The Importance of the Turner Bequest
When will the government carry out the wishes of J.M.W. Turner for his bequest of finished pictures to the nation? Should there not now, as the 250th anniversary of the artist's death approaches, be a new committee of inquiry to consider the facts and history of dereliction?
The nation's obligations were set out in a House of Lords Report in 1861. But the National Gallery never attempted to provide the dedicated space for the collection which the artist demanded. Instead 150 years ago, in 1883, under pressure from extreme liberals and financial stringency of the time, an Act was passed allowing it to loan works long term to the provinces even if that was contrary to the donor's conditions, if 25 years had elapsed since the gift was received (27 years had in Turner's case).
Then in 1910 the Duveen wing for Turner was opened at the National Gallery's Tate branch, justified by the sophistry that this was just a loan. The National Gallery arbitrarily kept some key paintings and watercolours at Trafalgar Square, a split made permanent by the 1954 National Gallery and Tate Gallery Act, a split contrary to Turner's wish to keep his works together. In 1987 that was replaced by the Clore Gallery for Turner, another wing at the Tate, which it was claimed brought together for the first time Turner's works as the artist had wished. But, as its senior curator knew, that was false. The choice works which the National Gallery arbitrarily kept were only loaned for six months, whereas Turner had stipulated that all his finished pictures should be kept "constantly" in a dedicated building.
Since 1987 the Tate has not even dedicated the Clore wing solely to Turner and at any one time a large proportion of the Turner pictures which it holds are not on view in it, to the detriment of the public's appreciation and understanding of the artist's achievement. The case for a new Inquiry is overwhelming. The history is long and the issues involved are multiple - legal, moral, practical, artistic, educational ... Hitherto the Department for Culture has relied on the "expert" advice of the Tate Gallery, which, like the National Gallery, is not disinterested in the matter (though very interested!) and both are institutionally biased. They have also shown ignorance of the facts or mounted spurious rebuttals.
The Independent Turner Society
Al Weil, The Case for a Turner Gallery, The Turner Society 1977.
Selby Whittingham, An Historical Account of the Will of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 2nd ed. 1993. (a copy of the 1st edition in the House of Lords Records) Selby Whittingham,
Selby Whittingham, The Fallacy of Mediocrity: The Need for a Proper Turner Gallery, 1992
The correspondence columns of The Times, 1850s to the present. etc.
Selby has endeavoured to awaken our Government's interest in enabling Turner's Will to be honoured, which can then enable the Turner Gallery to become a reality. Here is a selection of his recent letters to politicians, in particular Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Minister for Museums etc.), Jonathan Djanogly MP (Chairman of the Arts and Heritage APPG),
Lord Mendoza, Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, all sadly unanswered so far: