November  2005


The Old “Turner Society” 1975-2005


  In August 2005 Turner Society News congratulated itself on reaching its 100th issue, the society having lasted 30 years.  Its AGM on Guy Fawkes Day is presented with proposals for some minor changes to its Constitution, drafted in 1975 by Allan Pearce on lines to satisfy the Charity Commission (an irony, when this year the Commission has been seen to bow the knee to the Tate rather than vice versa).  So the chief aim with which the society was founded was relegated to clause 2(b), a power


To promote, initiate and encourage the setting up of a Turner Gallery where a substantial and representative collection of J.M.W.Turner’s works can be shown by themselves in a worthy and appropriate setting and in so doing to honour, after 125 years, the terms of his will and four codicils  under which he bequeathed to the Nation all his works of every description in his possession at the date of his death.


  Evidently the Turner Society has ceased to believe in that aim.  So why does it not remove it?  Allan Pearce himself, recognising that Turner, at any rate in his bequests to the National Gallery, gave only his finished oils, thinks that the will was a bad one and dismisses The Fighting ‘Temeraire’ as boring, while from the start others went off in tangents in their preference for the watercolours or prints.  They might, of course, claim the support of Ruskin in one of his outbursts, but hardly in his more reflective mode.  Not only does the victory of The FT in the recent BBC poll, but every manifestation of public interest (from a Turner calendar for 2006 to countless monographs on Turner) refute them.  So surely would the society’s late revered chairman, Evelyn Joll.  What might be called the Pearce view would lead one to mix up some of the less deteriorated oils among the general Tate Collection and to have a room of Turner watercolours, like that for Blake, while disposing of most of the rest of the oils.  Turner’s idea of an astounding gallery treating of myth, history and modern life, setting him on a level with the great baroque landscapists of Europe and going beyond them, would of course be totally lost.


  Of course one can, following Somerset Maugham’s hero, claim the freedom to take or leave from an artist what one likes.  Many are particularly enamoured of the watercolours.  Even Kenneth Clark was cool about The FT (though he hung on to it at the National Gallery!).  The wishes of the amateur and of the curator, however, are not the same.  The first can be no basis for “Turner’s Gallery”, in which the best finished oils must always be central.  In the second issue of our Journal we published a review by Victor Pasmore of Dr August Wiedmann’s Romantic Art Theories, which helps to illuminate Turner’s intellectual context.  That argued that “the quest for wholeness” was “the supreme romantic passion.”  This is evidently not understood by the Tate, which, in its latest rehang, continues to scatter the Turners, showing only half of the finished oils, and omitting many of the best, in the Clore Gallery.  What is called for is a Turner Gallery which does justice to all the modes and media which Turner used and the space to show these adequately “in a worthy and appropriate setting.”  Few argue that the Clore Gallery ever did that.  (On the latest inspection the elaborate Stirling entrance looked more forlorn and redundant than ever; outside a wall was encased in scaffolding and the pond looked like something the builders had forgotten to finish; inside the only sign of life was two warders talking to themselves.)


  That the society has abandoned the aim was apparent as long ago as 1981, when it was argued that to expect public money for a proper Turner Gallery was to seek the moon.  Ironically it has just been announced that the budget for Turner Contemporary, floated on Turner’s borrowed name and the success of Bilbao and nothing else, has rocketed from £7m to £29.5m.  Millions have meanwhile been expended on other galleries such as the Baltic Exchange, pronounced a failure by its new director.


  Of course the society may not want the Turner Bequest to constitute a Turner Gallery, but prefer it to be primarily a resource to feed exhibitions and publications. They can argue that some of the temporary exhibitions (heavily advertised, unlike the Clore) have been popular.  But those did not give what a Turner Gallery could give – an exhibition which is permanent, comprehensive and free, qualities which many visitors to London would appreciate, even if the scholars on the society’s committee and at the Tate do not.  That the Turner Bequest by itself is not quite comprehensive – a point employed by Andrew Wilton to deflate the campaign for a Turner Gallery – need not be a fatal obstacle.


