Canada National Gallery of Canada JMW Turner SHIPWRECK what went wrong? NGC Canada       JMW Turner:  the source  National Gallery of Canada JMW
      NGC  Shipwreck  What went wrong?
Formerly a solidly attributed Turner seascape from the National Gallery of Canada Collection

National Gallery of Canada Shipwreck c1840

Art World’s Dirty Little Secret
r malcolm setters / graham setters

"At this juncture in our story it might be fair to reflect back to an unremarkable bit of logic dealing with why a genuine work may be without provenance. To flesh out this line of reasoning and stimulate analysis we should single out one work in particular that seems adrift without much history. This would-be 'orphan' was mentioned earlier, Seascape: Folkestone c1845. In 1984 Turner "broke all sales records for a work of art" with this particular painting. Before this its only claim to fame appeared to be its honorable connection to Lord Kenneth Clark who bought it from Agnew’s in 1951. The painting had no history before Sir Donald Curry in 1894. This nameless foundling was assigned a title, but there were still problems. For one thing it had no clearly associated sketches, and apparently, there were no closely related comparables amongst Turner's other work. The green of its water was a certain enigma; green was Turner's least favourite. As for adequate provenance, the lack of it, in this case, might not be so remarkable after all. According to the Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll catalogue of Turner's work, The Paintings of J.M.W.Turner:

“The absence of any history before 1894 is puzzling…If, therefore, it was sold during Turner’s lifetime; it must have been bought directly from the studio by a collector such as Gillott or Bicknell, who were both buying Turner’s work in bulk c1844. It seems still more likely, however, that it was in some way disposed of after Turner’s death. Although we have no record of any Turners sold in this way, that such transactions took place is highly probable and, indeed, the number of pictures of this general type, for which no early record of sale exists, is now sufficiently large to make it seem virtually certain that a group of canvases were either stolen or sold before the inventory of the Turner Bequest was made.” [xxxiii] National Gallery of Canada, IFAR, International Foundation for Art Research

Yes, Seascape: Folkestone might have found its way onto the market un-documented, or possibly even surreptitiously. Again, those hinge-pins normally demanded by experts seem superfluous under certain circumstances. It appears at times as though there is a double standard being applied.

      The Shipwreck c1840 (pictured above) from the National Gallery of Canada might help to reinforce this concern. This painting was ultimately condemned after being sent to the Tate for study in 1975. According to this author's own 1982 letter from Viscount Dunlace, this was done before they had adequate resources to do a proper study. Even by 1982 when Shipwreck, the Rescue was being investigated, not only did the National Gallery of London and the Tate Gallery have a dearth of catalogued observations, they had limited scientific capacity and could do little more than give it a stylistic review. This review seemed very vague indeed - possibly only sputtering pontification whereby the individual who finds the greatest number of weaknesses, wins! One revered twentieth century art historian agreed with this idea:

"The complaints regarding frivolous and untruthful expert opinions are all too justified. They have caused a reaction, so that timorous minds nowadays go to the extremes in judging negatively or with reserve. The people concerned say ‘no’ in order not, at all events, to be considered with the ‘yes-men’. Now prudence is not only the mother of wisdom but also the daughter of ignorance. What must be done to steer the right course between the rocks of conciliator compliance on the one hand and a negative attitude, on principle, on the other."

   - Max J. Friedlander, On Art and Connoisseurship, 1942

Their basis for questioning the authenticity of the NGC piece, immediately flies in the face of the forgoing points summarily ignored about Lord Clark's picture. The following is an excerpt about the National Gallery of Canada picture as found in the Butlin and Joll catalogue: “In trying to determine the authenticity of a picture of this kind, which has no early history, an obvious line of enquiry is to search for related material in the Turner Bequest.... In this case, although I cannot discover anything which has a close connection with the Ottawa picture, there are certainly affinities between it and the Ship in a Storm (No 489, millboard, 11 7/8 X 18 3/4 in.).”[xxxiv]  
    It is surprising that there was not a connection made with another oil sketch: Red Sky Over a Beach, (BJ 488). It certainly seems related, at least by way of composition, tonality and treatment of the water. The distressed ship from BJ 489 which was suggested to have a connection might even be superimposed with this other example to make a complete preliminary work. It is quite possible that they are all connected.
National Gallery of Canada JMW Turner Shipwreck

    There were a number of other concerns; one of these was over the undefined relationship of the clouds and water to that of the horizon. When you consider Turner’s vortex compositions, works of the same period such as Snowstorm, Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842, this becomes very much a mute point. The horizon is un-delineated in several works around this time period. 

