Turner and West Kent
Dr Selby Whittingham
Turner’s first biographer, Walter Thornbury, remarked on Turner’s sentimental fondness for the Medway. From about the age of 30, his acquisition of a boat on the Thames and his building of a villa beside it and his oil-sketches made on it all shifted the focus of his attention decisively to the capital’s river. But that has obscured the fact that earlier love of the two rivers had run parallel.
Strangely no writer on Turner has remarked that his mother’s eldest sister married the vicar (Henry Harpur) of a Medway town, Tonbridge, and so none has noticed the connection between the vicar’s family and the Woodgates of Somerhill, the mansion overlooking the town, which Turner painted in 1810-11. Their papers are in the Centre for Kent Studies at Maidstone and formed the basis of a history of the family published in 1910 which deserves a wider audience than it has had. The letters of the female members of the Woodgate family conjure up a world familiar to the readers of Jane Austen, and even occasionally echo the bantering and allusive tone of Turner’s clumsier epistolary efforts.
Whereas two studies have been published recounting Jane Austen’s Tonbridge connections, none has hitherto been devoted to Turner’s. Yet we know, as we do not in Jane's case, that Turner definitely visited the town. How many times we can still only guess – in c.1787-9, 1793, c.1803-6, 1810? The following chapters and gazetteer summarise what can be gleaned about the background to the works which Turner created as a result.
Thornbury declared that, “I come across him in the green hop-fields of Kent,” but considerable imagination is needed, as the evidence is fragmentary. As the clues have to be pieced together from diverse sources and Turner’s involvement in the area had different aspects, I have not pursued a purely chronological account, but taken those aspects in turn. Moreover his visits to the Weald of Kent cannot be considered in isolation from those to neighbouring areas, as he was in the habit of engaging in extensive tours.
If, as I suggest is likely, Turner was drawn to the area partly by his relations, their milieu can only be properly comprehended by giving it the treatment which has been accorded to Jane Austen’s family, that is, by investigating all the ramifications which would have been significant to them. However they have left behind virtually no correspondence, and so we have to fall back on the drier documents of wills and suchlike to construct an outline of their world, which I have tried to encapsulate in the Gazetteer and Genealogies. Their properties were not extensive, yet they might extend over several parishes and even into Sussex, so that what Vita Sackville-West said of the Sackvilles is true on a smaller scale and mutatis mutandis of Turner’s cousins:
… If I allowed myself full licence I might ramble out over Kent and down into Sussex, to Lewes, Buckhurst and Withyham, out into the fruit country and the hop country, across the Weald, over Saxonbury, and to Lewes among the Downs, and still I should not feel guilty of irrelevance…. The whole district is littered with their associations, whether a village whose living lay in their gift, or a town where they endowed a college, or a wood where they hunted, or the village church where they had themselves buried.
Equally there are few parts of Kent which held no associations for Turner or those connected with him, and that is true of the middle of the county and not just of the coastal areas which have hitherto been the focus of Turnerean studies.
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The National Galleries Scotland houses this fine painting of Somer Hill. More information is available on their website