J M W Turner - The South Molton Connection

Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of England's most famous landscape artists, was born on the 23rd April 1775 at 21, Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London. He was the son of William Turner and Mary Turner (née Marshall).

Turner's grandfather, John, worked at South Molton as a saddler and his father, William, was a barber and wig-maker in the town. It is said that the family lived for at time in a cottage in North Street (then known as Steppa Lane) near to where Forest View now stands. William Turner had four brothers and two sisters.

It is believed that William and Mary Turner moved from South Molton to London shortly before their son, Joseph was born in 1775. Joseph Turner's early life was spent at 21 Maiden Lane where the basement of the building was used as a tavern. By the time he was twelve, he had decided that he was going to be an artist. His father encouraged him and proudly hung his son's drawings around the entrance to his barber's shop "ticketed at prices varying from one shilling to three".

Turner never married and in his Will he made provision for land for the building of almshouses for "decayed English artists (Landscape Painters only) and single men". In a codicil made in 1848, he left all his pictures to the nation, providing that an Art Gallery, to be known as "Turner's Gallery", was built and maintained at the nation's expense. If it was not built within ten years from the date of Turner's death then his heirs-at-law could claim the entire collection. When Turner died in December 1851, his next-of-kin contested Probate on the grounds that he had been of unsound mind. On 19th March 1856 after long drawn out court hearings, the "charity" money was split between his five cousins or their descendants with the result that Turner's plans for his almshouses came to nothing.

According to a report in the Exeter Flying Post dated March 20th 1856 the agreement reached was that Turner's pictures were to be handed over to the National Gallery together with a sum of £200,000 to the Royal Academy for the encouragement of landscape painting. A large fortune, consisting of about £100,000 in funds and other property was to go to Mr. Turner's nearest relations; Mr. T. P. Turner and Mrs. Matthews of Exeter, Mrs. Tepper and Mrs. John Widgery of South Molton, and Mr. William Turner of Barnstaple. Mrs. John Widgery (Mary Ann Turner Tucker Widgery) was a first cousin to the artist and the daughter of his father's sister Mary.

Between 1861 and 1878 another lawsuit took place relating to the sale of certain Turner engravings. During this hearing Mary Ann Turner Tucker Widgery died without issue (1871) and her two nephews John Tucker Widgery and Samuel Widgery of South Molton continued the lawsuit. The case was won with the result that the brothers were awarded one fifth of the total proceedings of the sale and they each received a share of £6,300 out which they had to pay £1,850 legal costs. It was probably with this money that the two brothers bought the two Victorian villas at the top of Paradise Lawn, South Molton (see picture below).  Strange to say although the terms of Turner's will with regard to an Art Gallery were never met, the relatives did not claim his works as they were entitled to do!

The South Molton Museum has a gallery named after Turner but unfortunately has none of his works!

Created by Shirley Bray

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