St John’s Church, Margate, Kent, c.1788

Pen, ink and watercolour on paper, 12 1/8 x 17 1/8 ins, 308 x 435 mm

Private Collection

Turner catalogues: Wilton 1; tdb 147

This is one of a series of four very early watercolours all sharing the same provenance, evidently having been gifted by Turner’s mother to a Jane Hunt of London who married James Taylor of Bakewell, Derbyshire, and then descending in her family to the present day.

Wilton 1979 writes’ ‘This may be the drawing referred to [by Thornbury 1862] as having been made when Turner was nine years old, though it is not unlike a drawing dated 1787 in the Turner Bequest of Clifton, Nuneham Harcourt, near Abingdon (TB I-B; Tate D00002 [W.6])’. Nevertheless he dates the whole group following Thornbury to ?1784.

Thornbury admits to not actually having seen the drawing, and it seems impossible that anyone could have made this or the three others [W.2,3,4) at the age of nine. A date of no earlier than 1788 seems more plausible. In any case the group probably constitutes the earliest work of Turner outside the Turner Bequest..

The date of c.1788 is also proposed by Shanes 2016 who describes Turner attending Mr Coleman’s boarding school at Margate about that time. It is perhaps strange, however, that there appear to be no pencil sketches relating to this episode in his career.

The date might yet be debateable. A watercolour in the Turner Bequest, View from Cook’s Folly [TB VI 24;Tate D00107) is dated to 1791, but is little more advanced in handling than those in the present group.

In his introduction to his nos 1-4 Wilton notes that there were originally six drawings of Margate subjects given by Turner’s mother to Jane Hunt, of which these are the surviving four, but he does not give his source for this information. Nor is it explained what Jane Hunt’s relationship to the Turners might have been.

The subject is the south-east view of the Church of St John at Margate. The church stands on a rise in the southern part of the town.

Google Earth: St John’s, Margate

Turner’s view is very well preserved, except for the fact that the church spire is now more substantial. Even admitting the uncertain handling of perspective [as Thornbury observes] it is certainly worth remarking that the quality of detail and observation is already impressive. It seems probable that the accuracy extends even to the record of individual tombstones in the churchyard, and any differences in detail in the architecture of the church might be accounted for by a fairly comprehensive restoration of 1875.

In this light it might be worth giving some consideration to Turner’s general selection of subjects in this series. Neither of the Margate subjects seems to be an altogether obvious choice, nor is it self-evident why Turner should also have painted two subjects at Minster.

Youngblood 1984 p.5 suggests that the whole series might have been painted from nature. In the present case it is worth observing the very specific and consistent treatment of the shadows.

That on the corner of the choir roof to the right is particularly telling, echoed by the shadow of the porch, setting the time of day at just after mid-day. The time on the church clock reads twenty minutes past twelve.

Painting from nature would explain the limited number of subjects, and also the lack of pencil sketches relating to this period in Margate, It might also suggest that Turner was taking advice, and already, in the year before a conventional apprenticeship might begin aged fourteen, focusing on painting as a potential profession. Indeed, one might say that in the exacting quality of detail, Turner was laying down the foundations of a lifelong practice.


Mary Turner (the artist’s mother) by whom given to
Jane Taylor (nee Hunt) of Bakewell Derbyshire, and by descent to present
Private collection (1979, 2016)

Publications and exhibitions:

Thornbury 1862, vol.1, p.18;
Wilton 1979 no.1 as ‘St John’s Church, Margate, ?1784’, repr p.24 b/w;
P. Youngblood, ‘The Stones of Oxford’ in Turner Studies 1984, 3(2), pp.5 and 20 n.33;
Shanes 2016 as ‘St John’s Church, Margate, 1788’, repr p.10 colour;

DH 19 August 2020

3 thoughts on “St John’s Church, Margate, Kent, c.1788

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