Newsletter september 2015

The Independent Turner Society

Newsletter with Cambridge’s Ruskins Turners 

Turner House, 153 Cromwell Road, London SW5 OTQ, Great Britain

Tel & Fax:  020 7373 5560;  Mobile:  07535 971579  

President:   Douglass Montrose-Graem                                           Chairman:   Robert Walmsley                                          Treasurer:  Dominique Lambert                                                       Secretary:    Selby Whittingham

English weather was a clue to the source of the secret of Turner’s art, even when he was depicting Venice and the Alps (see below).  It also explains the British tendency to grumble rather than to act.  There are of course exceptions, one being Brenda Riley who has raised the banner in defence of a former Whittingham home, hopefully with more success than had another doughty woman who tried to turn Turner’s Cheyne Walk cottage into a museum before its subsequent mangling.  Similar mangling has occurred to the part of Turner House occupied by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s.  The disputes over Turner House have continued for 30 years, and now occupy much of my time.

This, and being unwell last month, must be an excuse for recent inaction.  The political situation is another.  A fourth reason is the lack of active support.  I had hoped to mount a polemical exhibition this autumn following the initiative of Gill Harris, but it would have little point without receiving the requisite interest and the future of the chosen venue was temporarily also in doubt.  It has therefore seemed better to defer that until next year, though any delay is much to be regretted.

Meanwhile Dalya Alberge through persistent questioning has got a list of Turners on loan to 10 Downing Street under recent administrations – except that of  David Cameron, when “apparently” there have been none.  However press photographs of Samantha Cameron in front of Turners in the White Drawing Room show up the authorities as once more being economical with the truth.  The dispersal of the Turner Bequest continues, despite propaganda to the contrary.  As the exhibition touring California draws to an end, another major loan Turner one opens in Holland.  A proper Turner Gallery, as the artist had in mind, is incompatible with this profligate policy of lending major oils which should always be in the Gallery.

Also misleading is the account of the creation of the Clore Gallery in Thomas Grant’s Jeremy Hutchinson’s  Case Histories (2015).  What it leaves out is as significant as what it says, as is the case with other histories which touch on the creation of the Clore.  Misleading too for the same reason was Lawrence Gowing’s account of the 1979 Tate extension included in Lawrence Gowing’s Selected Writings on Art, ed. Sarah Whitfield (Ridinghouse 2015).  My review of that has been posted on by Prof. George Landow,  as has been the long enthusiastic review of Turner’s 1850 exhibits, reprinted for the first time in my Brickbats and Bouquets for Turner: Unknown or Unregarded Critiques (J.M.W.Turner, R.A., Publications, 2015).

  One of Jeremy Hutchinson’s triumphs of advocacy was to argue that the person who had taken  Goya’s portrait of Wellington from the National Gallery had not stolen it, but had merely taken it to make a point and with the intention of returning it.  Someone should volunteer to steal the Fighting Temeraire, an idea proposed by one of our members years ago, to make an even more important point – that the National Gallery has no right to it or the other Turners in the same room.

Disgracefully Turner’s family is still blamed by some for the failure to carry out his wishes for his main art bequest, an idea promulgated by the art establishment to divert attention from the true culprits – the galleries, parliament and ultimately the British people.     In recent years we have extensively researched Turner’s mother’s family, the Marshalls, (who were only involved in the bequest as defenders of it), publishing many new details.  A note which I have written on the Byrons and Marshalls of Nottinghamshire will appear in the Byron Society Journal.

  Histories of Turner dwell repetitively on quite a small cast of characters, missing out wholly or in part others who were as important.  Among these was James Holworthy, Turner’s letters to whom are the most revealing of any.  I have been in touch with the present owner of the house which he built in Derbyshire.  Revisiting my notes on that, I discovered that a recent neighbour had in his youth inherited it from the family which had acquired it from Holworthy’s.  He spent his 90th birthday there a year ago and we have now exchanged information.

Another was Sir John Leicester of Tabley, on whom Dr Peter Cannon-Brookes gave an authoritative and entertaining talk on 27 July at the Wallace Collection, at which I was glad to see a number of our members.  A visit to Tabley House is at least as revelatory as one to Petworth House.  Leicester was a friend of Sir Richard Colt Hoare, who is central to Turner’s Wessex, ending at Salisbury on 27 September.

A lesser early collector was George Hibbert MP, the subject of an article in the September issue of History Today.  He lived by Clapham Common, as did others associated with Turner (there were no takers for my proposed Walk around Turner’s Clapham, however).  He was involved in the slave business in the West Indies, as was the Lascelles family.  Will & Tom by Matthew Plampin (The Borough Press, 2015) opens with Turner at Harewood House in 1797.  The author is talking about his novel at Dulwich Picture Gallery on 22 October (£14).

A much more important early friend was the Revd Henry Scott Trimmer, a descendant of whom has acquired a fine portrait of a member of the Trimmer family.  A painting which Turner may have given to Trimmer on his wedding in 1805 (research on it continues) was the subject of a widely-reported court case in June, to which I was summoned to appear as a witness.

Among later friends B.G.Windus is the subject of Margaret Burr’s .   A new discovery is that the monument to his wife is by E.H.Baily R.A., sculptor of the statue on Nelson’s Column and would-be designer of Turner’s monument and medal.  On Monday 28 September there will be a lunchtime talk on this in Holy Trinity, Tottenham.

Another late collector of Turner was Elhanan Bicknell, whose career is touched on by Marcus Bicknell and the new Clarence Bicknell Association .

