A DOZEN DECEPTIONS about the fate of Turner’s “bequest” for his “gallery



1.  In 1855 the Director of  the National Gallery, Sir Charles Eastlake, said “the possession of them [Mr. Turner’s pictures] for the purposes of exhibition would be strictly consistent with the objects of the National Gallery” (to the Special Examiner of the Court of Chancery, 5 July).  But they were not.   The objects of the National Gallery he defined as “to improve the Public Taste” and “to give artists and others opportunities of studying the best works of former or present Times.”  But the general view, in which Eastlake shared, was that some of Turner’s finished pictures could not be classified as “best” or as improving the public taste.


2.  In 1861  Eastlake said “I have a great respect for the wishes of testators” (to the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Turner Bequest, 18 July, § 43).  But he did not.  He said at the same time, “if the testator’s directions were to be literally fulfilled …, great inconvenience would be the result …” (§ 21).  (He might have thought of that six years earlier, when he was trying to get the bequest for the National Gallery!).  What he wanted was freedom to do what he thought was right.  The Committee did not support him, and unanimously said that Turner’s wishes should prevail.


3.  Turner made some bequests contingent upon the Turner Gallery not being erected as he wished.  In 1861 those potential beneficiaries were told they had no claim to those bequests, as Turner’s condition that room(s) for his bequest be built had been fulfilled.[1]   But the National Gallery had not constructed any rooms for it, and so the Turners had no fixed or adequate space at the National Gallery.


4.  In 1882-3 a Bill was introduced to allow the conditions of donors to be disregarded after 25 years when they forbad the dispersal of collections by loan.  (J.S.Mill had advocated the granting of such licence after 50/60-90/100 years, and today the period is fixed at 50 years for the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and Tate Gallery, but in 1882 that was too long for a Bill aimed against a bequest received 26 years earlier).  The need for the Bill, which was passed in 1883 after hardly any debate, was attributed to (a) the wish of the provincial museums to borrow, and (b) the lack of space at the National Gallery (Viscount Hardinge, chairman of the National Gallery Trustees, in the House of Lords, 17 August 1882;  cf. 15 March 1883).  But that was only half the truth.  The National Gallery had thought from the start that some Turners were inferior and had wanted to dispose of those in this way;  and some thought that there were too many relative to the number of works by other artists.  But to admit that would raise the question of why the gallery had been so keen to accept the collection in the first place, and indeed a much larger quantity of works than the artist had willed to it.


5.  In 1890 The Times in an editorial wrote:  “It cannot be denied that a large proportion of such gifts as those made by Mr.Sheepshanks, Mr.Vernon, Mr.Jacob Bell – shall we add, by the great Turner himself?  –  were not such as would have been accepted if the Director at the time had been free to act with a fastidious regard for the interests of the Gallery” (13 March 1890, 9d).[2]   But Eastlake had willingly accepted not only what Turner left to the National Gallery, but a great deal more (and he and other curators had also welcomed the other gifts named, but later found inconvenient).


6.  In 1908, on announcing the Duveen wing for Turner at the Tate Gallery, the Minister, the Hon. Lewis Harcourt, said “by doing this we shall have attained to the nearest possible fulfilment of Turner’s desire … to have all his works gathered together in one Gallery so that they might form a collected whole” (to he National Art-Collections Fund, 6 May).  But it would have been possible, as some then advocated, to show the whole lot together at the National Gallery or at the Tate Gallery.  Splitting the collection was disregarding what everyone has agreed was Turner’s prime wish:  “Keep them together.”

When the Duveen wing opened in 1910, The Burlington Magazine said that “the works which this great painter bequeathed to the nation will be for the first time exhibited as a single collection” (Editorial, August 1910; cf. August 1907).  In fact the works bequeathed to the nation (excluding the separate bequest of two to hang with Claudes) had been shown together 1856-83, but have never been since, except for six months in 1987.


7.  The fiction was maintained by the National Gallery, Law Officers and Minister that the transfer of Turners to the Tate (then part of the National Gallery) was only a loan (as sanctioned by the 1883 Act), whereas the patent purpose of the Duveen wing was to provide a permanent home for the bulk of the bequest, as it more or less remained until 1987 and the Duveen’s Clore replacement, by when the Tate was a separate entity from the National.


8.  In 1980, with the announcement of the Clore Gallery, Martin Butlin, Keeper of the British Collection at the Tate Gallery, said, “all of the oil paintings will be available without formality, either in the main galleries or in a reserve …” (Turner at the Tate, p.18).  That has not been the case.  Many of the unfinished oils and up to half the finished ones have often been unavailable without prior appointments or even with such.