  Wiedmann also remarked that what characterised Romanticism was a “now self-centered, now world-centered outlook.”  The society’s officers have exemplified the first rather more than the second, sometimes exhibiting more amour propre than love of Turner, let alone foreigners.  Yet Pearce took the Constitution of the Byron Society, a much less parochial body, as his model, and accordingly copied from it powers in which the Turner Society has never been interested, such as 2(d), “To form an International Council …”  That power too is overdue for excision.  


  The editor declares that TSN  “has never shied away from controversy and many topics have been debated in these pages, especially with regard to the housing and display of the Turner Bequest.”  That is very misleading.  It has consistently ducked proper debate.  It has never even mentioned our publications on the matter.  (We have issued three more collections of documents this autumn). In 1995 its then Chairman, Evelyn Joll, wrote to Selby Whittingham that “our views are so different that agreement is a chimera.”  In the following year in an exchange of letters in The Times one from Joll (the only one reprinted by TSN!) defended the status quo, in contradiction to the petition to the Queen which he signed in 1977.  However the real difference, we hazard to guess, is that whereas we have continued to press for the aims enunciated by the society on which Joll and others freely joined in 1975, he and they since found it the better part of prudence to jettison them, even if that has meant standing on their heads.  If the society wishes, as its behaviour would suggest, to be something akin to the new Hogarth Group (in 1975 it was objected that there was no call for bodies devoted to a single artist, but now they are beginning to mushroom!), that is, a group of London professional art historians speaking to themselves and few others, it should emend its Constitution accordingly.


The Charity Commission and Tate


  The Charity Commission at long last reached its decision over the Turner Millions in February, though failed to tell the public about it.  It was left to the Tate to make an announcement a month later, on 23 March, conveniently just before Easter and the dissolution of Parliament!  That claimed that the decision represented a ruling by the Attorney-General, a claim which had to be withdrawn in a corrected press release which apparently no one received until much later.  The decision endorsed the case drawn up by the Tate a year earlier.  That included some familiar self-serving distortions – such as that the whole of the Turner Bequest is at the Tate and that before [part of!] it was transferred to the Duveen wing it had been confined to “a single, overcrowded room” at the National Gallery. 


  We defer comment on the legal argument (though all who have followed the saga will know that it conflicts with the eminent opinion of Lord St Leonards).  We draw attention merely to a legal consequence which evidently troubles the Tate, which in its abbreviated March minutes stated, “The Board confirmed that it remained the intention not to dispose of any part of the Turner Bequest.”   The Charity Commission has told us (17 June) that “Insofar as the paintings in the Turner Bequest are held subject to any particular condition we hold the view that they may [our italics] be held subject to a trust for retention.”  The 1992 Museums and Galleries Act in fact provides that the Tate, unlike the National Gallery, can dispose of objects on certain grounds, though “without prejudice to any trust or condition (express or implied) prohibiting or restricting disposal of the relevant object” (4(4)).  Such powers of disposal have been keenly debated for generations, and also in the debates 1988-92 preceding this Act, when Labour spokesmen opposed the granting of them.  No MP seems to have been aware that the Turner Bequest could be regarded as not having  been bequeathed, but given unconditionally to the National Gallery.  There can be little doubt that the Tate could dispose of Turners, if it chose to, and as the National Gallery nearly succeeded in doing in 1916, and also that the attempt will again be made one day.  (The assertion of Trustees, appointed only for 5 years, that they will not sell any is worthless in the long term).  The arguments for sale and further dispersal will for some artlovers remain strong. 


  What is the view of the Old Turner Society on this?  One may guess that it opposes disposal, but hopes that the problem will not come up in the lifetime of its committee members, and so they need not bother about the matter.  If they do oppose sale, they can hardly do so on the ground of Turner’s wishes, as they evidently do not endorse those. 


