A newly-discovered masterpiece by J. M. W. Turner


Nothing is more exciting for the lover of art than the totally unexpected appearance of a masterpiece by a great artist. That two such masterpieces by J. M. W. Turner should turn up in a private collection in Paris is even more amazing. The collection of Camille Groult, who besides acquiring works by French masters was also unusual among Continental collectors in his interest in British paintings, has remained all but hidden from view since his death in 1907. It was known that he had purchased, from the dealer Sedelmeyer in about 1894, one work by Turner, Ancient Italy – Ovid banished from Rome (fig. 1), a finished picture exhibited by the artist at the Royal Academy in 1838,1Lent by Thos, Agnew & Sons, Ltd., to the exhibition Fanfare for Europe: The British Art Market 1973, Christie’s January 1973 (31) and now in a Portuguese private collection. but this was all: that is, apart from the complication that a copy of this picture by another hand was known for which a provenance was claimed from the same collection, and that the collection was also suspected of containing other misattributed works. When, in 1967, a completely unknown oil painting by Turner, neither exhibited by the artist in his lifetime nor, apparently, recorded since, was acquired from this same collection for the Louvre, Turner specialists were amazed and delighted2For the Louvre picture in particular, and many of the issues discussed in this article, see Michael Kitson, ‘Un Nouveau Turner au Musée du Louvre’, in La Revue du Louvre, XIX, 1969, pp. 247–56, the Louvre picture repr. in colour pl, 249, and Michael Kitson, ‘Nouvelles Précisions sur le “Paysage” de Turner du Musée du Louvre’, in ibid., XXI, 1971, pp. 89–94. See also the exhibition catalogue, Turner 1775–1851, Royal Academy, London, 1974–5, pp. 169–70, Nos. 619–624. (fig. 2). Nobody dared hope that a second such unknown work was still lurking in the secretive house on the Paris boulevard. About four years ago the present writer, sworn to secrecy, was shown photographs of the known Ancient Italy – Ovid banished from Rome and a further work, so abstract in character that at first sight it was difficult to tell even whether it was a landscape or a stormy sea. A year or so later the picture spent a short time in London, with Thos, Agnew & Sons, Ltd., before being sent on to Australia: the present writer was again fortunate in being one of the few people who saw the picture on this occasion, when its qualities were fully apparent. Acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1974 it returned, thanks to the generosity of the Trustees and Director, to London in the winter of 1974–5 to form part of the large exhibition devoted to Turner’s work arranged jointly by the Tate Gallery and the Royal Academy and shown at the Royal Academy where it was seen by over 400,000 people. 

Why was the appearance of this work and that now in the Louvre so particularly unexpected? Both pictures are from a large group of oil paintings by Turner of a kind that is probably unique, at least on this scale. Their unusual nature has even resulted in difficulties in nomenclature. Variously called ‘unfinished’ or ‘sketches’ they are more probably to be regarded as works in progress, or, borrowing a term first applied by A. J. Finberg to a certain category of Turner’s watercolours, ‘colour beginnings’.3A. J. Finberg, A Complete Inventory of the Drawings of the Turner Bequest …, 1909, I, pp. 598–9. Turner was a keen member of the Royal Academy. Elected an Associate in 1799 at the youngest possible qualifying age and a full member in 1802, he exhibited regularly nearly every year from 1790 to 1850, the year before he died, usually showing more than one work and frequently as many as six or more. The last twenty years of his life, however, saw the production of nearly two-thirds as many oil paintings with a lack of finish and specific subject-matter that, as he himself would have been the first to accept, made them unsuitable for exhibition (some sixty-five as against the one hundred and ten or so exhibited). This was not so much a concession to the conservatism of contemporary taste as a recognition, based on his training at the Royal Academy Schools, of the academic tradition of what was suitable to rank as high art, worthy of acceptance by the connoisseur, with which went an appreciation of the hierarchy of genres, by which subjects derived from the Bible or history ranked higher than landscapes, portraits and so on. Turner even exhibited a few pictures in which the figure predominated, for instance Pilate washing his hands, exhibited in 1830, but on the whole, recognising that his true medium was landscape, he proclaimed his ambition for high status by continuing in the tradition of the ‘historical landscape’ established by Titian, Poussin and Claude, in which the landscape formed the setting for historic deeds. 

