Dawson Turner

I have just discovered, down the side of the metaphorical sofa, another large piece in the fascinating jigsaw of who knew whom in the Victorian artistic and scientific community. Dawson Turner (1775–18580 was a Great Yarmouth man, his father being a local merchant and banker, and after a local education, he went up in 1792 to Pembroke College, Cambridge (it may have helped that his Uncle Joseph was Master at the time). It appears that, like Darwin after him, he was destined for the church, but in fact he left without graduating in 1794, shortly before the death of his father. (In spite of this, he styled himself ‘A.M.’ on the title page of his first book.) In 1796, he entered the family bank (Gurney and Turner) in Yarmouth, and in the same year he married Mary Palgrave, whose family came from Coltishall, Norfolk. 

There are several prints of Dawson Turner, but I could find reference to only one painted portrait, by Thomas Phillips (1770–1845), where Turner appears as part of a group, in a private collection.

Of their subsequent eleven children, only five girls and one boy survived to adulthood, and the marriages of some of these children are indicative of his social circle. The eldest daughter, Maria, married William Jackson Hooker, and he was thus the grandfather of the great Joseph Dalton Hooker. Another, Elizabeth, married Francis Cohen, but only on the condition that he first converted to Christianity and adopted the Palgrave name of his mother-in-law-to-be. Sir Francis Palgrave (1788–1861) was of course later the first head of the Public Record Office, and his and Elizabeth’s four sons were equally distinguished on the literary and artistic scene.

Francis Palgrave in 1823, by Mary Dawson Turner (his mother-in-law), after Thomas Phillips

Harriet married John Gunn, a Norfolk antiquarian and geologist, Eleanor Jane, the bishop of Chester, and Hannah Sarah into a banking family. Thus Dawson Turner covered all the bases of his various interests through his sons-in-law, while his only surviving son, Dawson William Turner, became a distinguished headmaster, author of history textbooks, Notes on Herodotus, and a translation of Pindar, and, in old age, was well known as a friend to the poor and needy on the streets of London.

Bank House in Yarmouth, ‘before its alterations in 1854, from an old photograph’

Turner had many interests and formed many collections, but the earliest was in botany. As well as publishing in the Transactions of the Linnean Society, in 1802 (the same year he became a Fellow of the Royal Society), he published his two-volume Synopsis of British Fuci (seaweeds), on the last page of Volume 2 of which he states that ‘I can assure the philosophic naturalist that, while the most stupendous works of the Divine hand arrest the attention of even the most careless observer, and, in a language equally understood by all ages and all nations, declare the glory of God, these humble vegetables will, by the inquisitive mind, be found by no means wanting in affording additional proofs both of the wisdom and beneficence of the great Creator.’

The title page of Volume I of the Synopsis of the British Fuci, printed in Yarmouth

He followed it up between 1808 and 1819 with four volumes of the lavishly illustrated Fuci, sive, Plantarum Fucorum generi a botanicis ascriptarum icones descriptiones et historia (Fuci, or, Coloured figures and descriptions of the plants referred by botanists to the genus Fucus), having previously (in 1804) written Muscologiae Hibernicæ spicilegium (A Collection of Irish Mosses) also in Latin.

Fucus comosus, from Volume III of Fuci
Fucus tomentosus, from the same volume

In 1805, with Lewis Weston Dillwyn (1778–1855), he published a two-volume Botanist’s Guide through England and Wales, which, beginning with Anglesea [sic] lists the plants found in the counties of England and Wales, drawing on earlier publications – Ray, Thomas Martyn and Relhan, as well as various parson-naturalists, in the case of Cambridgeshire – and apologises in the Preface for the imperfections inevitable in producing such a guide, not least of which is ‘the impossibility of avoiding mistakes respecting the names of places, the orthography of which is in many instances so little settled’, to say nothing of ‘the confusion of the synonymy, arising in part from the inaccurate observations of the more early authors, but, in much greater degree, from the changes, … among the names as well as of the genera, as of the species, the unsettled state of which must long continue a material obstacle’.

The title page of Volume II of the Botanist’s Guide

Dillwyn deserves a mild digression: he was born in Walthamstow, but his father was a Pennsylvanian merchant, a Quaker of Welsh descent who had returned to England during the American War of Independence. Like his father, he was a determined abolitionist, and in the Reform Parliament of 1832 became MP for Glamorganshire, where he was the owner of the Cambrian Pottery, which his father had bought for him via a cousin.

Lewis Weston Dillwyn, by George Hayter (Credit: National Museum of Wales)

Meanwhile, in 1813, the Nantgarw China Works had been founded by William Billingsley, artist and potter, who believed he had a formula which would create Sèvres-like porcelain. It didn’t work, and a plea to the Board of Trade for £500 to go on experimenting was turned down, but one member of the Board, none other than the great and good Sir Joseph Banks, asked his friend Dillwyn to go and have a look.

