‘A most unpleasant mixture, wherein white gambouge and raw sienna are, with childish execution, mixed together,” was how the damning review, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, described JMW Turner’s oil painting Rome, from Mount Aventine, one of three works the artist exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836.
Fortunes change dramatically when it comes to art and the savage verdict of the critic had a positive effect; it inspired John Ruskin to take up his life-long championing of Turner. Rome, from Mount Aventine now commands dazzling descriptions, ones that praise it as magnificent and a masterpiece.
We are in the midst of a flurry of interest in William Turner. Exhibition after exhibition of the British romantic landscape painter draws crowds. Late Turner at Tate Britain follows on from Turner and the Sea at the National Maritime Museum in London; Mike Leigh’s new film Mr Turner, in which the artist is played with grunting award-winning glory by Timothy Spall, is on general release.
Every January the National Gallery in Scotland holds a show of his watercolours, which always proves popular. Perhaps one reason why Turner excites so much attention is that he is both a Victorian landscape painter, with hints of the Dutch Golden Age and a precursor of modernist art: his later work suggesting, now – with the benefits of hindsight – impressionism and abstract art. Turner was both in his time and of the future.
It is a disappointing then, that at the height of this interest, we are about to lose one of his works. Sotheby’s recently announced that its Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale, taking place in December, includes Rome, from Mount Aventine. Sotheby’s estimates that the winning bid will be in the region of £15-20 million.
The painting has been on loan to the National Galleries of Scotland for decades, where you could, until recently, view it and see a subtle and atmospheric depiction of the Italian city from the Aventine Hill. In this painting, which is in remarkable condition, Turner beautifully captures the morning light as it pushes back a cooler mist hovering over the Tiber, in front of the Eternal City. It is far from a work of childish execution.
Rome, from Mount Aventine was commissioned by the Scottish art collector Hugh Munro of Novar, who was also a close friend of the artist. It took Turner seven years to complete after a visit to Rome and many detailed studies, some of which are now in the Tate, and it is enriching to our understanding of the artist’s intentions to be able to compare the drawings with the painting.
The painting was bought in 1878 by Archibald Primrose, a future Liberal prime minister and the 5th Earl of Roseberry, for £6,142. That sounds like a snip now, but at the time it exceeded records for a work by Turner.
The painting has since been passed down to the descendants of the Earl of Rosebery and the family has kindly loaned it to the nation for the last 36 years. But they need money to maintain their estates and thus have decided to sell the work. That is perfectly understandable, and they’ve already been very generous, but it does leave us with a problem: it is likely we will no longer be able to see it.
Just recently, in 2010, the Roseberys sold the painting’s companion work Modern Rome– Campo Vaccanio. It was acquired for £29.7m by the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, in an auction record for the painter. At prices like these, a gallery in Scotland or England is unlikely to be able to afford to bid for Rome, from Mount Aventine so the work may well be bought by a private collector or by a gallery in another country with more far money to spend.
Losing one Turner is unfortunate, but it seems reckless to let another go so easily. What would it take to stop it?
Were a foreign bidder to secure the work, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could place a temporary export deferral on the work, because it fulfils at least two requirements of the Waverley criteria – it is of national cultural importance and it is of outstanding aesthetic importance. The other option is a fundraising campaign, which has been done before. National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery in London were able buy Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, at a cost of £50m, in 2001 as a result. However, given we have just weeks to go and no one is talking about the sale of the Turner as a problem, this seems improbable.
Without doubt, there are far worse fates for great works of art than to be bought by a private collector or a prestigious gallery abroad. I also get that the painting is not “ours” forever; that we have no particular right over it, and that whoever purchases it will care for it for decades – other publics may well get to enjoy it.
The vast majority of Turner’s output is housed in public galleries in Britain, after the artist bequeathed his collection to the nation on his death, so why not share the work globally?
Maybe we should be just grateful that we had it for so long, with no strings attached, and appreciate that collections are dynamic: paintings change hands; National Galleries Scotland will be loaned other work.
But, I am concerned that this sale is about to be held with little discussion, beyond that which involves the central protagonists. It seems as if we are just leaving things to chance and to the art market. Surely the rest of us should pipe up, without waiting to be asked, to ask for a say in the future of this painting and our collections?
Not everyone lambasted Rome, from Mount Aventine when it went on show for the first time. The Morning Post wrote: “This is one of those amazing pictures by which Mr Turner dazzles the imagination and confounds all criticism: it is beyond praise”.
It would be a shame to let this painting go without a fight.