Monday, October 22, 2007

Sotheby's To Sell Turner's Lost Masterpiece: Bamborough Castle - Not Seen For 118 Years

Sotheby's To Sell Turner's Lost Masterpiece: Bamborough Castle - Not Seen For 118 Years


J.M.W. Turner, Bamborough Castle, watercolour, estimate: £1.5–2.5 million. © Sotheby's Images.

LONDON, ENGLAND Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (1775-1851) is Britain’s greatest watercolourist and the last few years have seen him take centre stage like never before. In July of this year Sotheby’s offered for sale the Ullens Collection, the finest collection of privately-owned Turner watercolours to have come to the market in living memory, which saw the artist’s Lungernzee realise £3.6 million. Hot on the heels of this, a major exhibition entitled J.M.W.Turner has just opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. This actually follows record new prices in 2006 when one of Turner’s Venice masterpieces sold for $35.8 million in New York while his The Blue Rigi fetched £5.8 million in London. Now Sotheby’s London is delighted to announce that it will continue the Turner focus, offering the artist’s lost masterpiece, Bamborough Castle, on Wednesday, December 5, 2007.

Described by the Graphic Society in 1837 as “one of the finest watercolour-drawings in the world” this major work looks set to generate huge excitement in the academic and collecting worlds alike. It is expected to fetch in excess of £1.5 million. Dating from the mid 1830s, Turner’s Bamborough Castle has spent most of its life to date in the possession of a distinguished private collection and, remarkably, it has not been seen on the open market since 1872 - some 135 years. In 1872 it was sold as part of the Joseph Gillott collection in London and realised £3,309, the highest price ever achieved for a watercolour at the time. The Earl of Dudley was the purchaser on this occasion but later - in about 1890 - the picture passed into the hands of one of the great American collecting families, that of the Vanderbilts. The Vanderbilt family played a significant role in the history of the United States; they built a shipping and railroad empire during the 19th century which made them one of the wealthiest families in the world. Since entering the collection of Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt, the watercolour has passed down through successive generations of the family while the outside world has remained mystified as to its whereabouts.

Listed as untraced in Andrew Wilton’s Catalogue of Turner Watercolours published in 1979, the work has not been seen in public since 1889. Perched on an outcrop on the very edge of the North Sea at Bamborough, Northumberland, Bamborough Castle is one of England’s finest castles. In his watercolour, Turner has chosen to show the castle from its north side, the angle which clearly portrays the height and presence of the castle’s impressive Norman walls. The formidable castle is serenely depicted as the one point of safety in the midst of a charged landscape. In the foreground, a woman and girl appear to cower from the large roiling waves while a ship struggles to reach the security of the land under the great storm clouds.

In the 19th century the castle had a reputation for being one of the great places of refuge on the British coast during storms for sailors in distress. It actually had rooms within the walls that were put aside for rescued sailors as well as a marine rescue party that constantly patrolled an eight-mile stretch of the coast north and south of the castle. Turner was a great admirer of such details and he captures the castle’s preparations with a rocket launched in the distance and people gathered at the waters-edge, ready to rescue the sailors who are rowing away from their vessel that has struck the massive rocks.

The watercolour, which measures 505x705mm, relates to an earlier pencil drawing of the castle from 1797. The work has all of Turner’s signature elements; his energetic handling of colour which is often applied in rapid scratch-like strokes, or smeared into place with his fingertips, or scratched away with the tip of a brush to reveal the paper beneath.

Henry Wemyss, Head of British Watercolours at Sotheby’s, comments: “This watercolour fully demonstrates the genius of Turner and it’s a real treat to have the privilege of bringing it to sale. Its recent re-discovery after more than a century away from the public eye, alongside its dramatic and powerful British subject, result in an incredibly rare and special work of art. The market in 1872 made it not only the most valuable watercolour, but more expensive than many Turner oils. I think the Graphic Society got it right in 1837 when they described it as ‘one of the finest watercolour-drawings in the world.’”

Research on the painting is still in progress, but it is possible that the work may shed new light on Turner’s working practices. It seems, for instance, that here Turner has backed the sheet of paper with two further laminated sheets – no doubt to strengthen the paper but also, possibly to intensify the colours he used. More details about the fascinating work, and the story behind it, will be revealed over the coming months.


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