The romantic, 20th-century interpretation of Turner’s unexhibited oil paintings has been that they represent his release from convention, the true expression of his innermost aspirations in which he anticipated Impressionism and abstract art, and in particular the Abstract Expressionism of the post-war New York school. But in fact such a painting as Snow storm – steam boat off a harbour’s mouth, exhibited at the Academy in 1842, demonstrates that he was little restricted in his exhibits provided that they embodied a significant theme, in this case the puniness of the man-made steamboat in the face of the natural destructiveness of the sea; so far as the subject went this was as valid as the Biblical Plagues that had formed the subjects of two of his early exhibits, in 1800 and 1802. What he did not exhibit were his paintings of stormy seas per se. Moreover, even at the end of his career he held to his academic tenets: his last exhibits in 1850 were four pictures treating the story of Dido and Aeneas at Carthage, a continuation of the theme of the fall of empires, with its application to the Britain of his day, that had occupied him since the Dido building Carthage; or the rise of the Carthaginian Empire and The decline of the Carthaginian Empire exhibited in 1815 and 1817 respectively. 

The most convincing explanation of the late unexhibited oil paintings, those dating from the last twenty years of Turner’s life, is that they were paintings in which the main issues, both in composition and content, were already established but which still awaited the choice of a specific subject and the introduction of the precise detail necessary to express these main issues. This is borne out by Turner’s practice on the Varnishing Days at the Royal Academy and the parallel exhibiting body, the British Institution. These were the days preceding the public opening of the annual exhibition of living artists. They were established with nothing more in mind than to enable exhibitors to make final touches to their pictures to take account of their placing or the character of the works that happened to hang next to them. When two hundred pictures were crammed into the Great Room of the Academy, then at Somerset House, which only measured 55 by 45 feet, the various hazards such as the fall of light, the strength of colour in neighbouring pictures and the height one’s work was placed above or below the ‘line’ could have a vital effect on a picture’s chance of success. But for Turner the Varnishing Days afforded the opportunity for much more drastic activity on his pictures. A number of accounts were left by his amazed contemporaries. One was E. V. Rippingille, writing of the first of Turner’s two oil paintings of The burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th of October, 1834, exhibited early the following year at the British Institution. 

‘The picture when sent in was a mere dab of several colours, and “without form and void”, like chaos before the creation. The managers knew that a picture would be sent there, and would not have hesitated, knowing to whom it belonged, to have received and hung up a bare canvas, than which this was but little better. Such a magician, performing his incantations in public, was an object of interest and attraction … For the three hours I was there – and I understood it had been the same since he began in the morning – he never ceased to work, or even once looked or turned from the wall on which his picture hung … Presently the work was finished: Turner then gathered his tools together, put them into and shut up the box, and then, with his face still turned to the wall, and at the same distance from it, went sidling off … All looked with a half-wondering smile, and Maclise, who stood near, remarked, “There, that’s masterly, he does not stop to look at his work; he knows it is done, and he is off”.’4E. V. Rippingille, ‘Personal Recollections of Great Artists; No. 8 – Sir Augustus W. Callcott, R.A.’, in Art-Journal, 1860, p. 100. The painting is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

That this was Turner’s practice as early as 1830 is attested by two accounts of View of Orvieto, painted in Rome, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830 but already shown in Rome in the winter of 1828–9, when it was seen by his friend and fellow-artist Charles Eastlake (later Sir Charles Eastlake, the first Director of the National Gallery, London). Eastlake later gave Turner’s first biographer Walter Thornbury an account of the pictures exhibited in Rome: ‘The pictures … were, in fact, not finished; nor could any of his exhibited pictures be said to be finished till he had worked on them when they were on the walls of the Royal Academy’.5Walter Thornbury, The Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., 1862, I, p. 221. The other pictures referred to by Eastlake were ‘Medea’, exhibited at the Royal Academy 1831, and ‘Regulus’, exhibited at the British Institution 1837. All three pictures are now in the Tate Gallery. This is corroborated by a review of the 1830 Academy exhibition in The Morning Chronicle for 3 May. Speaking of Orvieto and Pilate washing his hands6Tate Gallery. the critic wrote: 

‘We understand that when these pictures were sent to the Academy, it was difficult to define their subject; and that in the four or five days allowed (exclusively, and, therefore, with shameless partiality to A’s [Associates] and R.A.’s to touch on their works, and injure as much as possible the underprivileged) they have been got up as we see them. They still partake of the nature of conundrums.’ 

