Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

14 April 2022

Mary Marshall – JMW Turner’s Mother

Mary Marshall was born into a prosperous family of butchers and shopkeepers.  She was baptised at St Mary’s Islington on 13 November 1735.  She married William Turner, a barber and wigmaker, at St Paul’s Covent Garden, on 29 August 1773.  Turner was newly arrived from Devon and eager to establish himself.  When he applied for the marriage licence William declared his age as 28 and Mary’s as only 34, perhaps indicating someone‘s embarrassment at her being about ten years older than her husband to be. 

West front of St Paul's Covent GardenThe west front of St Paul’s Covent Garden by Edward Rooker (1766) British Library Maps K.Top.24.1.a. BL flickrPublic Domain Creative Commons Licence

Mary’s younger brother had moved to the thriving west London community of New Brentford to become a butcher.  His name was Joseph Mallord William Marshall and when Mary gave birth to a son in 1775, he was given the names Joseph Mallord William Turner, possibly with an eye to inheritance.  A daughter, Mary Ann, was born in 1778.

There is very little reliable evidence of Mary Turner’s appearance or personality. Turner's first biographer, Walter Thornbury, built his picture of her around the supposed existence of an unfinished portrait by her son, ‘one of his first attempts’.  Thornbury writes: ‘There was a strong likeness to Turner about the nose and eyes; her eyes being represented as blue, of a lighter hue than her son's; her nose aquiline, and the nether lip having a slight fall.  Her hair was well frizzed . . . and it was surmounted by a cap with large flappers.  Her posture therein was erect, and her aspect masculine, not to say fierce.’   No-one has, as yet, been able to trace this portrait and Thornbury had not seen it himself.

There does, however, exist a sketch in one of Turner’s notebooks that has been widely believed to be of his mother.  Intriguingly, the recent scanning of Turner’s painting 'Mountain Scene With Castle, Probably Martigny', has revealed two previously unknown portraits, one of which might be of his mother. 

Thornbury described Mary Turner as ‘a person of ungovernable temper’.  Her fragile mental health deteriorated, probably exacerbated by the death of her daughter, Mary Ann, just before her fifth birthday in 1783.  When the situation at home became difficult, Turner was sent at the age of ten to live with his uncle, Joseph Marshall, in Brentford.

Although his parents’ unhappy marriage may have contributed to Turner’s negative view of that institution, there is evidence that Mary supported her son’s artistic ambitions and promoted his work amongst her friends and neighbours in Covent Garden.

In 1799 Mary Turner was admitted to St Luke’s Hospital, a public mental health asylum in Old Street.  Turner, by this time a successful and prosperous artist, has been criticised for not paying for private care.  However, St Luke’s was a highly respected establishment with specialist provision and Turner probably had to use his influential connections to get his mother admitted.   She remained in St Luke’s until December 1800, when she was discharged as incurable.

Hospitals - St Luke's and Bethlem WellcomeSt. Luke's and Bethlem Hospitals in Moorfields. Engraving by J. Peltro. Wellcome Library no. 26125i

Once again, Turner’s friends pulled strings and Mary was transferred to the Bethlem Hospital in nearby Moorfields (‘Bedlam’), now, surprisingly, described as curable.  On Boxing Day 1801, she was discharged uncured but within a week Turner managed to get her readmitted to the incurable ward, where she remained until her death on 15 April 1804.  Her name was later included on her husband’s memorial plaque in St Paul’s Covent Garden.

Turner memorialThe memorial to Turner’s parents in St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden - photograph by the author Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

David Meaden
Independent Researcher

Further reading:
Franny Moyle, The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W.Turner (London, 2016).
Anthony Bailey, Standing In The Sun – a life of J.M.W.Turner (1997).
Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner R.A. founded on letters and papers furnished by his friends and fellow Academicians, Volume 2 (London, 1862).
Records of patients at Bethlem Hospital  are available via Findmypast.
Explore Archives and Manuscripts for papers at the British Library relating to JMW Turner.

“Old Dad” – Turner and Son in Twickenham

Turner's House logoTurner’s restored house in Twickenham is open to visitors.

 

Untold lives blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs