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1809 Turner's Failure

The year 1809 was set to be the most successful yet in the extraordinary career of J.M.W. Turner. Since first winning the attention of the London art world in the 1790s, Turner’s prodigious achievements had played out on the reviews pages of the capital’s newspapers and journals as much as on the walls of its burgeoning exhibition spaces. For more than a decade, his paintings had been anticipated, admired, revered, and rebuked—but never ignored—by a generation of critics more determined than ever to pronounce on matters of public taste.

Turner’s selection for this year’s Exhibition included the kind of paintings that the Royal Academy audience had come to expect from an artist at the height of his powers. The largest, an oversized canvas called Spithead: Boat’s crew recovering an anchor, had been previewed at Turner’s own gallery the year before and was now judged to be “one of the most perfect performances in the Exhibition” by The London Chronicle. And a pair of lakeside views of Tabley, the Cheshire seat of Sir John Leicester, represented the latest in a succession of lucrative private commissions that had assured the artist’s financial independence.1

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Together, these works confirmed the artist’s reputation as Britain’s foremost painter of land and sea—an artist whose closest rivals were no longer to be found on the walls of the Great Room at Somerset House, but among the most highly prized Old Masters of the previous two centuries. For one reviewer, Spithead put its maker within reach of becoming “the first marine painter in the world”, alongside Ludolf Backhuysen and Claude-Joseph Vernet, and those atmospheric views of Tabley evoked a rural idyll to rival Aelbert Cuyp.2

Why, then, should Turner choose to send a fourth painting to the Academy Exhibition in 1809—a small, uneventful picture on the theme of creative and commercial failure? The Garreteer’s Petition is painted with a muted, brown palette on a repurposed wooden panel, previously covered with a layer of ordinary house paint (Fig. 1).3 It is among the least characteristic and most easily overlooked of the artist’s Academy pictures.

A solitary poet catches our gaze as he toils through the night. He clutches a manuscript in one hand, outstretched, and in the other a pen, poised over an inkwell. Recalling the urban attic inhabited by William Hogarth’s Distrest Poet (ca. 1736), the shadowed interior of Turner’s painting is furnished with a range of Hogarthian motifs that animate the poet’s plight: a plan and elevation of Mount Parnassus hangs lopsided above the door; a cat sharpens its claws on the bare floorboards; and a broken clock on the wall inscribed “Tempus Fugit” no longer counts the hours. But Turner was more generous than Hogarth in his recognition of the poet’s fruitless labour. Conflating his own creative persona with that of his subject, he gave a voice to the beleaguered poet with one of his own early efforts in verse, written for the Exhibition catalogue:

Aid me, ye Powers! O bid my thoughts to roll
In quick succession, animate my soul;
Descend my Muse, and every thought refine,
And finish well my long, my long-sought line.

And there is something about the poet in Turner’s painting: a pose that resembles the dying Caesar; or is it a thespian in the role, eking out his final moments on stage?

Needless to say, the Garreteer’s Petition was not received well by the critics. The Morning Post found “little either of invention or expression” in the picture, and excepting some small admiration for the figure of the poet, “nothing original in the composition”.4 But the most pointed criticism came from The London Chronicle, whose correspondent rebuked the artist for choosing a subject entirely at odds with his own elevated circumstances, and even gave the afflicted poet an alternative voice to admonish the “presumptuous, proud R.A.” for interrupting his labours and spoiling “the tadpole of a thought.”5

The critics’ efforts to call Turner to account over the Garreteer’s Petition followed the lukewarm reception in the previous year of the artist’s Unpaid Bill, another contemporary interior scene, painted for Richard Payne Knight and set in the unlikely surroundings of a dentist’s studio.6 In both cases, the reason for the reviewers’ antipathy was clear: by straying from the landscapes and coastal views for which he was universally renowned, Turner had trespassed into a genre in which he had no business. The London Chronicle pressed the issue in 1809:

why should he wantonly and improvidently leave his own beaten course of honour, to wander in another, where his qualifications may often be contested, or to squat himself uninvited in an orchestra, where he can only play a very subordinate violin?7

The artist to whom Turner could only play second fiddle was David Wilkie, who had thrilled the London art world since his arrival from Fife four years earlier with a succession of finely detailed contemporary, everyday subjects, powerfully described by one writer in the run-up to the 1809 Exhibition as “the EPIC of common life”.8 But if the epic nature of Wilkie’s success exemplified the entrepreneurial ethos of the modern exhibition room, his disarming attention to detail, and the earthy appeal his paintings so readily shared with seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish low-life subjects, visibly owed nothing to the Academy’s teaching.

