When Rome from Mount Aventine was offered for sale in 1878 it formed part of one of the most remarkable sales of works by Turner ever to have taken place. As the Times critic commented on 4th April ‘Since the memorable Bicknell sale in 1864 there has been no such display of Turner pictures’. His enthusiastic report on the sale itself ran to several columns and it is clear that the collection attracted quite exceptional interest – ‘It has been calculated that from twelve to fifteen thousand persons must have passed before the pictures…’. Rome, from Mount Aventine is particularly singled out – ‘Rome from Mount Aventine painted for Mr Munro and exhibited in 1836… when placed before the audience drew forth long and loud applause and its great beauty was testified by its bringing the highest price £6142.10s to Mr Davis’. This exceptional price had only been exceeded once, in April 1875, when The Grand Canal Venice (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) was sold from the Manley Hall collection, formed by the cotton manufacturer Sam Mendel, for £7,350. This had also been a Munro of Novar picture, sold by him in March 1860 for £2,520, a clear indication of the increasing demand for Turner’s work. Munro’s sale also included 155 Old Master paintings offered on 10th June, not one of which came near the prices achieved for the six finest Turners in the collection. A striking example of this was the sale of Veronese’s Vision of the Cross, which was bought for the National Gallery for £3,465, whilst six oil paintings by Turner each sold for over £4,000. A number of paintings appeared at auction in Turner’s lifetime, and five sold for prices in excess of £500. However following his death the market improved significantly. James Wadmore had bought three important oils by Turner in 1828 for £700 and in his sale in May 1854 they sold for a total of £3,548, Cologne the Arrival of a Packet Boat (Frick Collection, New York) selling for £2,100, the first painting to exceed £2,000. It is interesting to note that this picture, together with Harbour of Dieppe, was eventually bought directly from Mrs Naylor, widow of the great collector, for £42,000 early in the twentieth century before being sold on to the Frick Collection in 1914.

L14036_market_1Fig. 1 George Jones, Interior of Turner's Gallery, oil on millboard, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / Bridgeman Images

In the 1860s and 1870s there had been a notable change in the type of collector of Turner’s work. Instead of his old friends Fawkes and Egremont he dealt increasingly with newly rich industrialists. Elhanan Bicknell from Herne Hill who had made a fortune in the whaling business was a typical example. He bought no fewer than eight paintings by Turner in 1844 and his sale in April 1863 created considerable interest. The Star of 28th April succinctly described this new breed of Turner collector – ‘a man not even pretending to resemble a Genoese or Florentine merchant prince but simply and absolutely a Londoner of the middle class actively occupied in business’. Another similar collector was Joseph Gillott, who had made a fortune with his invention of the steel pen. His sale in April 1872 included a number of paintings by Turner notably Walton Bridges (Loyd Collection) which sold for £5,250 (it had fetched £703.10 in a sale in June 1845), and The Junction of the Thames and Medway (National Gallery of Art, Washington) which sold for £4,567 – The Times commented in particular on the latter price, noting that 25 years earlier the same picture had sold for 1200 guineas ‘then an unheard-of price for any English painter’s work’. In fact the nineteenth century saw a marked increase in prices for major works by Turner and Turner’s dominance is emphasized by the fact that until the 1890s no work by his great contemporary John Constable had fetched in excess of £2,000 at auction. In May 1870 the Birmingham iron founder Edwin Bullock sold Venice, The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute (National Gallery of Art, Washington) for £2,688 having bought it at the Royal Academy in 1843 for 200 guineas, and the same picture was sold in May 1899 by the important coal engineer John Fowler for £8,610. In the early twentieth century there was enthusiastic buying for Turner’s work in America, and Venice, The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute was sold again in July 1927 from the estate of James Ross of Montreal for an astonishing £30,450. The buyer was the American collector Alvan Fuller, Governor of Massachusetts, in whose memory it was given to the National Gallery in Washington.

L14036_market_2Fig. 2 J.M.W. Turner, R.A., Juliet and her Nurse © Colección de Arte Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat

Pictures from the celebrated Bicknell sale of April 1863 proved excellent investments – Van Goyen, looking out for a subject (Frick Collection), which had sold then for £2,635 was sold from John Graham’s collection in April 1887 for £6,825, Helvoetsluys (Fuji Art Museum, Tokyo) which made £1,680 then was sold from the collection of the Devon collector James Price in June 1895 for £6,720 and Wreckers (Yale Centre for British Art) which made £1,984 was sold in May 1897 from the collection of the Scottish telegraph entrepreneur Sir John Pender for £7,980. The early years of the twentieth century saw further spectacular prices – Mortlake Terrace (Frick Collection) which had been sold from James Prices’s collection in June 1895 for £5,460 fetched £13,230 in the sale in June 1908 of the collection of Stephen Holland. The Lancashire chemical manufacturer Holbrook Gaskell had a remarkable collection of watercolours, but he also owned a remarkable painting by Turner, Burning of the House of Lords and Commons (Philadelphia Museum of Art) which had been sold back in May 1868 for £1,527 and in 1909 fetched an amazing £13,123, matching the record price from the previous year. The effect that the American market could have at this period was illustrated by two great sales. The first was the sale of Rockets and Blue Lights (Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown) in New York in April 1910 from the collection of Charles Yerkes. The picture had been included in Henry McConnell’s sale in March 1886 (together with Campo Santo, Venice) where it sold to Agnew for £745.10. It was now bought by Duveen for £25,800. The second was the sale of East Cowes Castle (Indianapolis Museum, Indiana) also in New York in February 1913 as part of the collection of Matthew C. B. Borden, ‘The Calico King’. 