Up to about 1830, on the other hand, Turner seems to have developed his compositions by the more conventional use of separate sketches, either drawings or in oils. Examples of the latter are the sketch for Harvest dinner, Kingston Bank (exhibited in Turner’s own private gallery in 1809), which is smaller in size but otherwise similar in style and technique to a group of seventeen sketches of Thames and Thames Estuary subjects done c.1807,7Tate Gallery Nos 2691–2700, 2702–7 and 5519. The sketch for Harvest dinner is No. 2696 and measures 24 x 36 in. as opposed to the approx. 36 x 48 in. of the others; the finished picture is Tate Gallery No. 491. the six sketches done while Turner was staying on the Isle of Wight in 1827, used for the pictures of East Cowes Castle, the Seat of J. Nash, Esq.; the regatta beating to windward and East Cowes Castle, the Seat of J. Nash, Esq.; the regatta starting for their moorings exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1828,8Tate Gallery Nos 1993–5, 1997–8 and 2000. The finished pictures are in the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum respectively. and the sketch, almost certainly painted at Rome in 1828–9, for Ulysses deriding Polyphemus, exhibited at the Academy in 1829.9Tate Gallery No. 2958; the finished picture is in the National Gallery, London, No. 508. 

 

One of the amazing qualities of Turner’s sketches and works-in-progress is that they are not ‘unfinished’ in the wider sense. Apart from rare exceptions among the scrappier works from the Turner Bequest now at the Tate Gallery, they are always complete as far as they go: in composition and colour they are well-balanced and aesthetically satisfying, whatever the lack of definition. Hence the perhaps almost exaggerated emphasis placed on this aspect of Turner’s work in the 20th century. The Melbourne picture is a magnificent example of this combination of aesthetic self-sufficiency with the impromptu character of a sketch, though the difficulty in identifying the intended subject is perhaps greater than usual. The traditional title by which the picture was known in the Groult collection associated it with the Val d’Aosta, on the Italian side of the Alps near Mont Blanc and the St. Bernard Passes, a district revisited by Turner in company with his patron H. A. J. Munro of Novar in 1836, and it shares the turbulent mood of the picture Turner exhibited the following year as a result of this visit, the Snow-storm, avalanche, and inundation – a scene in the upper part of Val d’Aout, Piedmont (fig. 3), now in the Art Institute of Chicago. The Melbourne picture is even closer to the unexhibited painting in the Tate Gallery tentatively entitled Sun setting over a lake (fig. 4) though again there is some doubt if the actual subject is an Alpine lake or a sea coast. 

 

Prolonged looking at the Melbourne picture confirms that it is a mountain scene, though one cannot specifically identify it as the Val d’Aosta. The spectator is looking down from a raised foreground, continuing in warm tones into the lower left-hand part of the picture, over a deep valley that recedes diagonally inwards from the right with mountain peaks obscured by clouds on the far side. Parallels can be found in two smaller mountain landscapes in the Tate Gallery, and also in the larger finished picture of Heidelberg (fig 5).10Tate Gallery Nos 5476, 5486 (which is particularly close in composition) and 518; the latter, though as finished as any of Turner’s later oil paintings, was apparently never exhibited at either the Royal Academy or the British Institution during his lifetime. The same shade of blue, confusingly close to that also used by Turner for sky and water, is used for the distant mountain peaks in the Melbourne picture as in Heidelberg and also to a lesser extent in the Chicago painting. Turner used a similar high viewpoint from a raised foreground in other pictures of this period, for instance The Bright Stone of Honour (Ehrenbreitstein) and the Tomb of Marceau, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835, and Rome from Mount Aventine, exhibited a year later.11English private collection and Earl of Rosebery, the first repr. exhibition catalogue, Turner 1775–1851, R.A., 1974–5, p. 142, no. 514. The dominant motive in the Melbourne picture is however the form that beats down from the left, perhaps a mountain torrent or swirling clouds, leaving exposed a massive rock or protruding bluff beyond. This solid mass, to the left of the centre of the picture, is paradoxically suggested not by the addition of paint but by leaving exposed a relatively unmodulated area of creamy buff to suggest the form, which is surrounded by the thick impasto with which Turner indicated the dynamic forces battering against it. This reversal of the logical process of suggesting solidity by solid paint, which is here used instead to indicate the more volatile elements of air and water, is typical of Turner’s practice, particularly in the way he shows trees against the sky by leaving a flat area of dark greenish-brown up to which the sky is painted relatively thickly, the outlines of the trees being defined by the raised edge of the blue of the sky, rather than by the darker tone of the trees themselves.12Good examples are The Arch of Constantine, Rome and Tivoli: Tobias and the Angel, Tate Gallery Nos 2066–7. The Melbourne picture is perhaps extreme in its lack of immediately recognisable forms but, as a ‘work-in-progress’ or ‘colour beginning’ in Turner’s special manner, it is not exceptional among his work. Just such a picture must have been sent into the Royal Academy to be worked up on the Varnishing Days to become the Chicago Snow-storm, avalanche, and inundation; even the size is that of Turner’s most common format, the 3-foot by 4-foot canvas. 

