Frederick Charles Husenbeth (1796–1872), Fresco at St Nicholas’ Church, Yarmouth, undated, pen and ink and watercolour, Add MS 23062, f.31.

Dawson Turner’s Index

Dawson Turner commissioned drawings by his family and local and nationally-significant artists such as John Sell Cotman to accompany Blomefield’s History of Norfolk. Martin Hopkinson tells the story of Turner’s project, exploring some of its many highlights.

For well over 40 years the Great Yarmouth banker and antiquary Dawson Turner (1775–1858) devoted much of his time in assembling an extraordinary visual record of the antiquities of Norfolk, which is now preserved in 39 volumes in the British Library. These were acquired at his sale in 1859 (Add Ms 23024–23062) and are a veritable treasure trove for anyone interested in the art and history of that county. Turner joined his father’s Norwich based bank, Gurney and Turner, in 1796, the year in which he married Mary Palgrave of Yarmouth and Coltishall. He employed John Crome and John Sell Cotman, successively, as drawing master to both her and to his daughters. Turner’s other great artistic friend was the portrait painter, Thomas Phillips (1770–1845), but he knew many members of the Norwich School well, and used several in assembling his record. The collection was intended to provide extra illustrations to the second edition of Francis Blomefield’s An Essay towards a topographical history of the county of Norfolk published in 11 volumes between 1805 and 1810. The first edition had been published between 1739 and 1775. This project was one of the reasons that prompted Benjamin Haydon in August 1817 to describe Turner as ‘an immense living index’.

Turner was much exercised by the disappearance and alterations in Norfolk of both buildings and their contents which were so important for Blomefield and which would have been equally so for future historians in writing histories of the county and of the individual towns and parishes. He noted that ‘a very small proportion only of those that have been allowed to stand are now in a state at all resembling their original one’, and remarked on the ‘many losses of recent years’. Introducing a printed list of the images which he had assembled by 1841, Turner wrote that ‘the articles which constitute the great part of this catalogue are such as, on many grounds, make a strong appeal for protection. They are the monuments of by-gone days, which, once destroyed, could never be replaced… Even in the short term that had elapsed since the original publication of Blomefield’s History and since the commencement of the present collection, several [he might more fairly have written a quantity] of the objects enumerated in it are no longer in existence. Such is particularly the case with the stained glass and painted screens, and sepulchral brasses, and carvings of our parochial churches and other ornaments of our manorial dwelling-houses’.

Fresco at the Minster Church of St Nicholas, Great Yarmouth

Frederick Charles Husenbeth (1796–1872), Fresco at St Nicholas’ Church, Yarmouth, undated, pen and ink and watercolour, Add MS 23062, f.31.

This wall painting, depicting parts of the story of David and Goliath, was revealed in 1852 on a wall at the Minster Church of St Nicholas, Great Yarmouth

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Depredations have continued in the last 150 years. Contents of churches have found their way to august institutions such as The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and have been dispersed by private individuals and the art trade. There was even some destruction in this rural county from bombing in the Second World War and the buildings in four parishes including four churches in Breckland have been rendered very inaccessible to visitors by the creation of the Stanton Area Training Area used by the British Army since 1942. Turner hoped that his efforts would encourage ‘fellow-labourers in the field’ to further those parishes ‘yet unexplored’. ‘Above all, a hope may be naturally entertained, when it shall become generally known how numerous and how interesting are the relics of ancient times still in existence, a feeling will be excited in their favour, which will tend the more effectually to preserve them.

Turner began assembling material around 1814 and was still adding to his compilation the year before his death. By 1841 he had arranged alphabetically by village, town and city, and parish by parish, 29 volumes of prints and drawings now in the British Library as Add MS 23024–23052, ‘Drawings, engravings and etchings, including numerous portraits, maps, etc., collected by Dawson Turner to illustrate Blomefield's “History of Norfolk;" 1810–1847 and for which he had printed an accompanying Catalogue of engravings, etchings, original drawings and deeds &c, &c., collected towards the illustration towards the illustration of the topography of Norfolk, and inserted in a copy of Blomefield’s History of that county in the library of D. Turner Esq. of Yarmouth (now consultable in digitised form in the British Library; the preparatory manuscript for this is Add Ms 23066 and there is an annotated copy with additional information, at Add MS 23065). The volumes which Turner assembled after 1846, using the same method of arrangement, are arranged by place in ten volumes as Add MS 23053–23062, ‘Additional drawings, engravings, etc ., illustrating Blomefield's “History  of Norfolk," collected by Dawson Turner; 1846-1857'.