9.  In 1987 at the opening of the Clore Gallery the Queen referred to “his bequest of pictures brought together, at last, and on display as we would have wished” (1 April).  At the same time Evelyn Joll, then or later on a Tate committee, said that “the dying wishes of Britain’s greatest painter are realized at last … The contents of Turner’s studio [engravings excepted] are now reunited under one roof” (The Times, 26 March).  But Turner had stipulated that his bequest be kept together under one roof “constantly” not once in 100 years.  And in 1983-4 Martin Butlin had admitted that the National Gallery would keep some of the pictures.  The showing of them together for six months was then a ploy to give a specious credibility to the claim that Turner’s wishes were being met.  That the Clore “relates only tenuously to his [Turner’s] stated wishes” was admitted by its curator, Andrew Wilton (Illustrated London News, April 1987).


10.  In 1999 Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate Gallery, said that “Turner never stipulated that all his paintings should be exhibited together;  he had in mind a rotating display of selections from his hundred or so finished works” (2 February).   This was untrue and contradicted the Tate’s earlier claim.

In 1988, according to the Turner Society (committee minutes, 6 October), the “integrity of the Turner Bequest as a single collection … was only not being met in respect of the paintings from the Bequest hanging in the National Gallery.  However, the Gallery had promised to change these from time to time, returning them to the Clore and taking another selection in their place.”  However this has never been done;  the occasional loan of a work from the Tate to National does not constitute the rotation implied.  In 2002 the Chairman of the National Gallery Trustees, Peter Scott, has said that “we have been conscious of the public’s familiarity with the whereabouts of much-loved paintings.   We therefore do not anticipate any significant increase in exchanges in the near future.”  Whether the authors of this deception – which deceived journalists on The Independent and other papers – were the National Gallery or Turner Society is unclear. That such rotation is undesirable, as Mr Scott says, and does nothing to meet Turner’s intention does not alter the fact of the deception.


11.  In 1992 advertisements for reproductions by Lawrence & Turner and the Tate Gallery claimed that since 1987 “all the artist’s magnificent bequest has been made accessible in its entirety for the first time” (February).  Other claims were that “it was not until the opening of the Clore wing of the Tate Gallery in 1987 that this breathtaking bequest was to find a permanent home” (February 1993);  and that the Clore wing “finally fulfilled Turner’s wishes for a permanent gallery solely devoted to his works” (June 1993).  But all these “firsts” are bogus.  The Clore is basically a repetition of the Duveen solution, and the drawings in fact became less accessible than before for “a shameful period” (Martin Butlin, after retirement from the Tate, in The Oxford Companion to J.M.W.Turner, 2001, p.327) and even subsequently.   Likewise the claim that at the Clore “the vast majority of Turner’s Bequest has received an unprecedented level of conservation, care, scholarly attention and public exposure” (ibid., p.384) is exaggerated.  There has been an unprecedented rate of loss of finished pictures (two loaned contrary to Turner’s wishes and stolen) and there have been times in the past when the finished pictures, Turner’s main concern, have had more public exposure.   The watercolours were regularly exhibited long before the Clore opened.


12.  Since 1993 the aforementioned advertisements dropped those claims, but after 1993 they called the Tate Gallery the “custodian of the Turner Bequest.”  And the Tate Gallery’s press release announcing the first refurbishment of the Clore Gallery referred to its rooms “which house the Turner Bequest” (16 March 1994).  These phrases – repeated in a notice in the Clore Gallery in 2001 – imply the century-old falsehood – that the “bequest” is united at the Tate Gallery.



Note:  These deceptions only concern the terms of Turner’s main bequest to the National Gallery and the cover-ups used to disguise their non-fulfilment.   (Other deceptions have been employed with regard to the Royal Academy’s Turner Fund).  The artistic and practical failures over the display of the “collection”, the mistakes in conservation etc. are outside the scope of these remarks.


J.M.W.Turner, R.A., Publications


1st published April 1994;  revised August 2002.




[1]   “Mr Turner R.A. died … bequeathing to this Hospital £500 to be paid out of the sale of his finished pictures, provided the Trustees of the National Gallery did not, within the space of ten years, construct a room or rooms to be added to the National Gallery for the public Exhibition of the said pictures.  The Secretary understands that the Trustees of the National Gallery have recently carried into effect the wishes of the Testator and therefore the contingency is at an end”  (Thomas Coram Foundation, Minutes of the General Court, 1 January 1862).

R.N.Wornum, Keeper of the National Gallery, wrote, “the conditions of the painter’s will are now fulfilled” (The Turner Gallery [1861-2] p.xxii).

[2]   In 1954 Nigel Nicolson MP similarly said that the 1883 Act was to allow the National Gallery to rid itself of worthless pictures “wished on it by unscrupulous testators.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>