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The History of the Turner Bequest

It is claimed that Turner, who had bought back many important pictures from patrons,  bequeathed these to the British nation on condition that the country built a gallery to house these.  Is that true?  What has happened since his death in 1851?  What were the actual terms of Turner's Will?  The Oxford Companion to JMW Turner provides a summary:

The Tate / Culture Department Justification September 2023

People’s opinions are mainly designed to make them feel comfortable; truth, for most  people is a secondary consideration.”— Bertrand Russell, The Art of Philosophizing: And Other Essays (1968), Essay I: The Art of Rational Conjecture (1942), p. 7


The characteristics of the replies by these bodies (the two are one and the same) are that

  1.  Their concern is simply to present a façade.

  2.  They ignore our points and so miss the real points.

  3.  They are untrue at least in part.

  4.  They are self-deceiving.



  They are like those who demolish an historic building, but keep the façade.  The façade is what matters to them, as most people are just passers-by, not concerned with what lies behind their words, whether they represent truth, deception or irrelevancies.


Consequently it does not matter if they miss the point.  The first point is that since Turner died 170 years ago his wishes and those of his admirers have never been met, that people have complained about this every generation since and that, as things stand, they will continue to do so (as The Oxford Companion to Turner has stated).  The second point is that there is a practical way to meet those wishes.  The third point is that they introduced irrelevancies as a distraction from the first two points.


Tate curators have misrepresented the facts about Turner’s will and codicils, their legal validity and import, in attempts to justify the status quo. They have been aided by the numerous works of reference which have summarised the conditions by leaving out vital words (The Oxford Companion is an exception).  Tate claims a scholarly status, involving the pursuit of truth, but it is characteristic of “most people” as described by Bertrand Russell when it comes to accurate statement of what donors demanded and what has been done with regard to that.


Curators are capable of self-deception.  In particular they may imagine that the objects which their museums hold;  the objects may be owned outright, ones which they have proposed purchasing, ones which are on long-term loan or, as in the case of the Turner Bequest) works which the museum holds on trust for the nation.  If challenged they will deny that.  But their behaviour and off-the-cuff remarks give the lie to the denial.

I have given chapter and verse for these assertions elsewhere.  They are based on 60 years of observation of museums and their trustees and curators, both from the inside and from the outside.  They apply particularly to those at the top.  Others recognise the falsehoods, but deem it prudent to keep silent – as has been shown in other professions of people generally regarded as more moral than most such as those devoted to health and religion. 


SW.  September 2023.

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