JMW Turner,  the source: JMW Turner experts from the Tate Gallery visited John Anderson Jr in America to see his vast collection of Turner's art.  Was there adequate expert opinion to authenticate... Anderson Galleries / Sotheby's Parke Bernet / Sotheby's... 
The Unknown Turner                           
                                                                                                  An American Legend


 The Unknown Turner by John Anderson Jr.
The following text describes the somewhat counterproductive shift away from the individual as 'collector and connoisseur'; it also shows how the dominant British art establishment devastated a living legend - the American, John Anderson Jr. Art World’s Dirty Little Secret r malcolm setters / graham setters

        "Was Anderson a madman? John E. Anderson. Jr. had a thesis, several in fact. These were somewhat off the mark relative to contemporary Turner scholarship, so how could there be any question? According to the way history has treated him, if not mad, he must have at least been a fool.

 Over time this author acquired three of Anderson’s rare books published in 1926, The Unknown Turner.   They are large format artful publications that tread a discordant path between prose, art-scholarship, and science. Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm to reinforce his thesis, Anderson’s tone is defensive. One is left with more than a suspicion that he was challenged considerably about his ideas even prior to the book’s publication.

Text Box: To leave an imprint in the sand of wisdom that withstands the wave of change demands the weight of learning and a pen.




There is no question that for several decades Anderson was an avid Turner researcher and connoisseur; but where did he go wrong. Why was this American Turner-aficionado forgotten along with all his carefully collected Turner art works? Did his neglect have something to do with his roots rather than the quality of his contribution?  While telling his story, Anderson’s concern over empirical accuracy is believably ardent. In his own words: “The most painstaking care has been taken in the ascertainment of facts and the weighing of evidence. No scientific investigator in his laboratory has more severely tested his own deductions in his desire for the attainment of exactness and the avoidance of error.” [i]

Because of its vast content one might expect that some of his collection was dubious, including some of the correspondence ascribed to Turner himself, but nonetheless he presents the reader with much to reflect upon. With multifaceted reasoning and pragmatic examples he focuses on two main points: one; that all Turner drawings and watercolours, at least the ones in his own collection were secretly signed: and secondly; only half of Turner’s pictures in existence today are accepted as authentic. Of the other half he claimed to have the lions share. As Turner was wildly prolific, Anderson conservatively reasoned that with two drawings a day for three-hundred days of the year, and over an active period of sixty years he likely did 36,000 or more drawings and sketches. This seems more reasonable than the common belief that Turner did fewer than 22,500 in total, including everything from summary sketches to finished masterpieces. “In 1820 he traveled to Italy for the first time, producing over 2,000 sketches in two months,” [ii] averaging almost 35 a day.

Even accounting for a lifetime obsession, for Anderson to accumulate 15,000 drawings in “30 years of steady, persistent search,” [iii] would require a greater acquisition rate than one per day. One would have to be as committed to collecting Turner’s work, as the artist himself was to producing it. This obsession took Anderson back and forth between America and Britain numerous times. His sources ranged from naive dealers to top-end aristocratic collections. From some of the most respected patrician families of the day he was even able to buy collated collections of drawings.

For a moment let us suppose that this huge body of work was predominantly authentic. What impact would it have, and who might not want to acknowledge its legitimacy! One can only imaging the monumental task that would be needed to catalogue it. It would then have to be conjoined with the rest of the artist’s accepted work. Effectively, much of Turner’s history would need rewriting, and in doing so there would be a tremendous jolt to the status quo. This, to the chagrin of living Turner experts would invariable debase much already extant Turner scholarship.

 For works solidly accepted as authentic there is naturally a self-procreating need to rehash old themes. Although this is the direction expected of sequential learning, it falls short when it comes to flexibility. Perhaps hampered by political willfulness, few look outside the box of trite erudition. When a new discovery needs to be recognized the doors to the archives are often difficult to open. Inclusion of Anderson’s 15000 works would have overwhelmed the English institutions; even at a point when Anderson was active, 50 to 75 years ago. This was at a time before more insular standards for authentication had fully flowered, and more documentation was expected. If it is so difficult to get one new Turner accepted—one can only imagine the chaos thousands of works would bring.

Documentation of the ‘complete inventory’ of an artist’s work might be effective in assuring the survival for already accepted paintings,[4] but what about ones that went directly from the artist’s easel, into private hands, and had never been recognized. Much of this journey would have been without documentation. Certainly, “It would take a life-time to follow the vicissitudes of all Turner’s water-colours, when they were painted, and where they are today.” [xix] Frances Tyrrell-Gill wrote that the majority of watercolours in private hands have surely “changed hands so often that for accurate information to their whereabouts, the enquirer can only be directed to the catalogues of Christie’s and Manson’s sales, as this kind of interchange is always going on.” [xx] This author, a century ago had already recognized the difficulty of keeping tack of Turner’s work; oddly though, the possible sales venue had already been narrowly defined to one sales room--Christie's and Manson’s. What about private sales between individuals and the sales through a multitude of smaller dealers?

