I believe that these works of Turner’s are at their
first appearing as perfect as those of Phidias or
Leonardo, that is to say, incapable of any improvement
conceivable by human mind.
The beauty of the upper Thames with its fairy house-boats and green banks has been sung by poets, but rash is the minstrel who tunes his lyre to sound the praises of this muddy stream in the vicinity of Chelsea. As yellow as the Tiber and thick as the Missouri after a flood, it comes twice a day bearing upon its tossing tide a unique assortment of uncanny sights and sickening smells from the swarming city of men below.
Chelsea was once a country village six miles from London Bridge. Now the far-reaching arms of the metropolis have taken it as her own.
Chelsea may be likened to some rare spinster, grown old with years and good works, and now having a safe home with a rich and powerful benefactress. Yet Chelsea is not handsome in her old age, and Chelsea was not pretty in youth, nor fair to view in middle life; but Chelsea has been the foster-mother of several of the rarest and fairest souls who have ever made the earth pilgrimage.
And the greatness of genius still rests upon Chelsea. As we walk slowly through its winding ways, by the edge of its troubled waters, among dark and crooked turns, through curious courts, by old gateways and piles of steepled stone, where flocks of pigeons wheel, and bells chime, and organs peal, and winds sigh, we know that all has been sanctified by their presence. And their spirits abide with us, and the splendid beauty of their visions is about us. For the stones beneath our feet have been hallowed by their tread, and the walls have borne their shadows; so all mean things are transfigured and over all these plain and narrow streets their glory gleams.
And it is the great men and they alone that can render a place sacred. Chelsea is now to the lovers of the Beautiful a sacred name, a sacred soil; a place of pilgrimage where certain gods of Art once lived, and loved, and worked, and died.
Sir Thomas More lived here and had for a frequent guest Erasmus. Hans Sloane began in Chelsea the collection of curiosities which has now developed into the British Museum. Bishop Atterbury (who claimed that Dryden was a greater poet than Shakespeare), Dean Swift and Doctor Arbuthnot, all lived in Church Street; Richard Steele just around the corner and Leigh Hunt in Cheyne Row; but it was from another name that the little street was to be immortalized.
If France constantly has forty Immortals in the flesh, surely it is a modest claim to say that Chelsea has three for all time: Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot and Joseph Mallord William Turner.
Turner’s father was a barber. His youth was passed in poverty and his advantages for education were very slight. And all this in the crowded city of London, where merit may knock long and still not be heard, and in a country where wealth and title count for much.
When a boy, barefoot and ragged, he would wander away alone on the banks of the river and dream dreams about wonderful palaces and beautiful scenes; and then he would trace with a stick in the sands, endeavoring, with mud, to make plain to the eye the things that his soul saw.
His mother was quite sure that no good could come from this vagabondish nature, and she did not spare the rod, for she feared that the desire to scrawl and daub would spoil the child. But he was a stubborn lad, with a pug-nose and big, dreamy, wondering eyes, and a heavy jaw; and when parents see that they have such a son, they had better hang up the rod behind the kitchen-door and lay aside force and cease scolding. For love is better than a cat-o’-nine-tails, and sympathy saves more souls than threats.