When our miserable year’s lockdown was over, the first museum Rohan and I visited was the house of Joseph Mallord William Turner. The exhibition there was a modest affair. The house, however, which was designed and built by Turner was a delight and a revelation.
In 1807 Turner, then 32, bought two plots of land on raised ground in Twickenham. On the larger of the two he built his house and garden; the other was a meadow for his pony. Based on his sketches, from the back of the house he would look down across his garden to the Thames; on the left to Richmond Bridge and straight ahead to the house of his hero and one-time teacher, Sir Joshua Reynolds atop Richmond Hill. As a country residence it was ideal.
At the time of the purchase he was a successful landscape painter who divided his time between rented accommodation in central London and walking with his sketch book and easel around Britain or mainland Europe. The house we visited in Twickenham (see illustration), and where he lived from 1814 – 1826, was for entertaining and fishing, and to provide a base from which he could go on sketching trips with his pony. There were no plans for a studio.
I have loved and admired Turner’s work for years. Sometimes there were gentle and sensitive line drawings, sometimes rather dry architectural sketches, but my image of his work has been dominated by his canvasses showing whirls of movement and colour with restless waves, clouds, storms and the like. Moreover, his pictures often told of foreboding in which beleaguered individuals struggled against the immense power of nature.
His private life somehow echoed the notion of struggle. Seen as a child prodigy and even labelled a genius, at 14 he enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy of Art, exhibiting work in their Summer Exhibition a year later. He was teased for his lower middle class background (his father was a barber-cum-wig maker), for his cockney accent, for his short stature and for the eccentric colours in his paintings. As the earliest ‘impressionist’, the nation’s art establishment was not ready for his approach, some even labelled his colours as reflecting madness. For his part, and presumably by way of a response, he was a private and often grumpy man who ‘avoided the trappings of success’, and as one colleague noted, was “not fond of society.”
As a museum, his house which has been carefully restored, is tiny – only allowing eight visitors through each hour and four persons per room at a time. Our progress was slow which left time to observe and contemplate.
Had Turner not been a painter, he always wanted to be an architect, and commonly, when architects design their own houses, the buildings they produce reflect them and their way of life. Based on his ‘wild’ pictures and his rather unsettled and challenging life, I had imagined that his house would be flamboyant and filled with unexpected twists and turns. How wrong I was; as we walked round I suddenly realised, and the guide later confirmed, Turner had designed it as a retreat. Indeed, the contrast between my expectations and the house I was visiting could hardly have been greater. As a safe haven here was a masterpiece.
Seen from outside the front of the two-storey building, which originally would have stood alone, gives the impression of a secure sanctuary which, through its elegant brickwork and quirky details is inviting. Inside, its small, modest rooms with generous windows give the house a homely and restful air. Here was somewhere he could feel comfortable and relaxed away from the public gaze but in sight of the surrounding countryside. Moreover, Turner was touchingly realistic. The curved wooden bannister rail on the side of the central spiral staircase was unusually low – perfect for someone who was short!
Because the house is so small, the home of the ‘nation’s greatest painter’ will never be able to attract sufficient visitors to support its running costs. The building’s restoration and refurbishment cost were helped by funds from English Heritage, but that money is spent. Now more is needed for running and maintaining the house and an obvious source would be the Bank of England. The bank has printed for circulation over two billion new £20 notes each of which shows the self portrait of Turner aged 24. If a penny was levied each year for every hundred circulating Turner banknotes, the house would benefit annually by £200,000, enough to guarantee the building’s survival. That’s the least the state could do!
Just being in Turner’s home was a delight and such a contrast to what I had expected. Seeing how he had carefully designed it as a safe haven gave me particular pleasure.
The illustration is a photo of the front of Turner’s now-restored house, so as it would have looked when it was his retreat.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Catherine, Rohan and Vivien.