Thursday, April 10, 2008

William Webb Turner and Obidiah Oldbuck

I received an intriguing query recently relating to a column I wrote about Britain's first graphic novel, The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, published by Tilt and Bogue way back in 1841.

The query was from a collector who has a copy of the Tilt and Bogue book. He also has another edition which is rather intriguing: a hand-drawn, bound copy of the book signed by one William Webb Turner.

The book originally came from a Reading-based book-dealer named G. A. Poynder in the 1920s, who advertised the title thus:

TURNER: (William Webb) The Adventures of Obidiah Oldbuck, The Crosses, Chagrins, Calamities, etc. by which his courtship was attended showing also the issue of his suit and his espousal to his lady love. Authors original manuscript consisting of 84 finely executed pen and ink drawings with MS descriptions beneath. Oblong 12mo morocco, undated. 42 shillings.

It would appear to have been purchased by Sir John Fox (1855-1943), a Justice of the Peace for Oxfordshire who was invested as a Knight in 1921 and who lived in Goring, near Reading. The reason we know this is that Fox (pictured above) wrote to Poynder in 1923 asking how Poynder had acquired the book. Poynder responded that he was "unable to remember where the book came from as I have attended so many sales lately."

According to my correspondent: "The title page of the book has at the bottom 'William Webb Turner. Del.' Alongside the word Del there are three smaller initials to the top and one to the bottom which we cannot read."

Well, my first (and, I must confess, only) idea about 'Del' is that it stands for 'delineator', i.e. one who delineates or sketches. I believe this was sometimes used as an addition to a signature back in the days when printed artwork was a two-person process—you would have the artist who drew the image and an engraver who would create the woodblock from which the published version was printed.

"These are extremely well drawn illustrations that are the same as the printed version with the exception of a moustache added to main character on some pages," continued our correspondent. "The binding of the book appears to be contemporary with the date of the printed version."

Having never seen a copy of the original T&B book, I can't speak for how precisely the illustrations match but it's an intriguing thought that Turner may have been the artist who may have helped create the British edition of Obidiah Oldbuck (which was, of course, a rip-off of Rodolphe Töpffer's Les Amours de Mr Vieux Bois).

William Webb Turner was a published writer: Seaford Past and Present: Handbooks and Visitor's Guide by W. Banks and Wm. Webb Turner was published by R. W. Jackson of Seaford in 1881. A revised edition was published a year later. W. Banks would appear to be William Banks who lived in nearby Lewes.

(If you're like me, you'll have developed a sudden interest in Seaford... so here's a Google Maps satellite image of the town and its Wikipedia entry.)

According to a notice in The Times (29 May 1893), William Webb Turner, the son of the late J. S. Turner of Chyngton, died on the 23rd of May 1893, aged 52. Interestingly, both Turner and his father are mentioned in Kelly's Directory of Seaford for 1866 (which I found here): J. S. Turner was the Bailiff of the court and Captain William Webb Turner was based at the Head Quarters of Second Battery at Seaford, Newhaven and Alfriston. Turner had been a member of the 3rd Sussex Artillery Volunteers, having been promoted to Second Lieutenant on 15 May 1860 (a note of which can be found here).

Armed with this, we find that William Webb Turner was born in 1840, his birth registered in Steyning, Sussex, and we can track Turner through census records. He was the son of James S. Turner, a farmer and land agent who was also a Justice of the Peace, and Sarah Ann Turner. William followed in his father's footsteps and, eventually, also became a J.P. and land agent. His last occupation (given in the 1891 census) was "estate agent and civil engineer".

We have to presume that Turner was also an amateur artist of some ability, but the very fact that he was born a year before the Tilt & Bogue book came out rules him out as the artist who first brought Töpffer's work to the UK. Our correspondent notes: "The book also has written lightly in pencil to the inside front book: 'unique copy'." It's certainly that, and it would seem to have an interesting story behind it. One wonders if Sir John Fox recognised William Webb Turner as a fellow J.P. and purchased it for that reason—and why Turner, with his background in the military and the law—felt compelled to draw the book in the first place.

(* The portrait of Sir John Charles Fox comes from the National Portrait Gallery website where you can also find him resplendent in his wig.)

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