In 1809, Wilkie’s continued prominence at Somerset House was assured not only by his own offerings, Rent Day and the newly completed Cut Finger, but also by a new portrait of the artist exhibited by the veteran Academician William Beechey (Fig. 2). Beechey’s generous portrait embodied Wilkie’s meteoric success (and neatly conveyed the anticipation his work aroused) by representing the young Scotsman with a handful of new brushes and an empty canvas; well dressed and unaffected, his tousled red hair preserving what his first biographer called a “country air”.9

The youthful optimism of Beechey’s portrait is a far cry from Turner’s dishevelled garreteer. Yet, from different angles within the Great Room, both paintings acknowledged Wilkie’s disruptive brilliance. While Beechey announced Wilkie as an Academician in waiting (he was duly elected ARA later that same year), Turner gave way to his younger rival with a recalcitrant image of artistic failure in what would be his final foray into Wilkie’s interior domain. But he didn’t leave without a parting gesture to the critics and connoisseurs who had dared to presume what he should, and should not, paint.

A preparatory drawing for the Garreteer’s Petition indicates that Turner imagined the painting’s critical rejection all along. Among a handful of inscriptions across the page, the artist identified the fragments of paper strewn across the floor (clearly visible in the final painting) not as a discarded draft of the poet’s elusive composition, but as “Reviews torn upon [the] Floor.”10

When the Exhibition opened in May 1809, the cat-and-mouse between Turner and his critics resumed. It was with a theatrical sigh of relief that the correspondent for The London Chronicle turned from the “sickly and inadequate” Garreteer to the repose of the Tabley landscapes, and happily reported that the artist was once more “as he ought to be, at home”.11 But by repeatedly resisting Turner’s efforts to wander “uninvited” from his own “beaten course”—by forcing the question “why should he?”—the assembled reviewers failed to notice that the painter had already torn the disparaging notices they were about to write into dozens of tiny pieces.

  1. The London Chronicle, 4 May 1809. Spithead had been shown at Turner’s Harley Street gallery in 1808 with a more provocative title alluding to the British bombardment of Copenhagen and capture of Danish fleet in 1807. See Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised edn (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984).↩︎

  2. The London Chronicle, 4 May 1809.↩︎

  3. Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner.↩︎

  4. The Morning Post, 8 May 1809.↩︎

  5. The London Chronicle, 4 May 1809.↩︎

  6. Criticism of the Unpaid Bill centred on the perceived weakness of Turner’s figures, which Robert Hunt (otherwise a champion of Turner’s painting) called “wretchedly drawn”; The Examiner, 15 May 1808.↩︎

  7. The London Chronicle, 4 May 1809. The reviewer’s musical analogy was an indirect allusion to Wilkie’s Blind Fiddler, exhibited at the Academy in 1807.↩︎

  8. [Francis Ludlow Holt], “The Arts”, Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 9 April 1809. Wilkie’s importance (and Holt’s evocative response to it) are explored in depth by David Solkin in Painting Out of the Ordinary: Modernity and the Art of Everyday Life in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), esp. Chapter 2. See also David H. Solkin, “Crowds and Connoisseurs: Looking at Genre Painting at Somerset House,” in David H. Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780–1830 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), esp. 160–166.↩︎

  9. Allan Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie, 3 vols (London: John Murray, 1843), Vol. 3, 476.↩︎

  10. For the drawing, see For a valuable discussion of this and a related drawing, The Artist’s Studio, see Andrew Wilton, Painting and Poetry: Turner’s Verse Book and his Work of 1804–1812 (London: Tate, 1990), esp. 132–133.↩︎

  11. The London Chronicle, 4 May 1809.↩︎

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