Somerset House and J.M.W. Turner

From your Regency readings, you may be familiar with Somerset House and the Summer Exhibition, a lavish and popular yearly art show. A catalog (and therefore entry) could be had for a shilling, and everyone who was anyone in London would have gone to see the exhibition at some point.

While I haven’t used it as a setting in a story yet, I have used the Royal Academy of Arts, which was the group who put on the art show.

The original Somerset House was where Queen Charlotte was supposed to live if George III died before her. Instead, she was vested with Buckingham House, and they gave the new North Wing of Somerset House to the Royal Academy of Arts.

Pugin’s ‘Exhibition Room, Somerset House,’ showing a room which is now part of the Courtauld Gallery ~ Public Domain

It was an art exhibition to which anyone could submit a painting. In fact, the founding group of the Royal Academy of Arts included two women, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser! It was not entirely egalitarian, but there were efforts being made.

Most importantly, for my story, not everyone who joined the Academy and received the honor of displaying work in the Summer Exhibition was aristocratic.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (abbreviated J.M.W. Turner) is a great example. Turner was from a middle class family in Covent Gardens, burdened with a Cockney accent but remarkable talent. He was admitted to the Academy when he was fourteen, and displayed his first work at Somerset at fifteen!

I practically rubbed my hands together and cackled like a villain. What’s this I see before me? A middle/lower-class man who gained success and (could have) interacted with the highest families through his skill with painting and portraiture? Yes, please!

Self-Portrait, J. M. W. Turner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I wanted to put Mr. Darcy through the wringer with Georgiana’s romance, and this fit the bill perfectly. Acclaimed painters were received everywhere, particularly portraitists… but at the same time, they definitely weren’t members of the “Upper Ten Thousand.” How would Darcy handle it if Georgiana fell in love with a such an “accepted outsider?”

I only used the idea of Turner for my story (and his last name, since it is fairly common), but his actual life story is quite interesting. After his mother went to a mental institution, he was sent to live with a maternal uncle (rather like Fanny Price), and it was there that he was able to make his first forays into painting. His father would proudly display his son’s sketches in his barber shop window.

Eventually Turner traveled and gained more acclaim, particularly for his seascapes and other dramatic paintings. A huge volcano erupted in Indonesia in 1815 (making 1816 the “Year with No Summer”) and Turner painted the incredible sunsets caused by the ash in the upper atmosphere. He witnessed the burning of Parliament in 1834 and made watercolors of it. Turner’s experiments with color and light would become precursors of impressionist and abstract painting.

Although he grew reclusive in later life, he did (re?)gain a close relationship with his father, and lived with him for 30 years until his father’s death.

Check out A True Likeness to read about Georgiana’s romance with a similar handsome, talented artist.

Thanks for reading,

Corrie Garrett

3 responses to “Somerset House and J.M.W. Turner”

  1. michellanious Avatar

    The print above of the Exhibition Room at Sommerset House is one of my favorites, it’s fascinating and I always look at it wishing I could have been at that exhibit. So, thank you.

    Your idea for Darcy dealing with his sister’s romance with an impoverished artist and his family’s religion was inspired. However much I enjoyed the first volume of that series, when it came to falling in love with an artist with the last name Turner I just couldn’t continue into the third book. Having watched Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner (which I anticipated greatly) gave me a biography of the artist I wished I’d never known. I love his landscapes, have had the opportunity to see some in real life and could have stared at them longer if circumstances would have let me. But that film. This is an article I found when googling ‘was the Turner film realistic?’ His private life was dreadful by today’s standards. He was not a nice man. I can still love his art, but it will now always be colored with my knowledge of the artist’s real life.

    Of course your Mr Turner wasn’t anything like JMW, he was quite a hero and lovely. This was just my own silly stumbling block. And history has told us time and again how so many of our most beloved composers, artists, scientists, so many men who were leaders in their fields-from politics-to medicine-to many other visionaries who were supported in every way by their wives, sisters and mothers.

    I hope to see a new Austenesque book of yours in the future, your writing is great.

  2. Corrie Garrett Avatar

    Oh, thank you for letting me know; I was totally unaware of that movie! I did a little more research than what I included here, and even the little that I found led me to totally scrap JMW’s personal life and base my character ( except for his name) off a relative of John Wesley. I didn’t realize the extent of the real Turner’s terrible personal life. Thank you for the writing encouragement despite my hitting this unhappy note for you! I really appreciate it.

  3. kimbelle1 Avatar

    So many possibilities here, certainly! And I dabbled toward this very theme in my first novel for this exact reason, for there were ladies who were accepted artists! How fun for us all to think about~

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