The Greatest Painting of Oxford ever made
JMW Turner was considered controversial in his day
The painting had been on loan to the Museum from a private collection since 1997, and was offered to the nation in lieu of £3.5 million inheritance tax, but its value of £3.5m was more than the tax due. To cover the difference, £800,000 was donated by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund; with additional support from the Friends and Patrons of the Ashmolean but the Ashmolean remained £60,000 short of the money needed. And so, to keep the picture from being sold on the open market, a public appeal was launched in June and elicited an extraordinary response from members of the public who donated the final £60,000 in just four weeks.
“It would have been such a tragedy to lose this beautiful and important work by Turner, and clearly the public felt the same,’ said Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund which contributed £220,000 to the purchase.
Now this major painting will remain on show in Oxford, taking pride of place in the Ashmolean’s Nineteenth Century Gallery which is due to be refurbished and reopened in early 2016.
Acknowledged as one of the greatest landscape artists of all time, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was an English Romanticist, watercolourist, and printmaker. Because of his relentless pursuit of new techniques, including sketching and painting outdoors to capture the landscape as it really looked, JMW Turner was considered controversial in his day, but is now regarded as the artist who elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivalling ‘history paintings’, pictures that depict a moment in a story as a portrait with great realism, rather than showing specific subject for its own sake. The eighteenth century was a time of great change in Britain as the Industrial Revolution impacted upon the landscape of the country so JMW Turner often included steam boats and trains, for example, alongside brilliant sunsets or dramatic storm clouds.
Described by influential Victorian art critic John Ruskin as the artist who could most “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of nature”, Turner, along with fellow Romantic painters Blake and Constable, explored imagination and individual expression as tools. To them, art provided the opportunity to depict emotios and Turner showed an unrivalled ability to capture the startling effects of light, colour and movement in atmospheric paintings of varied landscapes, often choosing to depict the violence of the sea.
Turner was recently brought to life in Mr Turner (2014) a biographical drama film, written and directed by Mike Leigh starring Timothy Spall
Describing Turner as “a great artist: a radical, revolutionary painter”, Leigh explained, “I felt there was scope for a film examining the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world”. In the film we see the most famous anecdote about Turner re-enacted: he asks to be tied to the mast of a steam-ship for several hours during a nocturnal snow storm so he could observe the extreme meteorological effects at close quarters, he result of which was his oil painting Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842).
In his later years, Turner used oils ever more transparently, and evoking pure light with shimmering colour.A prime example of his mature style can be seen in Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) where objects are barely recognisable. The intensity of hue and his interest in fading light not only placed Turner’s work at the forefront of English painting, but exerted an influence on art in France; where the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet, carefully studied his techniques.
Although renowned for these later oil paintings, Turner is also one of the greatest masters of British watercolours. Staying with his uncle and aunt in a village near Abingdon, in 1789, as a teenager, Turner had been struck by the architecture of the city: a whole sketchbook of his work from this time in Sunningwell (then part of Berkshire), survives as well as an early watercolour of Oxford. The use of pencil sketches on location as a basis for later finished paintings shown at this time formed the basis of Turner’s essential working style for his whole career and he was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art a year later, aged fifteen, returning to Oxford often. Altogether he painted more than thirty watercolours of Oxford views, more than of any other English city.
In 1799, as a poor young artist, Turner won a valuable and prestigious commission for two illustrations for the University of Oxford’s annual calendar, the Oxford Almanack.
The resulting watercolours were much admired, and led to more commissions for another eight over the next ten years. It is believed that the quality of these pictures and the public response to them led an Oxford printseller, James Wyatt, to commission the view of the High Street, Oxford (1810) in order who create high-quality prints of the scene, and the resultant painting, says Alexander Sturgis, Ashmolean Museum Director, ‘is the young Turner’s most significant townscape.’
Indeed, when choosing views of Oxford for his greatest series of watercolours, painted in the 1830s twenty years later, Turner rejected the High Street as he felt that in his earlier painting, he had achieved an unparalleled view of technical mastery that he could not repeat.
The painting is also one of the most fully documented of all Turner’s works because Wyatt kept his correspondence with the artist which was included in his posthumous sale. The original purpose of the commission was to have the design engraved . Instead of a watercolour, Wyatt settled on an oil painting half the size of Turner’s normal canvases at a cost of 100 guineas and Turner artist worked on the painting over the winter of 1809–10, consulting Wyatt on the details of the architecture included in the view. The final stage involved the introduction of figures, members of the University and clergy, and some women ‘for the sake of colour’. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812.
The view down the High Street, described by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as “one of the world’s great streets”, remains remarkably unchanged today , and with the same golden light, it has been captured more than two centuries later by photographer David Fisher.
As part of the appeal for and the celebration of the purchase of the painting, residents and tourists of all ages were invited to submit photographs to rival Turner’s vision for an exhibition ‘My Oxford View’ and the winning entries will be displayed in the Museum’s Café throughout September.
For more information on visiting the Ashmolean and JMW Turner’s painting visit ashmolean.org/turner
Related Articles: Fresh Perspectives on an Old City