For all the associations the artist has with Margate, the new exhibition at the seaside town’s Turner Contemporary Gallery, Turner and the Elements, cannot properly be called a homecoming. Turner may have completed his formal education in a school on Love Lane there, and frequently returned to Margate — his friend and admirer John Ruskin remarked “in this very town of Margate, he lived, when he chose to be quit of London, and not yet to travel” — but the one place to which the itinerant painter would always return was the Thames, and his various properties on its banks.
Still, Margate was significant for Turner. He painted more than 100 oils and watercolours of the town and its surrounding coastline and once remarked that with its “dawn clouds to the east and glorious sunsets to the west” the Isle of Thanet was home to “the loveliest skies in Europe”. However, Turner was not merely interested in Margate’s topography. In 1833, at the age of 58, he began a relationship with a recently widowed landlady named Sophia Caroline Booth, a kindly and buxom, if inarticulate, woman who ran the Rendezvous seafront guesthouse. The new gallery stands on its site.
Turner and Mrs Booth (his second mistress after another widow, Sarah Danby) never married. After the artist’s death she confided to the Scottish painter David Roberts that, “…for about 18 years they lived together as husband & wife, under the name of Mr & Mrs Booth … But the most extraordinary part of her naritive [sic] is that, with the exception of the 1st year he never contributed one Shilling towards their mutual support.”
However, they shared an active and steamy sex life, by all accounts; some of Turner’s notorious erotica is thought to have depicted Mrs Booth. The famously prudish Ruskin described them as “painting after painting of Turner’s of the most shameful sort — the pudenda of women — utterly inexcusable and to me inexplicable”. He claimed to have destroyed them but such was his reverence for Turner that he never did so. Instead, he bundled them up in brown paper and labelled them “kept as evidence of a failure of mind only”. They are now in the archives of Tate Britain.
It is perhaps in this context that we should consider Ruskin’s remark that Turner, frustrated with Margate’s “inadequacy”, should seek to exaggerate its charms to the point of insincerity. That is certainly not evident in Turner and the Elements. The paintings of Margate evoke a sense of calm contentment, of the hazy fog of summer; they capture the huge skies over the harbour and reflect Turner’s masterly ability to convey the seashore’s elemental atmosphere. They call to mind Constable’s praise of Turner’s Italian landscapes: “He seems to paint with tinted steam, so evanescent and airy.”
Turner ended his days happily with Sophia, calling himself “Admiral Booth”, in a small Thamesside cottage in Chelsea — paid for by Mrs Booth, naturally.