Restoring Mr Turner’s Surrey - British painter’s life captured in film
PUBLISHED: 08:15 11 February 2015 | UPDATED: 09:54 13 February 2015
The artist JMW Turner has never been more popular than he is now, with a new film and a major art exhibition devoted to this leading British painter. What is less well known, however, is the role that Surrey played in his life and works – and the plans now under way to restore his former home...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine January 2015
With Mike Leigh’s award-winning biopic Mr Turner playing to packed cinemas, and a major exhibition at London’s Tate Britain and another soon to open at Petworth House in West Sussex, it appears the nation is currently in a Joseph Mallord William Turner frenzy.
Both Leigh’s critically acclaimed film and Tate Britain’s landmark exhibition focus on Turner’s later years and his life in Margate and Chelsea. What is less well known, however, is that in his youth, Turner became fascinated by locations in Surrey and the Thames landscape in particular. In fact, it was a love affair that would endure for most of his life.
The artist’s affection for the area began back in 1786 when, aged 11, he was sent to live with his uncle not far from Richmond (probably because of his mother’s mental illness). Indeed, his youthful drawings from this time were the first to be signed and dated by him. Fame and fortune swiftly followed, and according to biographer Eric Shanes, by 1805, Turner was “leading a highly pressured life, both professionally and personally”.
So, in search of peace and quiet, away from London, the artist rented a house close to the Thames in Isleworth, with a view across to Richmond deer park and to Kew, where the Prince of Wales’ new palace was being built, and, according to Shanes, “soon fell in love with the Thames landscape he had known since boyhood.”
It wasn’t until a couple of years later though that his love affair with the area was really cemented when he bought a plot of land near the river, between Richmond and Twickenham, and went on to design and build a small villa called Solus Lodge, which he would eventually rename Sandycombe Lodge after its sandy soil. Turner, whose initial ambition was to be an architect, was “at the height of his young powers”, and planned the house as a country retreat for himself and his beloved, elderly father, ‘Old Dad’. Completed in 1813, it would become a much-needed bolt-hole for the shy, secretive artist, away from his clients, Royal Academy duties and his mistress and her children, until he eventually sold the house in 1826.
Small wonder then that plans are now under way to restore this important piece of history to its former glory – and it can’t come too soon. Seriously threatened by damp and long neglect, the Grade II*-listed property is also on English Heritage’s buildings at risk register, but there is hope. Now in the care of the Turner’s House Trust, which was set up in 2005 by previous owner, Professor Harold Livermore, to preserve the house as “a monument to Turner”, that’s exactly what the Trust hopes to achieve today.
“Subject to raising the necessary funds, the plan is to restore the house to its original appearance and open it up to visitors,” says Catherine Parry-Wingfield, chairman of the Turner’s House Trust. “We also intend to display the Livermore Collection of watercolours, prints, paintings and drawings, which were bequeathed to the Trust by Professor Harold Livermore on his death in 2010, as well as set up a programme of activities and learning opportunities.”
So far, the Trust has been very encouraged by the large number of visitors who have expressed interest by attending its open days, which included workshops by artist in residence Katie Sollohub, whose paintings are described as a “vibrant and individual response to Turner’s architecture”.
The campaign was also given an extra boost when, in the early stages of their work on the film, director Mike Leigh and several of the cast members visited the house. In order to allow his actors to sink themselves into their Mr Turner characters, and ‘inhabit’ their roles, Leigh, together with actors Timothy Spall (Turner), Paul Jesson (Turner’s father) and Nick Jones (Sir John Soane), spent a morning touring Sandycombe Lodge. It’s a visit that was even acknowledged in the film’s final credits.
“For us, to have Timothy Spall and Paul Jesson standing in Turner’s drawing room and his kitchen was as close as we can hope to get to having this great painter and his devoted father there with us,” adds Catherine.
Occasionally, the artist would also entertain his friends there too – including the exiled Duc d’Orleans (later Louis Philippe, King of France) and renowned architect Sir John Soane, whose influence is apparent throughout the house, especially in its elegant entrance hall.
Just a few steps from the road – a leafy, rural lane in those days – the hall, corridor and graceful staircase seem more suited to a house on a grander scale, but Turner had only one large bedroom and a small room upstairs; both father and son seem to have preferred frugal living.
“Although it is a small house, Sandycombe Lodge is such an important building, a little-known masterpiece where Turner became his own architect,” continues Catherine. “With every pound, we are closer to saving this Turner ‘treasure’ for future generations, but we still have a long way to go. All help with our appeal to achieve these aims is extremely welcome.”
But it wasn’t only designing and building his own house that caught Turner’s imagination in the area. As well as sketching from his drawing room’s French windows, this compulsive, complex artist would walk along the Thames on foot, often as far as 25 miles a day “with sketchbook in hand”. It was a practice he continued for most of his life.
His love of the view over the Thames was captured in several landscape drawings and paintings over the years, such as Thames at Weybridge (c.1808, Petworth House); Richmond Hill (c.1820-5, Lady Lever Art Gallery); Richmond Hill and Bridge (c.1828, British Museum), drawn from a viewpoint very close to Sandycombe Lodge and still recognisable today; and Richmond Terrace, Surrey (c.1836, Walker Art Gallery). Other Surrey landscapes he captured include St Catherine’s Hill, near Guildford, Walton Bridge and Norbury Park.
There’s no doubt that Turner’s love of the area continued throughout his life, but hungry for success as a young man, his choice of Richmond and the Thames riverside was a canny business decision too.
“To have alighted – and then returned – to Richmond as a subject for painting shows how savvy a young painter he was,” says Amy Concannon, co-curator of the current exhibition at Tate Britain. “Richmond Hill was a culturally important place, celebrated in the poetry of James Thomson, a favourite source of Turner’s. It had been painted by many artists, including the first President of the Royal Academy [and Richmond Hill resident 1772-1792], Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom Turner revered.”
The drawings and paintings of Richmond Hill that are in the Tate’s collection, such as Turner’s large England: Richmond Hill on the Prince Regent’s Birthday of 1819, are not on display at present, but there is good news for Surrey enthusiasts: “We hope to be able to display Turner’s wonderful and important 1819 painting again in 2015, now that it has returned from its travels to exhibitions abroad,” adds Amy.
A great legacy
After a long and eventful life, Turner died on December 19, 1851. In addition to nearly 2,000 paintings and watercolours in private collections, he bequeathed a huge amount of work to the nation, initially displayed at the National Gallery and now mostly housed at Tate Britain.
“Every work by Turner is significant in its own right,” says Amy. “But his Richmond paintings do exemplify what made him great – the ability to draw on convention and, by his own invention and mastery, turn a familiar scene into something spectacular.”
• For more information about the appeal to save Turner’s former home and details of future open days, visit turnerintwickenham.org.uk