The other Turner...father and son’s quest to boost artist’s acclaim
Although the name Turner is already synonymous with great British art, a father and son team have made it their mission to win posthumous acclaim for a lesser known namesake, who spent years perfecting his craft in Suffolk.
John Doman Turner
Suffolk author, Esther Freud referred to the Walberswick Scroll in her 2003 novel Sea House, in which an artist draws almost every house in the fictional village of Steerborough. The character’s inspiration comes in letters from another artist, based on correspondence between Turner and Gore.
On June 4, 1934, the East Anglian Daily Times’s report on Southwold’s Trinity Fair read:
“If the hundreds of visitors to this year’s Trinity Fair at Southwold found little that differed from the showman’s attractions of recent years, many of them have, at least had the opportunity to view a remarkable panoramic record of last year’s fair. A record which already bears the signatures of some hundreds who have admired it.”
So little has been officially recorded about John Doman Turner, that no one can even be certain when he was born.
Enter James and Stephen Robertson, who turned their shared admiration for the artist’s work into an obsession with documenting his unfamiliar story.
Visitors to Southwold’s Swan Hotel may have admired his work without knowing it – and another Suffolk village is home to what the Robertsons consider Suffolk’s answer to the Bayeux Tapestry.
Most of what is known about Turner has been derived from correspondence with his mentor, Spencer Gore, who invited him to join the Camden Town Group of post-impressionists active from 1911-1913.
Born in the early 1870s, Turner was deaf and earned his living as a stockbroker’s clerk in London – but as an amateur artist, depicted the world around him through pencil, charcoal, chalk and watercolour.
His last exhibition was in 1915, as part of the New English Art Club, but several enormous examples still exist in the county he visited for holidays, including a 123ft-long watercolour study of every home in Walberswick.
“I love the story behind his work. There’s something inspiring about how he painted these communities,” said 32-year-old Stephen, from Deptford, who fell in love with Turner’s work while tracking down a gift for his father.
“Although I was a graphic designer and had been to art school, I had no interest at all in art history. I liked contemporary art.
“In 2012, I was struggling to find a Christmas present for my dad, but I knew he liked Turner’s work and decided to have a look online.
“Shockingly, I could find nothing. There was a complete lack of information – apart from a Wikipedia page, which I later discovered my dad had written! It’s then I started thinking Turner had a story that had not been fully told.”
Early exploration led Stephen to his first purchase – a sketchbook with an uncanny connection to his father’s own research, which began in the 1980s, when he went as far as writing to every living Turner in Streatham, after discovering in census records that the artist once lived there.
Having located and visited the address, James would later realise that the sketchbook in his son’s possession contained drawings of the garden in which he stood years earlier.
“The digital revolution has helped me pick up the search,” said Stephen, who, in 2012, discovered the Walberswick Scroll – an illustrated record of every building in the seaside village.
Although signed by the artist, evidence of the scroll had never been seen by Stephen in any Turner biography.
“Of course, my dad had never seen it either,” he said. “We found out that Richard Scott took the scroll out to show in the village hall once a year. We went to see it that March, and were also told about the Trinity Fair Scroll in a room used for receptions at the Swan Hotel, in Southwold.”
Another scroll, depicting the homes on Southwold’s Ferry Road, is kept safely at the town’s museum, while a fourth is housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Blythe House reading room.
“We think he visited Suffolk with his wife because she signed one of the scrolls,” said Stephen.
“We still have so many questions – like what did he look like? We found out he had a brother, but don’t know much about him.
“Helena Bonett, a curator at the Tate, told us there wasn’t even a biography of Turner on the Camden Town Group database.”
Stephen’s father picked up the Turner trail after visiting a Camden Town Group exhibition at Christies in 1988. He noted the name and thought nothing more of it, until visiting family in Lowestoft and dropping by an antique shop, where he discovered 13 watercolours bearing Turner’s signature.
“Around 1911, he was drawing and painting in Walberswick, and that was to continue on and off for another 20 years,” said James, 74, of Langdon Hills. “He did live via board and lodgings in Walberswick, but also in the top section of a caravan down at the harbour.
“He was also living in Streatham, so although we do not have the dates fixed yet, we know he died there in 1938 from bronchial pneumonia.”
According to James, the first recorded information about Turner is a copy of his will, dated 1900.
From 1908-1913, Spencer Gore gave him tutorship by letter. The deaf artist would send his drawings to be commented on, paying five shillings in return for each of Gore’s instructions.
“His way of contact was through his art,” he said. “And it appears he was always drawing something, judging by his sketch books.”
Visit johndomanturner.com for more on Stephen and James Robertson’s project.