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William Turner 1792-1867

By Allen G. Berman

On 8, April 1812, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, a young man boarded a ship named Argo and sailed South from England, more full of dreams than of reality.  This young man was William Turner.

William Turner was born into fortunate circumstance.  While his family was not possessed of the greatest wealth and power, his father Richard Turner, a lecturer at Yarmouth, maintained the necessary connections to advance his son to a career in the diplomatic corps.  In 1811 he was given a minor post on the staff of Great Britain’s new ambassador to Constantinople.  The greatest influence in obtaining this position probably came from George Canning, foreign minister 1807-09 and prime minister in 1827, but Turner, in his Journal took great care to publicly thank Marquis Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington and Lord Castlereagh, foreign minister 1812-22, his superiors. 

While Turner’s assignments with the foreign office kept him, as a rule, safely out of the war zone, his activities at this fulcrum of European history provided him with the opportunity to view the world in a manner that a peace time traveler without diplomatic status could not.  These experiences were collected enthusiastically, though selectively, in his journals, which were published in three volumes as a Journal of a Tour of the Levant in 1820.  En route to his post in the East he had the privilege of attending sessions of the Spanish Cortez being held under siege, just weeks following its enactment of the famous Liberal Constitution, later repudiated by Ferdinand VII.  Turner reports on the status of various naval blockades and finds himself in Athens, celebrating the “news of Bonaparte’s compelled abdication” with the none too disappointed French consul.

Turner’s opinions of the lands he visited during his assignments to the Ottoman Empire were strongly influenced by his idealized preconceptions of the lands of classical antiquity as well as what was then a typical Western European condemnation of other cultures.  The young Turner was quick to label Greeks and Turks alike as “barbarians” even to the point of extending this label to the Bishop of Cos who was acting as his host.  Turner would ask for nothing and “demand” everything.  Indeed, though Turner’s pen even compliments became derisions, “The enthusiasm with which the sight of Greece filled me, inspired me with the warmest interest for its degraded people.”  On many an occasion, however, good cause for righteous indignation was not lacking.  After mentioning that columns of the Parthenon had “been ground to dust by the Turks to make mortar,” Turner mentions a then recent news item, “I could not witness the progress which devastation was made here without wishing (however unpopular the doctrine) that Lord Elgin has carried off more.  At all events, I think that Athens and England are both under infinite obligations to him for what he has saved.”

Turner was fascinated by the social customs of both the Greeks and Turks, about which he made copious notes, particularly concerning dress, superstition, language distribution and demographics.  His comparative study of popular Greek idioms descended from Homeric times continued even after his return to England.

In 1824, seven years after his return to England, Turner arrived again in Constantinople as Secretary of the British Embassy.  After serving there as minister plenipotentiary on an interim basis, he was sent, in October 1829, to the newly independent Republic of Gran Colombia, still under the leadership of the legendary liberator Simon Bolivar.  There he served nine years as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary until his retirement from the Foreign Service.

Throughout his travels, Turner was always keen to ask for what the Greeks called “medals” –any coin of ancient origin—as well as engraved seals.  He consciously avoided what he termed “Venetian,” the base soldi which arrived through the Balkans or the earlier torneselli especially made for the Levant, but readily accepted anything of classical appearance.  At Turner’s death in 1867 this collection remained within the family, passing to his son, Mansfield Turner (d.1901), and through the latter’s daughter to William Turner’s great grandson, with whom it remained until 1987.

It is with pleasure and some excitement that we are able to present coins of this fascinating provenance along with brief excerpts from Turner’s Journal.  Thus we present the lands of classical civilization as observed through the eyes of a numismatist during the Napoleonic era. We trust that numismatists of the late twentieth century will take as much joy in reading this catalogue as the cataloguers have had in preparing it.

Journal of a tour in the Levant, Volume 1

Journal of a tour in the Levant, Volume 2

Journal of a tour in the Levant, Volume 3