Secondly, the thin parallel cracks censored in the report may in fact be from physical damage, and thus support concerns over Turner’s habit of rolling some canvases for storage. Finally, there is the derision over the impasto-embellished figure in the foreground water, criticized as being more highly finished than the rest of the picture. This almost trite compositional device of placing an isolated object in the foreground, something Turner used in many other sea-pieces, is undeniably made even more effective with impasto. It helps to define the foreground more clearly. Bravo for Turner. There is a more striking example of this same would-be indiscretion: Hero of a Hundred Fights (started c. 1800-10 and exhibited after reworking in 1847. As written in the Oxford Companion, “Turner did not cover the whole canvas in the reworking, and seems to have ignored the mismatch.” [xxxv] In fact, if the Ottawa picture had been reworked at a later date, which would have been a likely case scenario, this should act as a commendatory rather than a condemnatory stylistic reference. 


Graham Reynolds makes an interesting point over such irregularities, ones that are also to be found on Turner’s exhibition pieces. Incorporating a quote from Redgrave, one of Turner’s colleagues, Reynolds effectively defends the NGC picture in light of such criticism; “Redgrave…comments on Turner’s love of transfiguring a rich colour from other palettes to his own pictures, ‘from our own palette he has whisked off, on more occasions
than one, a luscious knot of orange vermilion or ultramarine, tempered with copal, and at once used it on a picture he was at work upon with a mastic magylph.’ As he points out this mixture of media with differing drying qualities is a cause of [physical] failure in Turner’s work, but is evidence of a wish to embellish the highlights, and explains the fragmentary variegated texture of his exhibited pieces.” [xxxvi]

 S.W. Parott; Turner on Varnishing Day c1846


What if one were to weigh the relatively minor anomalies presented by the Tate critique against the NGC picture with Turner’s paste-on dog found on the picture, Mortlake Terrace, the Seat of William Moffat, Esq. (BJ 239), “Mr. Tom Taylor adduces this dog as a proof of Turner’s reckless readiness of resources when an effect in art was wanted. It suddenly struck the artist that a dark object here would throw back the distance and increase the aerial effect. Turner instantly cut a dog out of black paper and stuck him on the wall, where he still remains; for either satisfied or forgetful, he never replaced him by a painted one.” [xxxvii] And... “a story is told which shows his experimental methods of working: the figure of Sibyl in the foreground was a page cut from his sketchbook and pasted on the canvas. This he replaced a few years later.” [xxxviii] These anomalous comparisons, of which there are many other novel innovations within the artist’s body of work, will hopefully elucidate the injustice being served by chopping the Ottawa picture from Turner’s oeuvre... Yes, chopped for  having a dab too much impasto where it was warranted! National Gallery of Canada JMW Turner Shipwreck

And what about provenance? For the NGC picture it seemed pretty good, apparently going back to Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), but unwittingly, at a time when this foreign institution was largely purchasing paintings from Agnew’s, the home-base of Evelyn Joll, why on earth would they stray and buy their Shipwreck, presumably such an important British painting, and one so connected to British interests, from the dealer Nico Jungman? At last, we are left to ponder the inconsistencies of the Tate pundits' condemnation of the NGC’s Shipwreck and enter a more philosophic chapter. Our enquiry must start accounting for political motivations. 

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[xxxiii] Martin Butlin & Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, Evelyn Joll’s 1977 intro. Revised Edition, 1984), text vol. 289.

[xxxiv] Ibid. 320.

[xxxv] Joyce H. Townsend, The Oxford Companion To J.M.W. Turner, (Oxford University Press Inc., New York, Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin, and Luke Herrmann, 2001), 260.

[xxxvi] Graham Reynolds, Turner,  (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), 144-5.

[xxxvii] Walter Thornbury, Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., (Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, London, 1862), vol. 1, 305.

[xxxviii] Graham Reynolds, Turner,  (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), 161.