Often a work is known only through a print of it. Such an image would have been sculpted after the artist’s original, but the original might remain untraced. There are several such Turner watercolours listed but untraced in Andrew Wilton’s catalogue. [xxi] In fact there is a large number of untraced watercolours listed that were lost about the time Anderson was making his acquisitive journeys to England. Not so surprisingly then, the running provenance of some of those works abruptly stopped. Were these some of the works that Anderson brought to America?

  from The Unknown Turner

much of Anderson’s problem with the Tate delegation that was sent to see him in America, resulted from institutional worries over the potential overload several thousand new discoveries might cause; fears over information being forced into their highly governed and strictly managed environment? Could this have been what eventually wrote Anderson’s history, or rather, failed to write it? For sheer logistical reasons, was Anderson forgotten along with his research and collection? Even though some of Anderson’s work must have been worthy of an honest review, his discoveries are never mentioned within the close-knit world of contemporary Turner scholarship. We will eventually see how some of his pictures that sold at auction after his death made it into solid collections. But why have all of Anderson’s efforts on all levels been erased?

What about the solidly recorded and now untraced Turner drawings for the engravings by John Landseer? In his book Anderson declared, “I possess Turner’s sketch of Cowes Castle from which the engraving was made.” xxii] In Wilton’s catalogue, Numbers 176-181, he supports the existence of, “six drawings, now untraced, the compositions of which are recorded in a set of unfinished engravings by John Landseer… 176 Cowes, Isle of Wight[xxiii] There was also an 1817 drawing of Plymouth catalogued in the 1937 Anderson sale at the Plaza Auction Galleries (lot #67).[xxiv] It was sold along with its engraved image done by one of Turner’s noted engravers, John Murray. Certainly, several of the works from the Anderson collection should be challenged, but why condemn the whole lot in the process? After seeing many ‘Anderson Turners’ floating around the art-market in recent years priced lower than the 2 volume set of the Butlin and Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner  [xxv] – well -- it is certain that something is bound to come back to haunt those Anderson antagonists.

   Excerpt from the New York Times, 1941:

"The auction sale of water-colors from the J. M. W. Turner collection of John Anderson Jr. brought $3,645 at the Kende Galleries, Inc., 730 Fifth Avenue yesterday afternoon. The collection contained scenes in Greece, England, and Scotland. A sketchbook of Greece, dated 1844, sold for $105, and one of Scotland, 1848, for $110." [5]

What about those prices in 1941?[6] Better yet, accounting for the difficulty in fabricating an entire sketchbook—what about the artist’s trip to Greece? This is certainly ground breaking, Turner supposedly never made it to Greece. Mind you, existing Turner literature also disavows Turner making any trips to Ireland, which is also hard to believe knowing what is known of Turner’s itchy feet; his desire to see Ireland has been frequently documented. From Thomas Moore’s own Journal and Correspondence [xxvi] Thornbury quotes: "But Ireland, Mr. Moore, Ireland! … I have often longed to go to that country, but am, I confess, afraid to venture myself there. Under the wing of Thomas Moore, however, I should be safe." xxvii] The tone of Turner’s excited retort infers that plans for an Irish adventure with the poet were already finalized. This much quoted conversation had taken place during an intimate dinner engagement at Samuel Rogers’, another great poet of the day for whom Turner did illustrations.[7]

In 1904 Frances Tyrrell-Gill phrased this point intuitively: “Incidentally it may be noted here that Turner has not painted a single Irish scene; nor does he appear ever to have visited Ireland, although it might have been supposed that its fine lake and mountain scenery, and the variety of atmospheric effect, due to the moistness of its climate, would have strongly attracted him.”[xxviii]

There is at least one graphic work of Ireland done 'after' Turner, Le Chateau de Kilgarren, and in the unlikely event that he never traveled to Ireland personally, it is certain that an image might be expected by his hand as a copy of another artist. It is popularly accepted that he did copy in this manner. To reveal Turner’s stealthy spirit it should be noted that, “In all his watercolours for engraving based on the work of other artists Turner succeeded in concealing the fact that he himself had not seen the place depicted.” [xxix] Then again in some cases he might have seen the place depicted but not revealed he had been there personally. One can never be too certain of the wanderings of such a secretive man. 

