lodging, in a squalid part of what at best is squalid Chelsea, was taken seriously ill. His name as far as the owner of the house knew anything of this, was Booth…. Then it was discovered the man – who seemed to shun the world, who spent little and lived upon less, and one who lived not at all in a condition of one who enjoyed means - was none other than the semi-deity Mr Ruskin’s Turner!”
A week later another article appeared offering a slightly different version of events.“ ..Mr Turner died in obscure lodging in Chelsea …he was living under an assumed name. The story is as follows. He loved retirement and entertained a peculiar dislike to having his lodging known…… he saw board and lodging to his liking, asked the price, found them cheap… but the landlady wanted a reference.
‘ I will buy your house outright my good woman' was the reply somewhat angrily. Then an agreement was struck – met by an exhibition of bank notes and sovereigns ….an offer which proved satisfactory. The artists’ difficulties were not however over. The landlady wanted the lodger’s name....’Name, Name’ he muttered in his usual gruff manner. ‘ What is your name?’ ‘My name is Mrs Brook.’ ‘Then I am Mr Brook’.”
In both versions the sexual commitment to the landlady in question is completely ignored, and as such something of the perceived shame around the arrangement was diminished in favour of a portrayal of eccentricity. It was perhaps the best that the executors of Turner's estate, who were attempting to manage his reputation, could do with a press determined to say something about the intrigue.
However, what moral rope these pantomime version of events gave Turner, was limited. The story continued to unfold, and as it did the memory that the nation held of the painter, continued to distort. Gradually a caricature of the artist grew: a dodgy old man, living in a shady part of town, with a woman of dubious morals.
Turner’s sexual shame came up again in the later 1850’s, as his executors worried their way through the piles of material in his studio at Queen Anne St. It was John Ruskin who took on the onerous but fascinating job of cataloguing all Turner’s 30,000 odd works on paper. And it was he who, in the winter of 1857, discovered Turner’s erotic drawings. It was a find that the prevailing moral climate in Victorian Britain could not accommodate. Packaging them up and labelling them as work worth keeping for postertity only “as evidence of the failure of mind”, Ruskin went on to claim that he burned the offending material with the assistance of Ralph Wornum who was the Keeper of the National Gallery.
Despite this claim a package of erotica survived. Amid the thousands of works produced by the artist, his extant erotic drawings made up the merest tiny fraction, far less that one percent. Neverthless the prescence of the package loomed disproportionately large in a C19th where sex, shame and apparently mental deterioration were intrinsicly linked.
In July 1861 Henry Lennox MP felt moved to mention the ‘prurient’ work of the artist as part of a select committee meeting at the House of Lords, which was examining the future of the Turner Collection that the artist had bequeathed to the nation.
It must have been with some weariness that Sir Charles Eastlake, Director of the National Gallery, batted the question away by noting he had not examined the package in question since it was marked ‘not fit for general inspection’. But it was with real outrage that Turner’s friend, the seventy five year old artist George Jones, wrote to Lennox to point out that :
“Very few drawings in the enormous collection by Turner can bear the character your Lordship describes as ‘prurient’ and whether they were executed by him is uncertain, they bear much character of French works with colouring I admit similar to that of the deceased great artist, and of those the greater part seem to belong to surgery or natural history.
I was most intimate friend of JMW Turner RA during twenty five years, and although he was in the habit of shewing me all he did, I never saw a work of his hand of the character described”.
Today we can look afresh at the erotica - no longer hidden away - and make our own judgement about its value. In my opinion, some of the works are exceptionally beautiful, delicate and tender. Others, darker in every sense of the word. They reveal an artist sometimes coolly scientific in his observation of the female body, at other times delighting in it, and also, often, responding to it in a uniquely imaginative manner. Dr Jacqueline Riding and I have selected ten works from Tate and these are now on show at Turner's own home in Twickenham. I recommend you go and make your own mind up about this little seen aspect of Turner's work.