Few painters have a more capacious and disorienting reputation than Joseph Mallord William Turner. The son of an English barber father and a mentally unstable mother, the precocious Turner (1775-1851) first showed his work at the Royal Academy when he was 15, and began his professional career doing precise architectural drawings. He wound up creating some of the most astonishing nature paintings in the history of Western art, swirling effusions of light and color that flirted with abstraction, sharply divided the critics of his era and have been cited as strong influences on the Impressionists, Mark Rothko and contemporary light sculptor James Turrell. Such is the staying power of a painter who died more than 160 years ago.
Bankrupt Art Investor Accused of Hiding $31 Million JMW Turner Painting From Authorities
Jonathan Weal, a British former banker who filed for bankruptcy over £290,000 ($452,000) in unpaid debt, was seen discussing his £20 million ($31 million) J.M.W. Turner painting on English television.
Unfortunately for Weal, Choy Mooi, the insolvency examiner assigned to his bankruptcy case, happened to be watching the program.
Weal casually told ITV News that he had bought Turner’s Fishing Boats in a Stiff Breeze (1805) for £3,700 ($5,700) at auction in 2004, and that the painting was close to being authenticated.
Prosecutors allege that, in 2012, as Weal declared his insolvency, insurers valued his painting at £400,000 ($620,000). The insurance value, moreover, increased to £20 million ($31 million) when it emerged that the artwork could be a long-lost Turner.
The former art investor now faces two charges of fraudulent non-disclosure of property in relation to his bankruptcy proceedings.
“On that very program the defendant was being interviewed with Fishing Boats in a Stiff Breeze, saying there was expert opinion that this was a painting by the famous Turner and possibly worth £20 million,” Mooi said.
“Mr. Weal admitted he had believed the painting was a Turner since he first bought it in 2004 but said it was a ‘work in progress’ rather than an asset,” Mooi added.
The court also heard that Weal’s collection contained nine other potentially valuable works, including a pencil sketch by Pablo Picasso.
“[Weal’s] explanation that he believed the paintings had zero value and were disclosed by telling the official receiver that he owned only ‘second hand furniture’ is simply absurd,” Mooi declared.
One of the last great Turner masterpieces remaining in private hands set a world auction record for the artist late on Wednesday, Sotheby’s said.
Rome, From Mount Aventine, sold for £30.3 million, including buyer’s premium, easily beating its estimate of £15-20 million.
The result also represents the highest price for any pre-20th Century British artist ever sold at auction, a spokeswoman said.
Four bidders competed for the work, driving the price ever higher, before it was bought by one of them on the phone to the central London saleroom.
The auction coincided with a wider moment of interest in JMW Turner, with a ground breaking exhibition at Tate Britain and Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner, starring Timothy Spall.
Painted in 1835 and exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year, when Turner was 61, the painting is seen as one of the artist’s supreme achievements and arguably the most important view of the Italian city ever painted.
The large-scale oil painting is further distinguished by its exceptional state of preservation, as well as a prestigious and unbroken provenance.
Until the sale, the work had changed hands only once, in 1878, when it was acquired by the Fifth Earl of Rosebery, later Prime Minister. It has since remained undisturbed in the Rosebery collection.
In 1836, The Morning Post described the work as “one of those amazing pictures by which Mr Turner dazzles the imagination and confounds all criticism: it is beyond praise”.
Alex Bell, joint international head and co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department, said: “It is hard to overstate the importance of Rome, From Mount Aventine. There are no more than half a dozen major works by Turner left in private hands and this work must rank as one of the very finest.
“This painting, which is nearly 200 years old, looks today as if it has come straight from the easel of the artist; never relined and never subject to restoration, the picture retains the freshness of the moment it was painted: the hairs from Turner’s brush, his fingerprint, the drips of liquid paint which have run down the edge of the canvas, and every scrape of his palette knife have been preserved in incredible detail.
“The outstanding result achieved tonight is a further indication of the strength of the Old Master market. When there is quality, there are buyers.”
Give or take a few road signs and the clumps of bicycles, the High Street in Oxford is startlingly unchanged from the view, sleepy in dusty golden afternoon light, painted by JMW Turner in 1810. More than two centuries later, the photographer David Fisher managed to capture the scene in a moment of tranquility, miraculously free of buses, bin lorries and groups of Japanese tourists, and without being mown down by a speeding cyclist.
The Ashmolean Museum will launch a fundraising appeal on Thursday to keep the painting of the scene – described by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as “one of the world’s great streets” – in Oxford for ever. Alexander Sturgis, the museum’s director, said its importance to the city could not be overstated. “High Street, Oxford is the young Turner’s most significant townscape – and the greatest painting of the city that has ever been made.”
