JMW Turner's Pope's Villa at Twickenham: A Case Study

Article excerpt

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Alexander Pope (1688-1744 leased his Thames-side house near Twickenham on the London to Hampton Court road in 1719, and in 1720 he employed James Gibbs to remodel the house into a small Palladian villa. The poet himself spent much of the rest of his life creating the famous garden in a pioneering style which had a profound effect on the development of the English landscape garden. A major feature was the grotto, which was 'finished with shells interspersed with pieces of looking glass'. In 1736 Pope opened his 'little kingdom' to the public. On the poet's death eight years later house and garden passed through several hands before they were bought by Baroness (Sophia) Howe in 1807. She became so irritated by the constant flow of visitors that she demolished the house and gardens, earning the title 'Queen of the Goths', and built another house on the site. (1) In the 5th exhibition in Turner's Gallery, which opened on 18 April 1808, Turner showed twelve paintings, of which seven were views on the Thames, including Pope's Villa at Twickenham (B &J, 72; PI 1). This was bought by Sir John Leicester (later Lord de Tabley) for 200 guineas, sold at his sale at Christie's on 7 July 1827 for only 5 guineas more to James Morrison, and remains in the Walter Morrison Picture Settlement to-day. One of Turner's most evocative compositions, Pope's Villa is illuminated by some of Turner's own poetry and by two in-depth contemporary commentaries, which together provide unique insight into one of the artist's greatest but little-known works.

Early in 1805 Turner had become the tenant of a riverside house, Sion Ferry House, Isleworth, and late in 1806 he had taken another house on the river at 6 West End, Upper Mall, Hammersmith, which remained his 'country house' until 1811, when he began building Solus (later Sandycombe) Lodge in Twickenham, which he retained until 1825, and which still stands today. Thus Turner, when not in his studio or travelling, spent much of his time in the middle years of his career living on or close to the River Thames. Throughout his career, water in all its forms--rivers, lakes and the sea--was one of the most frequent features in his landscape compositions in all media. Turner's love of the Thames in particular is reflected in his work between about 1805 and 1810, as shown by the exhibits in his own gallery and the unique series of large and small Thames oil sketches (B & J, 160-94, Tate Britain). These formed part of the Turner Bequest and were probably largely painted out in the open, many of them perhaps from a boat on the river. Together with numerous sketchbook studies, mostly in pencil, these oil sketches were used as the basis of several of his exhibited Thames compositions, though none of them are related to Pope's Villa.

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Thanks to the engraver John Landseer (1769-1852) and his short-lived publication Review of Publications of Art, of which all four volumes were published in 1808, we know more about the 1808 exhibition in Turner's Gallery than about any other, as it was discussed at length in the second volume of the Review. (2) The review begins:

   As the GALLERY of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., in Queen Ann-Street West,
   is now open to the public, (gratis), we shall naturally be expected
   to communicate our remarks on the principal works he this year
   exposes to view.

      In the Exhibition which Mr Turner thus liberally throws open to
   the eye of the public, the genuine lover of Art, and the faithful
   observer of Nature in her broader purposes, will find himself very
   highly gratified. The shew of landscape is rich and various, and
   appears to flow from a mind clear and copious as that noble river
   on whose banks the artist resides, and whose various beauties he
   has so frequently been delighted to display.

After further general comments greatly praising Turner's landscape art and written from the point of view of an 'expert', for Landseer himself painted and drew landscape, he discusses the exhibits one by one, beginning with the Union of the Thames and Isis (B & J 70, Tate Britain) and The Thames at Eton (B & J 7, Petworth House). …