Less well known is the Revd William Towler Kingsley, on whom I wrote a note for the bicentenary of his birth this year, and the centenary of whose death  should be marked by a biography and an exhibition at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, next year.   Kingsley had planned to ask Turner to make a major gift of his watercolours to the Fitzwilliam a decade before Ruskin, also his friend,  did, but Turner’s death prevented the planned meeting about that.   An exhibition of  Ruskin’s Turners at the Fitzwilliam Museum ends on 4 October.  Ruskin’s gift was designed to be representative of all Turner’s periods (as was the Turner Bequest), though today the late sketches of Venice and Switzerland are the most admired –  showing the artist’s phenomenal understanding of weather, to which I have already alluded.   These exhibitions of watercolours (as the one at Salisbury mainly is) do not constitute an assault on what should be the essence of the Turner Gallery as the others do.  See further on this my review.  Next year the Fitzwilliam celebrates its bicentenary.  We might organise a visit to Cambridge then, if sufficient interest is expressed.

Coming to the present, we have two exhibitions of work by great admirers of Turner – the late Albert Irvin R.A. (24 July – 12 September at Gimpel Fils) and Dennis Creffield (18 September – 30 October at James Hyman Gallery).

  NB.   Two new websites replacing old ones should be launched this month:  our own, on which comments and suggestions should be sent to our Chairman and Webmaster  Robert Walmsley ( ) .  It will contain material relevant to the Turner Gallery Campaign, to Turner and Ruskin.  .It will also have material on The Artist’s Gallery, an important ingredient in our Case and Campaign, treated in our World Directory, the revision of which began this year (to complete which volunteers are sought).  Doubly relevant to that is the Turner Museum, U.S.A., whose new Director I was delighted to meet in June.  Its website is also being recreated this month with a feature on Turner’s great marines

Selby Whittingham                                                                                               6 September 2015.


Ruskin’s Turners at Cambridge 

This exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum (until 4 October 2015) is accompanied by another of the museum’s watercolours, Watercolour:Elements of nature (until 27 September) (Free entry to both).  Years ago I organised a visit to the museum’s Turners and the then Keeper (David Scrase?) kindly set them out for us in the print room unframed, where we could relish their freshness undimmed as Ruskin’s gift to the Ashmolean is through fading.  But in this show it is the lighting which is dimmed and, with regard to those in display cabinets, ill-directed.  Our late advisor on display and lighting, Dr William Allen, would have some caustic remarks on this amateurism.  It calls into question how far such exhibitions of Turner’s watercolours are worthwhile.  The big early ones on view at Salisbury were designed to compete with oil paintings.  But these mostly late sketches were really for private consumption.  The wholly justified enthusiasm for them on the part of Ruskin and many others has led to the foolish, when not mischievous, argument that it is not worth bothering about Turner’s oils when in some ways these sketches are more enjoyable and occasionally better preserved.

I have referred before to the exasperation of people who have visited such exhibitions of his watercolours only to be greatly disappointed that they cannot see them properly – or as well as in reproductions.  This is truer, of course, of those whose eyesight is less good than it once was – as was the case of a late American Ruskinian supporter of ours.  But the frustration must be experienced in varying degrees by many visitors.  There is the further drawback that, if the exhibition draws many visitors, one has to jostle for a place to get near in the case of the smaller works.  One cannot then have the prolonged undisturbed examination such as Ruskin enjoyed of the works which he owned or saw in collections such as that of Windus.

With regard to reproductions it is instructive to compare the postcard of Venice, Storm at sunset (on sale with all the Turner merchandise  mandatory at such shows) with the one in the 1975 catalogue by Malcolm Cormack of the museum’s Turners.  While the second is pale, the colours in the postcard are saturated.  Neither is quite right.  One suspects that many are  unaware of this.

This Venice was perhaps the chef d’oeuvre of Ruskin’s gift.   But it has been abstracted from the room of his Turners and put in the general watercolour one.  This follows the yen to show art in context, though what it demonstrates is the great divide between Turner and others,  the realists not least next to whom he is here placed.  The late John Gage, the leading postwar Turnerian  at Cambridge, understood, as did Ruskin,  that Turner’s idiosyncratic approach to colouring  was fundamental to his achievement.  Whereas the other modern authority on Turner from Cambridge, Andrew Wilton, remains stuck in the 18th century and in his rearguard attempts to discredit Turner’s wishes for his bequests.  (René Gimpel in his Diary in 1929 wrote of President Hoover, “His inauguration address was stupid.  At a time when the world is faced with such vast problems, he has chosen the paltry theme of Prohibition enforcement.”  Wilton is the Hoover of Turner studies).

This Venice is not the only absentee from Ruskin’s Turners.  Another is the early one of Tonbridge, which some have doubted, though Ruskin said that “the little bit of reflected light under the bridge and half tone over the boats in the drawing is worth any quantity of sensational etchings.”  See further our J.M.W.Turner’s Tonbridge & District (2nd ed.).  Yet space is made for two poor likenesses of Turner at the start and some Ruskins at the end.

On the bookstall is a delightful detail of a girl with a dog (see over).  The girl appears in all Turner’s depictions of Richmond, Yorkshire, as here, in allusion, I have suggested, to “The Lass of Richmond Hill”, with whom Turner’s Tonbridge cousins were connected.  Ruskin seemingly got this Richmond (c.1826-8) from Windus, while the Mossdale Fall (c.1816-18) was given to him by Kingsley.