The artwork has been a star exhibit in Sturgis’s museum since 1997, on loan from a private collection. It has now been offered to the nation in lieu of death duties – but given the soaring prices for Turner at auction, the painting is valued at almost £1m more than the amount of tax due, so the museum must raise the funds to bridge the gap.
As part of the appeal, full-size copies of the painting will be displayed throughout the city, and a photography competition is being organised inviting residents and tourists the chance to rival Turner’s vision.
The Turner painting was commissioned by an Oxford printseller, James Wyatt, who intended to create high-quality prints of the scene, and so asked for an oil painting instead of the usual watercolours.
Wyatt, who offered the handsome fee of £100, kept all the records of the project, making it the best documented of any Turner painting. The artist consulted him on the architecture of the buildings, and finally added some scholars and clergy, and a few women strollers and streetsellers, “for the sake of colour”. Wyatt was delighted with the finished painting and exhibited it in his shop, before it was shown in Turner’s gallery and at the Royal Academy with another commissioned view of Oxford.
By then Turner knew Oxford well. He had visited his uncle and aunt in the small village of Sunningwell near the city, painted Oxford early in his career, and returned repeatedly. In 1799 he won a valuable and prestigious commission for a poor young artist: two works as illustrations for the annual calendar produced by the university. The resulting watercolours were much admired, and led to more commissions for another eight. Altogether he painted more than 30 finished watercolours of Oxford views, more than of any other English city.
A later sketch of the same scene, looking west along the broad street past Queen’s and All Souls colleges, towards the distant spire of All Saints, survives in the Tate collection, but when he was choosing scenes for a late great watercolour series, he left out the High Street, feeling he would never surpass his own oil painting of the scene.
Unusually for a museum appeal, the Ashmolean already has most of the money: the importance of the painting has been recognised in a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £550,000, and £220,000 from the Art Fund charity.
Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said the painting simply had to be acquired by the Ashmolean. “We’re pleased to have supported the campaign substantially ourselves, and fervently hope that anyone else who loves Turner, Oxford and the Ashmolean, will now do the same.”
The public have two months to choose their candidates. As well as painters and sculptors, the category includes fashion designers, film directors, ceramicists or architects. Living people and fictional characters are barred.
The final decision will be announced in spring 2016 and the new note is expected to go into circulation by 2020.
Announcing the public consultation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Carney urged the public to think beyond “the most famous and the most obvious”.
He continued: “Banknotes are the principal way the Bank of England engages with the British public.” Noting that the bank issued its first banknotes in 1694 to pay for the war against France, Carney said: “These sparse pieces of paper from the 17th century have developed over the years to become the small works of art that are in everyone’s wallets.”
“There are a wealth of individuals within the field of visual arts whose work shaped British thought, innovation, leadership, values and society and who continue to inspire people today. I greatly look forward to hearing from the public who they would like to celebrate.”
The unprecedented public consultation – which will involve school visits and focus groups led by the Bank’s chief cashier, Victoria Cleland – will be the first test of Threadneedle Street’s new process for choosing banknote characters.
Carney overhauled the process in 2013, following a high-profile campaign to ensure that women, apart from the Queen, remained on banknotes, after the Bank decided to phase out the Elizabeth Fry £5 note.
William Shakespeare was the first historical figure to feature on a British banknote, 1970. Since then notes have featured Charles Dickens, the Duke of Wellington, Charles Darwin and Sir John Houblon, the first governor of the Bank of England. Ththe architect Sir Christopher Wren has featured, but neither a painter nor sculptor has ever been chosen.
The art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon is a member of the Bank’s independent panel of experts advising on banknote characters. He said the decision to choose a figure from the art-world was long over due.
He said “adventurous, innovative” painters such as John Constable and JMW Turner had paved the way for modern artists: “The history of the British artist is the history of misunderstood genius.”
These two artists are likely to emerge as popular choices, while other names mooted include William Blake or George Stubbs.
Prof David Solkin, dean of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and one of world’s leading authorities on the history of British art, said: “Blake would be a good choice. He’s not the most obvious, but is also famous for his poetry, his work beyond his art. He’s someone whose influence has persisted and is in the public consciousness – we still sing Jerusalem. Most people will know him.
“Joshua Reynolds on the other hand may not be the most popular artist, but he was the first president of the Royal Academy, he is the founding father of the British school.
“My choice would be Joseph Wright of Derby, far less obvious but one of the most interesting British artists of the last 300 years, who has a presence in all the national collections. Though Turner is, of course, the most obvious.”
After the public consultation closes on 19 July, a panel of experts will draw up a shortlist of eight names, which will be tested in focus groups. This list will then be whittled down to three-five names for the governor to choose from.
Bookmaker Ladbrokes said on Tuesday that William Hogarth and Richard Attenborough had emerged as early joint favourites at 4-1 each, followed by Turner at 5-1, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (6-1) and Alexander McQueen (8-1).