It was a masterpiece originally from that great Munro sale in 1878 which suddenly transformed the market.

In July 1835 it had been sold for £283.10, and in the E.W. Parker sale in July 1909 it fetched £6,825. Now only four years later it was sold for £21,700, an astonishing increase. These sales, and that in 1927 of Venice, The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute, moved the market for Turner paintings to a new level. In addition, in July 1912 the twelve-day sale of the collection of the newspaper proprietor J.E. Taylor established new records for Turner watercolours, including such great works as Blue Rigi. It is not surprising that the period covering the two World Wars saw a dearth of great works by Turner appearing on the market. However there were some notable highlights, in particular the sale on 8th July 1927 of a remarkable group of 127 paintings from the collection of James Ross of Montreal. The Telegraph reported, ‘the triumph… was shared by those paramount masters in the hierarchy of art Rembrandt and Turner’. The price of £30,450 for Venice, The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute achieved in that sale was not only a record price for Turner but also only very slightly lower that the price for the Rembrandt portrait and greatly in excess of prices for other Old Masters such as Rubens. The second Turner in the collection, Helvoetsluys, sold for £8,925, a reasonable increase over the price it had fetched in 1895 in the James Price sale. The price obtained for Venice, The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute remained the record until 1966. Another notable sale was the Yarborough sale on 12th July 1929. Festival of Macon (Sheffield City Art Gallery) had been bought directly from the artist in 1803 so when it was offered for sale by his descendent there was plenty of interest. The Telegraph referred to ‘the warmth of the auction welcome given to a magnificent early picture by Turner’ and noted that Agnew won the picture ‘at the goodly bid of 8,600 guineas’.

L14036_market_3Fig. 3 J.M.W. Turner, R.A., Sea Piece: Folkestone, Private Collection © Sotheby’s

Two pictures sold in the 1960s can be seen as heralding the spectacular resurgence in prices for Turner’s paintings. It is significant that the highest price by far was for a painting which had first been sold in one of the great nineteenth-century sales, that of Elhanan Bicknell. The picture in question was Ehrenbreitstein (Private Collection) which was sold by Lord Allendale in July 1965 for £88,000, a price far in excess of the previous record established in 1927. The other high price was for the previously mentioned Helvoetsluys, another picture from the Bicknell sale, which was sold in November 1969 for £62,000. This lower price is explained by the picture’s appearance in 1954 when it was sold from the Coats collection for £9,240, though the price achieved fifteen years later does still show a very marked increase. It is generally considered that 1975 marks a watershed for the study of Turner’s work with the great exhibition at the Tate Gallery followed two years later by the publication of the catalogue raisoneé of his paintings. The Bridgewater Seapiece (Private Collection), painted for the Duke of Bridgewater in 1801 and sold by his descendants in June 1976 for £320,000 was further evidence that when a great work by the artist came onto the market there was a very strong market but compared with the nineteenth century such pictures appeared only rarely. It was a masterpiece originally from that great Munro sale in 1878 which suddenly transformed the market for Turner’s paintings. Juliet and Her Nurse (Coleccion de Arte Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, Buenos Aires, fig. 2) was sold in New York in May 1980 from the Whitney Collection for $6,400,000, a record for any painting at the time. Only four years later this price was overtaken by the appearance in July 1984 of Seascape: Folkstone (Private Collection, fig. 3) in the sale of works from Lord Clark’s collection. It was a great rarity, a very late work and one of only very few not forming part of the Turner Bequest, and it sold for £6,700,000 (Private Collection).

It was these two sales which gave collectors the confidence to look out for the appearance of major works by Turner and two such opportunities have presented themselves in the last ten years. The two pictures in question were both late works of Italian subjects and significantly had originally appeared in great nineteenthcentury sales, one from Elhanan Bicknell and one from Munro of Novar. The first was the sale in April 2006 of Guidecca, la Donna della Salute and San Giorgio (Private Collection) for $32,000,000. It had originally been sold by Bicknell and was later owned by the great collector Sir Donald Currie. Even this price was overtaken four years later when Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, one of the highlights of the great Munro sale in 1878, was sold from the Rosebery collection in July 2010 to the Getty Museum for £26,500,000 ($45,101,996). Turner took a keen interest in the prices fetched for his paintings and in July 1827, when the first significant dispersal at auction took place of any of his pictures (Lord Tabley’s sale) he very publicly bought Sun Rising through Vapour himself for the significant price of £514.10.0, higher that any auction price for any of his paintings in his lifetime. He bequeathed it to the National Gallery. He would certainly have been proud that two great pictures belonging to two of his loyalist collectors should have fetched such enormous prices and that Modern Rome remains the highest price achieved at auction for any painting by an English artist.


03 December 2014 | London