  The Tate in 1994 said that “There is a contingent of Turner aficionados who believe that the Turner Bequest should be looked after strictly in accordance with Turner’s wishes as expressed in his will.”  That is a view of some members of Turner’s family.  However, in our opinion, heed must be paid to the fact that there is uncertainty about Turner’s wishes for his unfinished works and drawings, as conceded by the Tate, and that the Decree of 1856 altered matters by lumping those in with the gift to the National Gallery following the failure of the gift for the Almshouse.  So the aim should be to follow Turner’s wishes as near as possible.  The Tate and Old Turner Society seemed to claim until a few years ago that that was their aim too, even if they treated the wishes with so much latitude as to render them virtually nul and void.  But latterly the Tate, as it admits, has abandoned even a pretence to that by scattering the Turners throughout Tate Britain.  Our view is that compliance as near as possible should be decided by a court of law or by an independent committee after consideration of all the facts, but not (and here we seem to differ from the Old Turner Society) simply on the say-so of the hardly disinterested galleries, who have shown repeatedly a tendency to falsify the facts.


The Dung Artist and The Turner Money


  Thanks to the efforts of the Stuckists and ArtWatch UK, the Tate’s purchase (partly with the Turner Millions? – see a letter in The Times, 26 September, from ArtWatch) of Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room for £705,000 has been the subject of almost daily notice in the press (cf. “Dung Heap,” editorial in The Times, 28 October, and a rumbustious article by Quentin Letts in The Daily Telegraph, 29 October) (   Apart from the Turner aspect, there are two others:  the hypocrisy of Ofili telling other artists to give their works to the Tate, and the purchase by the Tate of works from and by one of its Trustees.  (The Tate replies that Ofili left the room when the Trustees made the decision, which is laughable, as few would stick their neck out to dish one of their own number – a fact that would inevitably get back to him – unless extreme foes of his art).   One may wonder whether the Tate will eventually dispose of the works.  It can hardly afford the space to show them permanently or even regularly, and one may doubt if the quality would justify an allocation of so much space longterm.  There is an irony in the purchase with Turner’s money, as the display mimics that at Turner’s house, with a dark vestibule being used to make the works appear all the brighter. However the strong artificial light on them contributes to highlight a crudity not found in Turner, not least Turner as shown by the subtle natural light in his gallery.  Nearby the early British galleries are bathed in deepest gloom.  So far from creating an idea of a tradition in British art from Turner to the present, and from the 17th century to Turner, the Tate destroys that.  One’s cynicism is fed further by the selection of Ofili as “Artist in Residence” at the National Gallery, which is overlooked by the office of the new Arts Minister, David Lammy (who, though coached by the Tate, still gets in a bit of a muddle over Turner’s wills), which is crowded with tributes to the products of Black artists.  The NG says it needs more money!!!


The Victory of The Fighting ‘Temeraire’  


  On 6 September The FT was voted in the BBC Radio 4 “Today” poll the greatest painting in a British public collection.  Of 119,000 votes cast it got 31,892, while Constable’s The Haywain was runner-up with 21,711, and Manet’s picture at the Courtauld (which emailed its alumni to vote for it) came third with 13,000+.  This was the bitterest gall to a host of people (Allan Pearce among them?).  Brian Sewell frothed in a rage that the poll was rigged, which, of course, it was, but not so much as to totally invalidate the result.  All those who hate the nationalism of the commemoration of Trafalgar sulked.  Sir Denis Mahon, who deplores Ruskin’s denunciation of the Bolognese, must reflect that generations of free entry to our museums has not taught the public true taste.  But most put out of all was clearly the Director of the NG, Dr Charles Saumarez Smith, who predicted The Haywain would win, and to ensure that had made it “Painting of the Month” in August.  The prediction might be considered curious today (perhaps less so 30 years ago). For sales of postcards (a better indication of public taste than the poll?) could have told him that this year exactly twice as many of the Turner were sold as of the Constable.  However Dr Saumarez Smith clearly has no love of Turner (when approached as Director of the NPG to do something on Turner’s portraits, he took months to return a wholly negative reply).