The Cambrian Pottery when Dillwyn arrived made rather crude domestic ware. He recruited painters including William Pollard, who decorated this plate c. 1817

He reported back that 90% of the produce was a failure (the firing being the problem), but what survived was of fine quality, so he offered Billingsley the use of his own pottery to continue the process. However, after three years the manufacture was not stable enough (to say nothing of a subplot involving Royal Worcester suing them), so Dillwyn parted company with Nantgarw in 1817. Further vicissitudes followed for Nantgarw, which you can read about here, including two of the partners absconding to Coalport while Billingsley was away …

Trade card of the Cambrian Pottery, from the collection of ephemera left to the British Museum by Sarah Sophia Banks, sister of Sir Joseph

Dillwyn knew Banks because of his botanical interests (he was also a keen conchologist), publishing British Confervae [freshwater algae]: or, Colored figures and descriptions of the British plants referred by botanists to the genus Conferva in 1809. The book was dedicated to Turner – was it Sir Joseph who brought these two aquatic botanists together, or did the Linnean Society or the Royal Society do the job?

Conferva amphibia, from Dillwyn’s book

However, after the publication of Fuci, Turner began to focus his energy on antiquities, art, books and manuscripts (though in 1839 he returned to a work on lichens which he had begun much earlier). If you wonder how a (presumably) busy banker was able to pursue his interests over such a wide area and in so much detail, the answer appears to lie in his family. The painter, etcher and collector John Crome (1768–1821) (from whom Dawson bought several paintings, and to whom he seems to have allowed credit from the bank at one stage) taught his wife and daughters, as well as the daughters of the Gurney family; when Crome stopped teaching, Turner persuaded John Sell Cotman (who may or may not have been a distant cousin) to take over. Mrs Turner produced many portrait etchings of their circle (several after Thomas Phillips, including this one of Charles Burney), as well as illustrations for her husband’s books.

Charles Burney (1757–1817), repentant book thief, schoolmaster, clergyman and collector, son of the more famous, by Mrs Turner, after Phillips

Benjamin Robert Haydon recorded in his diary in 1817 that the daughters were continually busy with drawing, needlework and etching, while their father  was ‘one incessant scene of fact collecting … He was an immense, living Index’. Sir Charles Lyell recorded on a visit: ‘What I see going on every hour in this family makes me ashamed of the most active day I ever spent even at Midhurst [his school]’: the girls apparently also transcribed manuscripts, catalogued Turner’s growing collections, and made indexes.

‘Dieppe Castle’, by Cotman, from Volume I of An Account of a Tour in Normandy

His two-volume 1820 Account of a Tour in Normandy was illustrated by Mrs Turner, two of the daughters and Cotman, while he published at his own expense, and wrote the text for, Cotman’s Architectural Antiquities of Normandy (1822). He also wrote the text for a collection of Cotman’s two volumes of etchings, Specimens of Architectural Remains in Various Counties in England, but Principally in Norfolk (1838), along with Thomas Rickman (1776–1841), architect, antiquary and Quaker, who provided ‘architectural observations’.

‘Tower of the Church of Tréport, near Eu’ from Volume II of the Architectural Antiquities of Normandy

Meanwhile, Turner was collecting works by European artists as well, unsurprisingly, as those of the Norwich school, manuscripts, and books (all doubtless catalogued by the girls) – his library apparently consisted of 8,000 volumes. He continued to publish: Outlines in Lithography (1840), a Guidetowards the Verification of Manuscripts by Reference to Engraved Facsimiles (1848), editions of scientific correspondence including the letters of Isaac Newton to John Covel, and works on local history, such as A Sketch of the History of Caister Castle (1842), A List of Norfolk Benefices (1847), and Sepulchral Reminiscences of a Market Town: as afforded by a list of the interments within the walls of the parish church of St. Nicholas, Great Yarmouth as afforded by a list of the interments within the walls of the parish church of St. Nicholas (1845).

St Nicholas’ church, Great Yarmouth, in 1821, by Joseph Lambert

This busy, productive and convivial life came to an abrupt end when, a year after the death of his wife in 1850, In September 1851 the sober, respected banker, botanist and antiquarian eloped to Gretna Green with a young widow, Rosamund Matilda Duff (1810–63), whom the ODNB describes as being ‘of markedly humbler background’. There ensued ructions within the family and within the bank (effectively the same thing), and Turner moved with his new bride to London – they were living in Old Brompton by 1853. Most of his pictures were sold at this time (presumably because there was no space for them: his home was called Lee Cottage), while other items were store in an empty property in Yarmouth, though five volumes of manuscripts were bought by the British Museum.

Happily, Sir Francis Palgrave was able to reconcile Turner to his family as his health began to fail. He suffered a stroke, from which he partly recovered with the care of his wife, but he died after a second stroke on 20 June 1858. He was buried in Brompton Cemetery (though sadly the location of his grave is no longer known), and the following year the remainder of his collections was sold. The British Library, Kew Gardens and Trinity College, Cambridge, among others, now hold a lot of his Stuff. The author of the article linked above describes him as ‘Yarmouth banker, polymath and provincial genius’ – I’m not sure whether ‘provincial’ come with a sneer, and I’m not sure that ‘genius’ is correct, but of the ‘polymath’ there can be no doubt.


This entry was posted in Art, Bibliography, Biography, Botany, France, History, Natural history, Printing and Publishing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Dawson Turner

  1. Pingback: Plant of the Month: August 2021 | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  2. A wonderful post, Caroline. I remember reading that Turner forbade his new wife’s sister to visit his house but, after finding her hiding in a kitchen cupboard, discovered she had been secreted about the house for a fortnight. Dawson Turner really was a major local figure and well known in Norwich, especially because of he Cotman connection.


  3. Pingback: Unpicking botanical author citations: The case of “Sw. ex anon.” | Sussex Bryophytes

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