The British Library also holds many other topographical and antiquarian items from Dawson Turner’s collections such as:

  • Add MS 28657 ‘Gleanings from Rare Manuscripts: copies and extracts, Suffolk church-notes, tracings of arms, architectural drawings, autograph signatures, etc.&rsq;
  • Add MS 23107, a ‘General  index to the autographs in the collections of Dawson Turner, with brief biographical notes and dates; finished 1 Jan. 1844’
  • Add MS 23063, ‘Catalogue of engraved portraits of Natives of Norfolk, and men otherwise connected with the County, arranged as well according to their locality as in alphabetical order’
  • Egerton MS 3869 and Add MS 28652, an ‘Account of a tour in Normandy, in thirty letters, by Dawson Turner, 1819, 1820; with illustrative engravings by J. S. Cotman'.

The font at St Swithin’s Church, Ashmanhaugh

John Sell Cotman (1782–1842), The Font at St Swithin’s Church, Ashmanhaugh, 1 December 1813, etching, Add MS 23024, f.64

This etching of the font at St Swithin's Church, Ashmanhaugh, was created and published by the Norfolk School artist John Sell Cotman

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Usage terms Public Domain

The Norfolk volumes include many engravings and etchings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, some lithographs, and even a very few early photographs. The prints included those from volumes published by John Sell Cotman, Specimens of Norman and Gothic Architecture in the County of Norfolk, 1816, A Series of Etchings illustrative of the Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk, 1818 and Engravings of the most remarkable sepulchral Brasses in Norfolk, 1819. A little known etching by Cotman of 1813 of the font in St Swithin, Ashmanhaugh church, now no longer there, can be found in one of Turner’s albums. Turner also incorporated etchings from Robert Dixon’s Sketches illustrative of the picturesque scenery of Norfolk, 1811 and lithographs by the Ladbrooke family, Views of the Churches of Norfolk, published under the name of Robert Ladbrooke in fascicules from 1823 onwards.

However, very many of the images in Turner’s volumes were watercolours and drawings not to be found elsewhere. For he emphasised that he was not aiming ‘to present a complete series of the graphic illustrations of Norfolk, already before the public. The object of the formation’ of the catalogue ‘has been altogether different – to collect original drawings and private plates, in short what has not been published; not, what has.’ His own family in particular provided very many works at his behest. His wife, Mary née Palgrave (1774–1850), and his daughters, Maria (1797–1872), Elizabeth (1799–1852), Mary Anne (1803–74), Harriet (1806–69) and Hannah Sarah (1808–69) took painstaking care in their contributions. Elizabeth married a Palgrave cousin, and Matilda Palgrave, as well as the young Elizabeth Rigby (1809-93), a Palgrave cousin, were also involved with the project. Miss Rigby later married Sir Charles Eastlake, and became one of the most prominent writers on art in the mid-19th century. The botanist, Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785–1865), Maria Turner’s husband, also contributed. Dawson Turner paid particular credit to the antiquarian activity of the minor Norwich School painter, Henry Ninham (1796–1854), as he lent many watercolours to be copied. Watercolours by many other professional and amateur artists in Norfolk were included, among them Robert Ladbrooke, and John Crome’s brother, Frederic James Crome (1796–c.1831), and his son, John Berney Crome (1794–1842). Colonel Frederick Corbin Lukis (1788–1871), a Guernsey natural historian and antiquarian, provided many watercolours and the most prolific contributor in the late 1840s and 1850s was the Yarmouth artist C. J. W. Winter (1820–91). The vast majority of the unpublished works which Turner assembled were contemporary records, but he managed to find a few early 18th century watercolours of Norfolk stained glass by the antiquary and collector, John Talman (1677–1726). Drawings and watercolours were assiduously annotated as the dates of execution and most importantly what had happened to their subjects subsequently.

Turner’s interest in natural history and natural phenomena explains two records of a Parhelion, the Norfolk ‘Aurora Borealis’, as well as depictions of ancient oak trees associated with historical events, fossils, animals’ teeth and unusual fish. There is much archaeological material, many maps, plans and views of country estates, and extracts from newspapers, as well as large numbers of portrait engravings of Norfolk men and women. However, the most valuable portions of these volumes for present day researchers lie elsewhere.

Aisle of St Mary’s Church, West Tofts

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–52), Aisle of St Mary’s, West Tofts, 1848, pencil, pen and black ink, Add MS 23061, f.59

A view of Pugin's restorations at West Tofts Church, which has been inaccessible to the public since 1942

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Usage terms Public Domain

There are exterior and interior views of churches, and depictions of details of their architecture. These include, for instance, an unpublished signed and dated drawing by A.W.N. Pugin of the north aisle of the Anglican church of St Mary’s, West Tofts executed in 1848, a year before he began work enlarging it for its wealthy Anglo Catholic rector Augustus Sutton of Lynford Hall and turning it into an elaborate Gothic jewel case. Annotations make clear that changes and alterations were made to quite a number of the subjects of the drawings and watercolours in the few years since they were made. Others depict objects removed from the churches including a splendid candlestick found in a chest in Saints Peter and Paul, Salle, and in Turner’s day in the collection of John Warner of Bolwick Hall, Aylsham.

Altar-candlestick from St Peter and St Paul Church Salle

Mary Anne Turner (1803–74), Altar-Candlestick found in a chest at St Peter and St Paul Church, Salle, undated, watercolour and pen and ink, Add MS 23043, f.99

This watercolour by Dawson Turner’s daughter Mary Anne shows a beautiful altar-candlestick found in a chest at the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Salle

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Glass was removed from St Peter, Parmentergate, Norwich, when it was altered, possibly in connection with its planned eventual replacement. High Victorian glass by Alexander King and J. & J. King can now be seen there. Some of the earlier glass was recorded when in the possession of a Rev Mr Gunn.

Stained glass, formerly in St Peter Parmentergate, Norwich

[Frederick Charles Husenbeth (1796–1872)], Stained Glass, formerly in St Peter Parmentergate, Norwich, undated, watercolour and pen and ink, Add MS 23058, f.88.

This watercolour records a stained-glass window removed from the Church of St Peter Parmentergate in 1832

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A painting on oak from St Nicholas of Myra, Ingham had entered the collection of the collection of John Fenn of East Dereham, the antiquary and editor and publisher of The Paston Letters.

A painting on oak showing St Nicholas of Myra

A Painting on Oak showing St Nicholas of Myra, undated, watercolour and pen and ink, Add MS 23033, f.30.

The original painting was retrieved from Holy Trinity Church in Ingham, Norfolk, and depicts the rather grizzly legend of St Nicholas of Myra and the three pickled boys

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The 14th century church of St Felix at Babingley between King’s Lynn and Hunstanton on the Sandringham Estate is now a roofless ruin. Its medieval screen was broken up and burnt for firewood, very shortly after it was recorded in a watercolour for Turner.

A female saint with a box of ointment in her hand

[Frederick Charles Husenbeth (1796–1872)], A female saint with a box of ointment in her hand, undated, watercolour and gold paint, Add MS 23053, f.67.

This watercolour is one of a series collected by Dawson Turner recording figures of saints once painted on the screen at St Felix Church in Babingley, Norfolk

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The early 19th century was an era of discovery of decorations which had been covered over by earlier generations including tiles from a pavement in the ruined church of Castle Priory depicted in November 1840, but by November 1841 in the hands of a John Harris of Davies Street, London.

Floor tiles from Castle Acre Priory

Floor Tiles from Castle Acre Priory, after December 1840, watercolour and pen and ink, Add MS 23027, f.62.

In December 1840 medieval encaustic floor tiles were uncovered at Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk

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Quite a number of frescos were uncovered beneath the plaster of Norfolk churches, among them some in the largest parish church in England, St Nicholas in Turner’s native Great Yarmouth. Of course other frescos were covered up with whitewash and this assembly may include images of wall paintings now hidden from view. In Turner’s day many wall monuments and medieval sepulchres still retained paint and their colours in the early 19th century were recorded. So were the painted ceilings which were and are such a feature of churches in Norfolk.

Bramerton Cottage

John Crome (1768–1821), Bramerton Cottage, undated, pencil, Add MS 23026, f.86

This is a preparatory drawing for a painting of Bramerton, Norfolk, by the Norwich School artist John Crome

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Domestic architecture features in Turner’s compendium as well, both interiors and exteriors. An unpublished drawing by John Crome of c.1806-07 when he was deeply influenced by Gainsborough, depicts a cottage at Bramerton. Thanks to an inscription we know that this was a study for a painting that has not been seen since 1860, which was in the collection of John Wright of Buxton, near Norwich in 1839. Turner describes the location elsewhere as the neighbouring Kirby Bedon, and the painting as a pair to The Cottage Door in 1840 owned by Thomas Harvey. Added to Turner’s collection after 1841 this seems to be the only work of this sort in the albums. Turner wrote a memoir of Crome and was responsible for the posthumous publication of his etchings. Also unusual are two drawings showing picture hangs at Holkham. A few folios of illuminated manuscripts that originated in Norfolk, which had left the county before Turner’s compilation, are also recorded in watercolour. Turner’s albums were to find good company at the British Library, with similarly arranged collections of extra-illustrations such as Add MS 32348-32352, ‘Drawings and water-colour sketches, with prints and engravings, illustrating the topography of co. Herts; collected by J. W. Jones’, to accompany Clutterbuck's History of the county, and the same collector’s  23 volumes to extra-illustrate Edward Hasted’s The historical and topographical Survey of the County of Kent, (Add Ms. 32353-32375).

Further Reading 

John Boneham’s article ‘The Dawson Turner Collection of Printed Ephemera and Great Yarmouth’, Electronic British Library Journal, (13), 2014, is the only recent publication devoted to Dawson Turner’s manuscript volumes in the British Library. For overall coverage of Dawson Turner there is Angus Fraser’s article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 and Nigel Goodman (ed.), Dawson Turner: A Norfolk Antiquary and his Remarkable Family (Chichester: Phillimore, 2007). 

  • Martin Hopkinson

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.