 

From their very nature such ‘colour beginnings’, like the earlier oil sketches, remained in Turner’s possession; they were not available to possible purchasers at the Royal Academy nor even, it would seem, in his own gallery; the two depictions of the interior of his gallery painted by George Jones just after Turner’s death show finished, framed pictures round the walls.13Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; repr. A. J. Finberg, The Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., 1939, 2nd ed. 1961, pls. 23 and 24. Not surprisingly, therefore, the majority of the ‘colour beginnings’ passed in 1856 to the National Gallery in London as part of the Turner Bequest and are now in the Tate. The Sun setting over a lake and the two small mountain landscapes already mentioned are examples; the well-known Norham Castle and a magnificent series of pictures of stormy seas are others. But at least eight examples the size of the Melbourne picture, plus five or more smaller examples or fragments, escaped the inventory of the contents of Turner’s studio from which were selected the works by his own hand that formed the Bequest.14See Martin Davies, National Gallery/London/Catalogues: The British School, 1946 ed. only, pp. 185–191. Some of the works that got away can be traced back to the collection of John Pound, the son by the first marriage of Turner’s housekeeper Mrs Booth.15The Pound sale at Christie’s on 24–25 March 1865 included eleven oils attributed to Turner, including two known 36 x 48 in. canvases, Dream of Italy: woman with tambourine, now in the collection of Mrs M. D. Fergusson, and a late view of Walton Bridges, sometimes known as Italy (!), in the Henry S. Morgan collection. Turner had lodged with Mrs Booth at Margate even before the death of her second husband in 1833 or 1834, and in 1846 he bought a house at the corner of Cheyne Walk and Davis Place, Chelsea, in her name. Although most of Turner’s pictures were found at his death in his house and adjacent gallery at Queen Ann Street West in central London, it is possible that he kept a stock of ‘colour beginnings’ at Cheyne Walk, where he spent most of his later years under the name of ‘Mr Booth’ (‘Puggy’ Booth to the locals) and where he died. They were not necessarily begun there, and indeed the style of the oil colour beginnings, both in and out of the Turner Bequest, suggests that they are the product of the 1830s and first half of the 1840s. Alternatively certain works may have been appropriated from Turner’s Queen Ann Street studio at his death. 

Nothing is known of the history of the Melbourne and Louvre pictures until they entered the collection of Camille Groult, probably in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Edmond de Goncourt noted in his Journal on 18 January 1890 that he had spent ‘un après-midi devant les tableaux anglais de Groult’ and described the Louvre picture.16See Kitson, 1969, op. cit., p, 247. In a letter of 23 June 1894 Camille Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien of ‘une exposition de l’école anglaise: des Reynolds superbes, quelques Gainsborough très beaux, deux Turner appartenant à Groult, très beaux’ and also mentioned another picture by Turner that the dealer Sedelmeyer was trying to sell to the Louvre;17John Rewald, ed., Camille Pissarro: Lettres à son fils Lucien, 1950, pp. 345–6. this last may have been the Ancient Italy – Ovid banished from Rome that was sold by Agnew’s to Sedelmeyer in 1893 and later also entered the Groult collection, in which case the second of the two Turners described by Pissarro as ‘très beaux’ was presumably the Melbourne one; unfortunately no catalogue of the exhibition has been traced. It is typical of the restricted view held of Turner’s art in the second half of the 19th century that these would have been the first ‘unfinished’ Turners ever to have been publicly exhibited. None of the similar works in the Turner Bequest were even given inventory numbers by the National Gallery until 1905, the first time such masterpieces as Norham Castle were placed on view in London. (Of the examples mentioned above and illustrated in this article Sun setting over a lake was not unearthed until 1932 and the two small mountain landscapes were among the final batch found in a corner of the National Gallery basement where they were thought to be old tarpaulins and given numbers in 1944; the Conservation Department of the Tate Gallery, established in 1953, did not reach them in its campaign of restoring the oils from the Turner Bequest until a year or so ago when they were cleaned specially for the recent bicentenary exhibition at the Royal Academy, and were thus first exhibited all but one hundred and twenty five years after Turner’s death.) (Fig. 6.) 

