Turner’s London

A young painter looks out from the new Bank of England £20 note (1), J.M.W. Turner’s striking self-portrait at the age of 25, painted in 1800 (Tate Britain). London has changed dramatically since then, but much of the 19th-century city remains, and his paintings are displayed in buildings that he knew well.

Turner was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden (2), an area which still retains some of the old street patterns, alleys and courts. The house, where his father carried out his barber’s trade, is now gone, a plaque marking the spot. Nearby in the heart of Covent Garden Market stands handsome St Paul’s Church (3), where his parents were married, Turner was baptised and his father was buried. Turner placed a memorial plaque to his parents there in 1832.

The houses where Turner lived in the town have been demolished or are in private hands, but on the outskirts of London, rural in Turner’s time, there is a remarkable survival, Sandycombe Lodge in Twickenham (4), close to the Thames which inspired many of his paintings. Here, Turner became his own architect, and this delightful house, recently conserved, is now open to the public.

Turner was a prodigy, attending the Royal Academy Schools from the age of 14, when the Academy was housed at Somerset House, in the Strand. Turner’s work was displayed in the great exhibition room, for the famous Summer Exhibitions. While still in his teens, Turner made his first sales and the ledgers at the Bank of England (5) in the heart of the City of London record his financial transactions. The Bank was designed by the great architect John Soane, who became Turner’s close friend. Although much modified, something of Soane’s original intentions can still be seen in ‘Tivoli Corner’ at the junction of Princes Street and Lothbury.

Turner was a frequent visitor to Soane’s London house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (6), where his paintings for the Soanes still hang.

One of Turner’s early watercolours was of Westminster Abbey. Many years later, in 1834, the old Houses of Parliament caught fire, and Turner joined the milling crowd on Westminster Bridge to capture the great conflagration in paint.
Much of Turner’s youth was overshadowed by the Napoleonic Wars, finally concluded in 1815. Turner would have seen the statue of Nelson installed (1843) in Trafalgar Square, in front of the National Gallery. Turner played a significant part in the founding of the Gallery as an important centre for the display of art for the public, and some of his major works, which he bequeathed to the nation, are displayed here. The star is the famous ‘Fighting’ Temeraire of 1838, which appears in the background of the new £20 note. The Temeraire was an English battleship from the Napoleonic wars, a painting which Turner called his ‘darling’, and such ships appear in many of Turner’s dramatic marine pictures (7).

Many other paintings from Turner’s magnificent bequest are on display at Tate Britain, built decades after his death.

The fashionable West End grew in Turner’s lifetime. His daughter Evelina, by his mistress Sarah Danby, was married at St James’s Church  – Turner did not attend! Many of his patrons lived in this area, where art dealers also flourished. Burlington Arcade was constructed in 1819 to provide a covered shopping area. He would have known the Haymarket Theatre and the clubs of St James’s, where he was a member of the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall (8). And nearby at this time the Prince Regent’s great scheme for Regent Street and Regent’s Park was underway, close to Turner’s now-demolished lodgings and studio in Marylebone.

Turner’s London bustled with life, art and commerce, and changed much during his own time. Turner died at the close of 1851, and on a cold December day he was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral (9), a fitting resting place for this greatest of English painters.


Images of J.M. Gandy’s watercolours of Sir John Soane’s House in Lincoln’s Inn Fields courtesy of Sir John Soane’s Museum


This article has been compiled by Turner’s House Trust to link to the Bank of England Museum’s exhibition


November 15 2019 – July 31 2020

Bartholomew Lane, London EC2R 8AH – https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/museum


Turner’s House, 40 Sandycoombe Road, Twickenham TW1 2LR – http://www.turnershouse.org

Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP – www.soane.org

National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN – https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk

Tate Britain, Millbank, Westminster, London SW1P 4RG – https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain

The Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD – https://www.royalacademy.org.uk

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN – http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery

Turner Society – http://www.turnersociety.com

May 10, 2016