London History Bulletin – December 30

The great British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner was laid to rest on December 30, 1851. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I’ll be in the National Gallery later today. I go there on this day – December 30th – every year. For me, it’s the pivot point for this day of days. I suppose you could say it’s my own personal pilgrimage.

I’ll be in Rooms 34 and 36. Looking at the Turners. 

Going there today, I’m marking an occasion. Joseph Mallord William Turner – by my lights the greatest British painter of them all – was laid to rest on this day, December 30th, 1851. He was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. Very near to his mentor, Joshua Reynolds.

That fulfilled Turner’s request. He said, “I want to be buried among my brothers in Art.”

The painting I will commune the most with is The Fighting Temeraire. With good reason.

Joseph Mallord William Turner died on December 19th. Turner died in a small house by the Thames in Chelsea. He’d acquired the house in 1846 and moved in with his mistress, Sophie Booth. That phrase – his mistress – probably needs a bit of tinkering with. Otherwise it’s misleading. Turner never married. Sophia Booth – twice-widowed Sophia Booth – had been his Margate landlady. They developed a relationship. I don’t think it was a torrid love affair – basically she looked after Turner. Looked after Admiral Booth as he was known to the neighbours. Turner was keen to protect his privacy. To be incognito.

They’d fitted the house up with a roof terrace for sky-viewing and sun-staring, to use Turner’s parlance. 

At the end, though, Turner was bed-bound. His doctor had told him a few days before that his life was fast ebbing. Turner said, so I am to become a non-entity, am I?” The doctor confirmed as much and Turner looked him in the eye and said,  “had you not better take a glass of sherry?”

Turner hated the winter. The dark and gloom oppressed him terribly. So here we’re into the realm of things being timed to perfection. Turner, who was obsessed with the sun, who worshipped the sun, died just before the winter solstice, died, you could say, when the sun died.

On the morning of his death, just before 9 am, “the sun burst forth and shone directly on him with that brilliancy which he loved to gaze on.” Or so we’re told by Dr William Bartlett, who was in attendance. 

Just moments afterwards, Turner was no more. His last words – his famous last words – “the sun is God.”

Thinking of Turner’s death has to put you in mind, it seems to me, of Yeats’ death. Also in the dead of winter, though a few weeks later. Yeats died on January 28th, 1939. 

Auden immortalised Yeats’ passing in his poem, In Memory of W. B. Yeats. What Auden said, nearly a century later, about Yeats’ passing was equally applicable to Turner’s death. 

Let’s hear a couple of those lines.

He disappeared in the dead of winter:

The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,

And snow disfigured the public statues;

The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.

What instruments we have agree

The day of his death was a dark cold day.

…For him it was his last afternoon as himself,

An afternoon of nurses and rumours;

The provinces of his body revolted,

The squares of his mind were empty,

Silence invaded the suburbs,

The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Well, it was Turner’s last morning as himself…and he became his admirers.

His body was taken to his house in Queen Anne Street. Yes, Turner had two houses. He died a very wealthy man. In today’s money his estate was worth something like 18 million pounds.

There was a gallery in the Queen Anne Street House. His body lay in state there. Until the December 30th funeral.

And now let’s get me to the National Gallery, to Room 34, to The Fighting Temeraire. 

The painting shows the much loved old 98-gun HMS Temeraire, one of the last ships of the line to have played a role in  the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed up the Thames by a steam tug to its final berth, where it’s going to be broken up for scrap.

As a matter of fact, that final berth was in Rotherhithe. It was being towed from Sheerness.

And looking at the painting, when you turn things over in your mind, you see at once that Turner has cheated a little bit. The Temeraire was towed upstream, towed in a westerly direction, towed toward the setting sun. Sheerness is downstream from Rotherhithe. But Turner’s exercised some poetic license, the Temeraire is being towed away from the sun. The sun is setting – and that’s entirely appropriate of course.  But the Temeraire is not going toward the sun, it’ll never see the sun again. Just as the artist who painted the scene – Joseph Mallord William Turner – will never see the sun again. The sun is God and Turner, like the Temeraire, has had his day in the sun. And now when you get there, look closely at the Temeraire. It looks spectral. It’s bone white. It looks like a cadaver. Like Turner, it’s heading into the darkness. Into eternal darkness.

It’s grim, isn’t it. But there’s a ray of light, if I may put it that way. We have the paintings. They live on. And sailing on in the light, as they do, well, through them Turner lives on as well.

You’ve been listening to the London History bulletin for December 30th. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *