Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Secret Margate - 'The remarkable secret life of Turner’s Mrs Booth' by Andy Bull

On the face of it, there aren’t many secrets about J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). His Margate connection is very well-known. The Turner Contemporary gallery, built by the harbour at the very spot where he lodged, makes the link between Turner and Margate very clear and evident. He was sent to school here, and returned many times in later life, painting the sunsets which he called ‘the loveliest in Europe’.

Turner Contemporary. (c. Bejamin Beker, Secret Margate, Amberley Publishing)

Yet for my book Secret Margate I discovered a very powerful, personal story, concerning the person Turner lived with in Margate: Sophia Caroline Booth.

Today we know Mrs Booth’s name, and that she was his landlady, but very little else about her. The view from the Turner Contemporary is the one the artist saw from her home, Harbour House, on Bank Side Quay.

When Sophia and Turner met, she was soon to be widowed for a second time, and twenty years his junior. A relationship developed, which Turner chose to keep secret. Mrs Booth’s story deserves to be better known, and she should be acknowledged not just as a footnote in a great man’s life, but as the remarkable woman she was. Turner and Mrs Booth lived together for eighteen years, for the bulk of them in Margate.

One small clue in the town hints at a tragic, little-known story about Sophia, and suggests that there is much more to be discovered about her. That clue is on her gravestone in St John the Baptist church at the southern end of Margate High Street.

Sophia Booth's grave at St John the Baptist. (c. Nick Barham, Secret Margate, Amberley Publishing)

While Turner is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, Sophia’s name, almost completely obliterated by time, appears at the very bottom of a gravestone headed by the name of her son, John Pound Booth, ‘The beloved and only son of John and Sophia Caroline Booth, who died June 26th 1832 in the [and here the figure is obliterated by time] year of his age.’

If that figure were legible, it would record that John Pound Booth was only six when he died, of cholera, which swept the town that year, and may also have infected his mother. His death was not the first tragedy to scar the life of Sophia Booth.

Sophia was born Sophia Nollte, to parents of German immigrant descent, in Dover 1799. She married her first husband, a nineteen-year-old Margate fisherman called Henry Pound, at St John the Baptist on 3 February 1818 when she was twenty-two. They had two sons, Joseph Henry and Daniel. This marriage was to prove tragically short. In the early hours of 22 March 1821, Henry Pound and his brother set out from Margate harbour in the Queen Galley, a small fishing boat, with five others. Returning that afternoon in rough weather, the boat was caught on the treacherous Margate Sands and broke up. All lives were lost. The tragedy left seven young children fatherless, and the Kentish Gazette published an appeal for charitable donations ‘with a view to alleviating the distress of the surviving relatives which in several respects is very great’.

Three years later, the widowed Sophia suffered a further tragedy, when her five-year-old son Joseph died. Widowed and again bereaved, Sophia struggled to cope. Little wonder then, that only the next year she married the much older John Booth, who described himself as ‘a gentleman of Margate’. She was twenty-six, he was sixty-three. Within a year they had a son, John Pound Booth, whose tragic end is recorded at the top of the gravestone described above.

Deeply concerned for his wife’s health, John Booth amended his will, leaving the substantial sum intended for his now-dead son to her, saying that this was ‘in consideration for the bad state of my wife Sophia Caroline Booth’s health and in consequence of the lamented death of my son John Pound Booth’.

The Shell Lady - Anne Carrington's tribute to Sophie Booth. (c. Nick Barham, Secret Margate, Amberley Publishing)

When Sophia and Turner met, she was living with her elderly second husband at Harbour House. When Mr Booth died, Sophia was only thirty-four, but already twice widowed and mourning the loss of two sons. Turner was also recently bereaved: still deeply affected by the death, in 1829, of his father William, to whom he was enormously close. William had worked as his son’s studio assistant for thirty years, and Turner suffered bouts of depression following his passing.

Turner would travel down to Margate on the so-called Husbands’ Boat, used by the men of London at the weekends to join their families who were staying, or living, in the healthier air of Margate.

He clearly adored Sophia, wrote her love poems and gave her sketches, but did he ever paint her? The Tate has a work described as A Sleeping Woman, perhaps Mrs Booth and some experts believe that the erotic sketches Turner produced in his last twenty years were inspired by his love of Mrs Booth.

The relationship seems to have suited them both very well. Sophia was financially independent and undemanding, and Turner was almost entirely wrapped up in his art. Sophia seems to have stepped into the emotionally and practically supportive role previously filled by Turner’s father. She died twenty-seven years after the artist, who succumbed to cholera in 1851.

Sophia does have a public tribute in Margate. At the far end of the harbour wall is a modern sculpture of a shell lady entitled Mrs Booth. The 12 ft bronze was created by Anne Carrington, who says of it: ‘The sculpture is a scaled-up version of the tiny shell lady ornaments which are sold in the souvenir shops on Margate sea front. What I like about this sculpture is its unlikely size and setting as the shell lady is granted all the civic respect of a local hero.’

Andy Bull's new book Secret Margate is available for purchase now.