The extent of Turner’s development and also of his range at any one time was prodigious. The National Gallery of Victoria also possesses two early oil paintings of English scenes, Dunstanborough Castle, N.E. coast at Northumberland. Sun-rise after a squally night, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1798, and one of the two early views of Walton Bridges probably shown by Turner in his own gallery in 1806. The new painting is at the furthest remove from these both in its lack of finish and in its preoccupation with the more dramatic forces of nature, not so much for their own sake as for their relationship to human activity, the same issues that, in his earlier grand machines, he had expressed through historical subjects such as the Biblical Plagues and the Deluge. By a happy chance the painting was exhibited in London in 1974–5 in close proximity to another late Turner from the National Gallery of Victoria. This was the exquisite, highly finished watercolour known as the Red rigi (fig. 7), painted in 1847 for Munro of Novar, the purchaser of the Chicago Vat d’Aosta picture. Nothing could be more meticulously painted than this watercolour, even when compared to Turner’s early works, and very few as miraculously refined in colour and atmosphere among his late. Turner’s range, whatever the date, encompassed all moods and all degrees of finish. In these two late works Melbourne can boast two masterpieces showing the full extent of this range, a range unprecedented in British art.  

 

Martin Butlin 

Notes

1              Lent by Thos, Agnew & Sons, Ltd., to the exhibition Fanfare for Europe: The British Art Market 1973, Christie’s January 1973 (31) and now in a Portuguese private collection. 

2              For the Louvre picture in particular, and many of the issues discussed in this article, see Michael Kitson, ‘Un Nouveau Turner au Musée du Louvre’, in La Revue du Louvre, XIX, 1969, pp. 247–56, the Louvre picture repr. in colour pl, 249, and Michael Kitson, ‘Nouvelles Précisions sur le “Paysage” de Turner du Musée du Louvre’, in ibid., XXI, 1971, pp. 89–94. See also the exhibition catalogue, Turner 1775–1851, Royal Academy, London, 1974–5, pp. 169–70, Nos. 619–624. 

3              A. J. Finberg, A Complete Inventory of the Drawings of the Turner Bequest …, 1909, I, pp. 598–9.    

4              E. V. Rippingille, ‘Personal Recollections of Great Artists; No. 8 – Sir Augustus W. Callcott, R.A.’, in Art-Journal, 1860, p. 100. The painting is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

5              Walter Thornbury, The Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., 1862, I, p. 221. The other pictures referred to by Eastlake were ‘Medea’, exhibited at the Royal Academy 1831, and ‘Regulus’, exhibited at the British Institution 1837. All three pictures are now in the Tate Gallery. 

6              Tate Gallery. 

7              Tate Gallery Nos 2691–2700, 2702–7 and 5519. The sketch for Harvest dinner is No. 2696 and measures 24 x 36 in. as opposed to the approx. 36 x 48 in. of the others; the finished picture is Tate Gallery No. 491. 

8              Tate Gallery Nos 1993–5, 1997–8 and 2000. The finished pictures are in the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum respectively. 

9              Tate Gallery No. 2958; the finished picture is in the National Gallery, London, No. 508.   

10           Tate Gallery Nos 5476, 5486 (which is particularly close in composition) and 518; the latter, though as finished as any of Turner’s later oil paintings, was apparently never exhibited at either the Royal Academy or the British Institution during his lifetime. 

11           English private collection and Earl of Rosebery, the first repr. exhibition catalogue, Turner 1775–1851, R.A., 1974–5, p. 142, no. 514. 

12           Good examples are The Arch of Constantine, Rome and Tivoli: Tobias and the Angel, Tate Gallery Nos 2066–7.   

13           Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; repr. A. J. Finberg, The Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., 1939, 2nd ed. 1961, pls. 23 and 24. 

14           See Martin Davies, National Gallery/London/Catalogues: The British School, 1946 ed. only, pp. 185–191. 

15           The Pound sale at Christie’s on 24–25 March 1865 included eleven oils attributed to Turner, including two known 36 x 48 in. canvases, Dream of Italy: woman with tambourine, now in the collection of Mrs M. D. Fergusson, and a late view of Walton Bridges, sometimes known as Italy (!), in the Henry S. Morgan collection. 

16           See Kitson, 1969, op. cit., p, 247. 

17           John Rewald, ed., Camille Pissarro: Lettres à son fils Lucien, 1950, pp. 345–6.