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Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851)

Turner's Brentford years and his first commission

Joseph Mallord William Turner was an artist who aroused strong feelings in people in his day as he developed new techniques in painting. His dazzling effects of light and colour brought about a revolution in painting and, as a child, he spent some years in Brentford.

He was born in Covent Garden, the son of William Turner, barber and wig maker, and Mary Marshall (the couple married at Saint Paul, Covent Garden, Westminster in 1773). Turner was baptised in the same church on 14 May 1775 and was named after his mother's brother, Joseph Mallord William Marshall.

When Turner was ten years old, his mother was ill and he was sent to Brentford to live with his uncle William Marshall, a butcher who lived in a cottage in the Market Place next door to the White Horse Public House. A later house on the site is now incorporated into the pub which is now called The Weir.

He attended Mr John White’s school, Boars Head Yard (1).

Turner become known then for his artistic abilities with stories being told of him chalking pictures on walls as well as his abilities in school.

At the age of 10 he was paid for some of his work. John Lees, a foreman at the Brentford Distillery, paid him 2d per picture to colour some of the engravings in his copy of Picturesque Views of England and Wales by Henry Boswell that had been published in 1776. This book describes and illustrates landmarks around the country and the young Turner water coloured several pictures for Mr Lees. This is acknowledged by the Dictionary of National Biography as his first paid commission. The Lees family presented the book to Brentford Library in the early 1920s and so it found its way into the ownership of the London Borough of Hounslow.

During this period Turner became a lifelong friend of Henry Scott Trimmer, a younger son of Sarah Trimmer. Henry Scott Trimmer later became vicar of St Leonard’s Church in Heston where Turner visited him on many occasions and later appointed him as one of his executors. Some of Turner’s biographers say that from Brentford he was sent to school in Margate as he produced some drawings there about 1786, however James Hamilton in his book Turner. A Life suggests that he went there with Sarah Trimmer when she took Henry Scott and two other of her children who were suffering from consumption for fresh sea air.


The Royal Academy years

On returning to live with his father Turner was accepted as a pupil at the Royal Academy School when he was 13 years of age. His initial training was as an architectural draughtsman and this architectural training can be seen in his adult painting.

When he was 15 years old he submitted a View of the Archbishop’s Palace at Lambeth to the Royal Academy. Later he travelled and painted around the north of England under the patronage of Viscount Lascelles the elder son of the 1st Earl of Harewood. During this trip he produced nearly 200 closely observed sketches and became a member of the Royal Academy aged 27.

Turner in Isleworth

Between 1805 and 1806 he lived at Ferry House in Isleworth and sketched and painted scenes along the Thames and around Syon. He then moved to Hammersmith for a short period and later bought land in St Margarets and had Sandycombe Lodge built as a home for his father until he became too frail to take care of himself. There are stories of Turner Senior buying household supplies from Brentford Market and also taking lifts from traders there when he needed to travel to London when he was looking after Turner’s gallery in Queen Anne Street in Westminster.

Turner also kept in touch with his uncle, the Brentford butcher, William Marshall who on his death in 1820 left property in Wapping to Turner and his cousin. It appears that Turner was responsible for the administration of the annuity that was payable to William Marshall’s widow Mary.


Later years

In later life he seems to have been an eccentric man living two lives. In his public life he was a famous artist of prolific genius with a skill to paint in many styles. In the private one he lived under assumed names in Margate and Chelsea.

When he died in 1851 he left more than 19,000 pieces of work. Following a decision of the Court of Chancery these works were handed to the nation and, when not on loan, many of them are now housed in the Clore Wing at Tate Britain.

The Dictionary of National Biography says .... ‘indistinctness was his forte’ ‘no landscape painter has equalled Turner in range, in imagination or subliminity. His technique in oils was unsound but in watercolours he was supreme: in oils his dexterity was such that he obtained unrivalled effects in that medium.’



The Dictionary of National Biography
Turner in Brentford by Andrea Cameron ALA (article)
Turner at Twickenham by Mordechai Omer (article)
Turner. Painting the Nation by Julius Bryant. English Heritage 1996
Turner A Life by James Hamilton. Hodder and Stoughton 1997
Dr Selby Whittingham, correspondence by email 2009
Brentford to Oxford: J.M.W.Turner's early career under the guardianship of his uncle J.M.W. Marshall, by Dr Selby Whittingham, 2010 (more details and order form)

Original Research

1. John White lived in Boars Head Yard from 1766 - 1787 before moving to a High Street property (Carolyn Hammond & Janet McNamara, from searches of New Brentford Poor Rate records at Chiswick Library)
2. Wilkes' Universal British Directory, Vol. 2, published 1797 includes 'John White, Schoolmaster & Coal-merchant, Brentford'

Web sites

J.M.W. Turner journal devoted to Turner's international place in the arts, to John Ruskin, and to the support of the Committee for the Instatement of Turner's Gallery. Editors : Selby Whittingham and Robert Walmsley

The Tate includes the current location of 2000 of his works (use site search 'Turner Worldwide').

The Friends of Turner's House at Twickenham.


Janet McNamara


Published July 2009; updated August 2017