  There is no reason why the Directors of the NG or Tate should particularly admire Turner.  That his bequest is entrusted to them, however, must be considered unfortunate.  The need for it to be subject to its own Board of Trustees, for that and other reasons, has long been apparent.  There is also no reason why Turnerians should admire The FT most of Turner’s works.  However, put it beside one of his watercolours, and it will knock the latter for six for impact and power of readily apprehended symbolism.  That is why it needs to be in “Turner’s Gallery” as the artist intended. 


  How many of those voting for it realised that it is at the NG rather than the Tate (where the Tate keeps insisting the whole Turner Bequest is located) may be wondered.  Christie’s (victim of Tate propaganda?) stated in one of its recent catalogues that Dido building Carthage is at the Tate!   


Hospital and Gallery


  For 16 years Turner’s will and codicil provided for his “Turner’s Gallery” to be located with “Turner’s Gift” at Twickenham, and it is arguable that, as things have turned out, that could have been a better arrangement, had he set up the second without a legal flaw.  The aim of the Turner Society in 1975 was to revert to the idea of a separate building with separate governing body as the best way to carry out Turner’s wishes following the 1856 court order.  At that time the Tate ridiculed artists’ museums as failures, but what a change 30 years has effected!  Now the best are seen as highly popular, and the idea finds favour with the cognoscenti, e.g. in Dr Victoria Newhouse’s Towards a New Museum (New York 1998) and in “Followers of fashion” by Martin Gayford (The Spectator, 22 October 2005). 


  Meanwhile art in hospitals, though also subject to attack, is flourishing, an editorial in The Guardian (27 October) citing examples such as The Foundling Hospital, which must have influenced Turner’s ideas for his Hospital & Gallery.  Though Turner’s charitable wishes are now dismissed by the Chairman of the Turner Society (Eric Shanes, Turner: The Masterworks, 1990 and 2004, the revised edition being no better than the first on the will), The Artists’ General Benevolent Institution, which, unsupported by the Turner Society, held its packed AGM on 21 October, continues to demonstrate the great need into which artists and their families still fall.   


The 2006 Anniversary


  On 19 March 2006 falls the 150th anniversary of the assignation of all the works by Turner’s hand to the nation.  The birth of Turner’s afterlife was in some ways a more signal event than was his decay and death.  One wonders what the late Dr Kurt Pantzer would have thought of the decision by the Old Turner Society to mark the anniversary of Turner’s birth next year of all years by a Pantzer Memorial Lecture devoted to Constable!  If the society really wishes to honour Turner – and its Chairman, Eric Shanes, at least has half indicated that he does not altogether share the complacent attitude of his predecessor, Evelyn Joll - it should join with us and the Overturners (who prompted the tabling of an Early Day Motion  about, rather ambiguously, Turner’s “first bequest”, by Austin Mitchell MP, on 6 June – see The Independent, 10 June 2005) in calling for a full public enquiry into the treatment of the Turner Bequest and its present legal position.  Not only are most people confused about the will and bequest (including the Minister for the Arts, Christie’s, Martin Gayford), but the attitudes even of the National Gallery and Tate are unclear.  For generations it was held that there was probably a legal obligation to carry out Turner’s wishes, but that certainly there was a moral one.  Now the Tate has disowned even a moral duty, setting its own ideas of display above Turner’s.  There is an irony that in 1911 The Burlington Magazine argued against observing donors’ conditions that they led to works by different artists being mixed up (as the Tate now loves), whereas “in a public gallery of any importance, such an arrangement, unless imposed by legal tyranny, would be regarded as a dangerous freak on the part of the Director.”   Yet the tyranny of the living can be more destructive than that of the dead.



Preface to Appendices: Series 5


  To substantiate the accounts in An Historical Account of The Will of J.M.W.Turner, R.A., and The Fallacy of Mediocrity supplements were issued with each printing relevant texts and tables.  I have long intended to issue more, and this summer appear Appendices Series 3-5  to The Fallacy.  In due course more should follow.


  Series 5, like Series 1 and 2, comprises a miscellaneous collection of documents, again of varying degrees of relevance to the fate of the Turner Bequest.  (Series 3 and 4 deal with the Parliamentary background).  Some of these deal with matters since 1995 or were not known then.  Most, however, have been used in the aforementioned works. 


