Edward Lucie-Smith’s excellent article in Artlyst posed the problem of what to do with Tate Britain, now that Tate Modern has become, “the epicentre of the booming global contemporary art world.“
It simply can’t compete with either the Tate Modern, or the National Gallery in terms of size and sits uncomfortably between the past and the present. Lucie-Smith suggested that if it, “is associated chiefly with the past, it will inevitably always be struggling.” However, that may not be necessarily so. There are many examples of organisations who, when faced with bigger mainstream rivals have competed successfully by specialising. The most famous example in the art world is the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In 2013/4 it had 1,608,849 visitors, which outperformed Tate Britain’s 1,418,986 over the same period. The Van Gogh is not the only example. There is the Dali Theatre and Mueum in Figuere, which recorded 1,333,430 visitors in 2013 and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, which had 911,342 visitors in the same year. Neither were all that far away in terms of visitor numbers from the RA with 1,018,378 and the Serpentine Galleries with 945,161 in 2013.
Joseph Mallord William Turner is arguably on of Britain’s greatest ever painters, whose work is still admired around the world for its timeless, ethereal qualities. But is he as famous as: Van Gogh, Dali and Picasso? Undoubtedly, particularly after the film, Mr. Turner, written and directed by Mike Leigh and starring Timothy Spall, was screened and received critical acclaim around the world. In 2005, Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire was voted Britain’s “greatest painting” in a public poll organised by the BBC. That’s the rational, or business case for turning Tate Britain into a specialist gallery, or museum specialising in the work of Turner. However, there is a moral and possibly even a legal case for doing so too. When Turner died in 1851, he bequeathed over 300 paintings and 19,000 sketches to the nation, with the proviso that they should all be housed in one special building, which he called “Turner’s Gallery”. He made four codicils to his original will between 1831 and his death in 1851. He initially endowed only two paintings to the National Gallery, the Dido building Carthage and the picture formerly in the Tabley Collection. In later codicils, he stated, “And as to my finished Pictures except the Two mentioned in my Will I give and bequeath the same unto the Trustees of the National Gallery provided that a room or rooms are added to the present National Gallery to be when erected called ‘Turner’s Gallery’ in which such pictures are to be constantly kept deposited and preserved…” He reiterated his wishes unequivocally later, “such pictures may always remain and be one entire Gallery and for the purpose of regulating such Gallery it is my wish that so many of the Pictures as may be necessary shall be seen by the public gratuitously so that from the number of them there may be a change of Pictures either eveniy, or over one or two years” In his fourth and final codicil, dated 1st February, 1849, he stated, “I do hereby as to the disposition of my finished Pictures limit the time for offering the same as a gift to the Trustees of the National Gallery to the term of Ten years after my decease and if the said Trustees of the said National Gallery shall not within the said space of Ten years have provided and constructed a room or rooms to be added to the National Gallery that part thereof to be called Turners Gallery Then I declare the gift or offer of the said finished pictures to be null and void.”
The directors of the National Gallery and others blatantly ignored Turner’s wishes In virtually every respect. First, they ignored his request that ALL his pictures be kept together. With breathless arrogance, Sir Charles Eastlake, Director of the Gallery asserted that, ”many were unfit for public exhibition, as being unfinished, and therefore only of interest to artists…” Reporting to a Committee of the House of Lords upon the manner of fulfilling the conditions of Turner’s Will, Mr. R. N. Wornum, Keeper and Secretary of the National Gallery, stated, “The nation possesses 362 pictures, 105 of which are finished oil pictures; the remainder contains many that are mere botches. There are 19,000 odd altogether, including pencil and water-colour sketches; the mass of them are of no value whatever.” So, their first act was to reduce the number of works to be “accepted”. Using a legal loophole, under the Charities Act, 19th & 20th Vict. c. 29, s. 3, Trustees were at liberty to accept portions of a bequest of pictures and return the remainder, in which case the last would fall into the residuary estate of the testator. Reporting to the same committee, Eastlake said, “It is said that the fact of transferring indifferent pictures to (Dublin or Edinburgh) might deter people from leaving inferior pictures, which might be rather an advantage.”
The second way the National Gallery and others ignored Turner’s wishes, was that they never housed his work together, in one place. It was estimated that in order to accommodate most of Turner’s pictures, the cost of the entire building would be about £100,000 (£120million today) and would cover an area of 30,000 feet. The then National Gallery and Royal Academy who were then housed together, covered only 20,000 feet. The government and the National Gallery baulked at the expense and upheaval and slowly, the collection was split between the National Galley in Trafalgar Square and its South Kensington offshoot, now Tate Britain. In 1908 a special gallery was built by Sir Joseph Duveen to house some of Turner’s oil paintings at the Tate Gallery. In 1987 with the opening of the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain, which was independent of the National Gallery, the Queen referred to “his bequest of pictures brought together, at last, and on display as we would have wished.” The work was kept together for six months, after which many of the better-known ones were returned to their home in…the National Gallery. So much for Turner’s work being kept together in one specially-built place.
Thirdly, naturally, as a result of the first two conditions being ignored, “Turner’s Gallery” has never existed. Returning to what Turner said in his final codicil, “If the…National Gallery shall not within the said space of Ten years have provided and constructed a room or rooms to be added to the National Gallery that part thereof to be called Turners Gallery Then I declare the gift or offer of the said finished pictures to be null and void.” Some 156 years later, they still haven’t done so. That’s more than morally reprehensible. But then I’m not a lawyer – just an admirer of Turner’s work.
That’s not the only thing that the establishment ignored regarding Turner’s will. In spite of stipulating clearly that his family should receive small annual gratuities of £50 a year each, they successfully contested the will and got their hands on a large portion of is estate, which was estimated at £146,00 (now worth over £14 million). This action impacted on the second most important element of his original will. He gave explicit instructions, together with a huge sum of money and detailed drawings “for the foundation of an almshouse for elderly artists in the South London suburb of Twickenham.” This too, was ignored.
Perhaps the time has come for Britain to honour the wishes of one of its finest and most popular artists by renaming Tate Britain, The Turner Gallery, or Turner’s Gallery and filling it with all Turner’s work that is now housed in different public galleries. Tate Britain has work by other superb British artists, such as Francis Bacon with which to trade. Like the Van Gogh museum, it should show as much work as possible. Let us see how the great man worked, his failures, his successes, his preliminary sketches, scribbles, notebooks, palettes, watercolours, pencil drawings, oils…
It’s probably too much to ask the residue of his estate, if there is any, to be used to build a home for impoverished and elderly artists in Twickenham.
We owe him a great debt and we’ve behaved dishonourably.
Words: Ian Maclean © Artlyst 2016 Image: Banksy work on the steps of Tate Britain