A brush with JMW Turner: museum fights to keep classic painting in Oxford

Stroke of genius: the High Street, Oxford by JMW Turner. Photograph: Ashmolean Museum
Stroke of genius: the High Street, Oxford by JMW Turner. Photograph: Ashmolean Museum

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.”

Source: The Guardian.

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