  The full opinions of the Law Officers in 1852-6, 1907, 1962 and 2005 would be valuable.  However the only document vouchsafed by their office (page 14) is of no importance.  In the recent matter of the Turner insurance money (pp.116-25), it appears that no formal opinion was delivered.


  The litigation between Turner’s heirs over his prints (p.21) is not relevant to the fate of his pictures and drawings, except that the issue of the lapse of time was raised.  The challenge over the bequest of pictures and drawings by John Henry Turner in 1906 (pp.22-3) petered out for lack of money. 


  The Royal Academy’s Turner Fund (on which there is an inadequate appendix in the second edition of An Historical Account) relates to another part of Turner’s will, though one also taken up by Lord St Leonards in 1857-70.  Articles about that have appeared by myself in The Jackdaw (April 2001 and November 2004) and by Mira Bar-Hillel in the Evening Standard (17 January 2001).


  Other documents deal with the background to the saga:  Turner’s attitude to his pictures, that of his close associates, of critics and others to the displays at the National Gallery and Tate, the genesis of the Duveen Turner wing (vital to understanding the situation today), the fates of the Chantrey Bequest and Vernon Gift, and also the debates about other collections, such as the Vaughan Bequest of Turner watercolours at Edinburgh.  Reports on the national museums 1908-44, as those in the previous century, help explain the attitudes which have determined the treatment of the Turner Bequest by the authorities. 


  The pages relating to Ruskin supplement those in my Ruskin as Turner’s Executor.  More could no doubt be added from the recesses of the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University.  For his behaviour the Tate has drawn on the archives of the National Gallery, which also could reveal more about the bequest.


  The contradictory and erroneous statements made by such Turner experts as Andrew Wilton and the late Evelyn Joll (pp.101-12) have not been disinterested.  Yet it is on their opinions ultimately which Parliament and Ministers have relied (pp.114-15), so that their views too have fluctuated inconsistently accordingly.  Letters by myself have frequently appeared in the press, but usually the last (misleading) word has been given to the apologists of betrayal or (latterly) they have gone unanswered.


                                                                                     Selby Whittingham

                                                                                     Turner House

                                                                                      October 2005


The Fallacy of Mediocrity:  Appendices Series 3-5


In 1992 we published The Fallacy of Mediocrity:  The Need for a Proper Turner Gallery (ISBN 1 874564 00 0) together with two volumes of appendices reprinting relevant documents.  Now we have added three more.  These also supplement the volumes of documents published with An Historical Account of The Will of J.M.W.Turner, R.A.  (2nd ed. 1993-6).


Series 3:  Debates on the National Gallery and Tate Gallery Bill 1953-4

All the debates in the Houses of Lords and Commons (the most extensive on any bill affecting these galleries) which led to the complete division of the Turner Bequest.  With an introduction on “The Turner Bequest and Acts of Parliament (relating to the National Gallery and Tate Gallery)”.  Indexed.

ISBN 1 874564 92 2            June 2005

240 pages, in slide binders,  £28.00    


Series 4:  Parliament  (except 1953-4)

This includes the debates of 1882-3, 1916, and 1992 in full.  Also pronouncements by Benjamin Disraeli, Margaret Thatcher, Clement Freud et al.   Indexed.

ISBN 1 874564 97 3            October 2005 

94 pages, in slide binders,  £13.00


Series 5:  Miscellaneous Documents

These comprise testimony of Turner’s friends (Ruskin and others), correspondence (1861, 1907-8), reviews of Turner displays at the National Gallery and Tate Gallery, official and other views on bequests, confusions and evasions of Turner scholars, Royal Academy Turner Fund records, the recent saga of the Turner insurance money, litigation by Turner’s heirs etc.

ISBN 1 874564 03 5                       October 2005

136 pages, in slide binders,  £16.00


Cheques should be made payable to “J.S.Whittingham (Turner Account).”  Prices include surface postage.  Those not paying in sterling should add £8.00 to cover  cost of conversion.


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

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


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