The Unknown Turner: an unfinished drawing

Many times
without leaving even his closest friends his itinerary, Turner would disappear for months. “Later in life, he stole backwards and forwards to the Continent with the jealous suspicion with which a detective officer effects his secret journeys.” [xxx] Turner was a perpetual traveler, a migrating bird, or perhaps, Sasquatch with a boat on each ankle and an easel strapped to his back. His silence about his travels might have been merely a search for ascetic solitude, Evelyn Joll admits, “great gaps in our knowledge of Turner still remain; of course Turner himself was largely responsible for this, for his love of secrecy was generally remarked upon, and if this self-mystification was often playfully intentional rather than pathological, the result was the same.”[xxxi] It would be difficult to believe that a man with such wanderlust and obsessive desire to travel on long journeys abroad would let himself be confined to England for more than ten years of his vigorous youth. At the height of Napoleon’s campaign on the continent, it is quite conceivable that Turner would travel westward to Ireland in order to appease his longing for adventure.  

The 1941 sale was not the first time that part of Anderson’s collection showed up on the auction-block, and it would not be the last. In 1937 there had been a sale of 151 “Water colors and other Media of J. M. W. Turner”, sold at Plaza Art Auction Gallery NYC, then again in 1938: after nearly a decade of The Great Depression, there was another sale. As recorded at the time: “A collection of drawings in water-color, gouche (sic), pencil and other mediums by J. M. W. Turner brought $5,410 last night at the American Art Association, 30 East Fifty-Seventy Street. The drawings were the property of John Anderson Jr. founder of the Anderson Art Galleries.” [xxxii] It is interesting to note some of the provenances that were offered in the New York Times in 1941:

“An exhibition of 500 water-colors, drawings and works in other media selected from the J. M. W. Turner collection of the late John E. Anderson… was previewed last week on the fifth floor of the Gimbel Brothers… Sale to the public will begin tomorrow.

Most of the Drawings were bought from the heirs of John Landseer and his two sons, Charles and Edwin, and from the Estate of George Jones R.A., who was one of Turner’s intimate friends as well as executor of his will.” [xxxiii]

John Anderson, the notable New York collector had been very influential on the American art scene a century ago, and although he was obviously well read, in fact a bibliophile who eventually opened a bookshop, it is perceptible that he was not a product of the ‘right’ schools and was without a school tie. We can be confident that a certain amount of this categorical attitude still survives within the recesses of elitism, and although Anderson was erudite in his own right, he still failed the test of British precedence.

From Anderson’s 1941 obituary in the New York Times:

John E. Anderson, founder of the Anderson Galleries, once one of the most famous art and literary auction houses in the country, died… at his home in Brooklyn at the age of 86…

Mr. Anderson, Descendant of a family that settled in Southampton, L.I., in 1640 was born in Manhattan, the son of John Edward Anderson and Sarah Cooper Anderson. In his early life he established a bookshop on Nassau Street; then in 1900, founded the Anderson Galleries, which in 1929 merged with another famous art house[8], the American Art Association…

The American Art Association Anderson Galleries went out of business in 1939, and its building at 30 East Fifty-Seventh Street, was taken over by Parke-Bernet Galleries. Mr. Anderson was well known in England, where he visited frequently. He owned a famous collection of works of Joseph M. W. Turner, noted British landscape painter, many of which are on loan to English, Swiss, Egyptian and other Museums. He was author of a privately printed book, “The Unknown Turner.” He also was one of the organizers of the Old First Class Association of Brooklyn’s famous old Wilson Street School. [xxxvi]

Does this sound like the ‘press’ for a madman? Dubitably. It sounds really quite solid, associating the man and his pictures with the right state of affairs. In addition, his New York gallery had an important part to play with both the American and European avant-garde art movements. Alfred Stieglitz promoted Georgia O’Keeffe there, and “Fernand Léger’s first big exhibition in America took place in the Anderson Galleries under the auspices of the Societe Anonyme." [xxxvii]

After receiving Anderson’s book by post and giving it a cursory read, it was set aside;. I had succumb to what was certainly the common opinion that much of it was too implausible to be of much use. It was not until my memory was jogged by the discovery of the letters J W T on Shipwreck, the Rescue that I retrieved The Unknown Turner from its musty corner. It was something about secret signatures…. In Anderson's words: “While my attention has been almost exclusively given to Turner’s drawings and sketches, I have good reason for believing that his hidden signatures and dates appear on all of his oil-paintings as well.” [xxxviii]

Those obscure intaglio letters Peter Paul Biró found on the pier, while looking for fingerprints, likely represented the artist’s initials. They were to be found only with difficulty, if at all. Because Anderson’s theory stood up, at least in regard to the obscurity of the inscription, I felt somewhat obliged to take his book more seriously. He had gone to great lengths describing where such signatures could be found, and their specific configuration. He made reference to items the artist allegedly had in his possession, including texts in miniature writing, which he credited for influencing those 'oft-tiny' hidden signatures. Anderson apparently had these miniature texts in his own collection at the time he wrote his book. At times according to Swinburne, Turner's dexterity was unequalled for its "minute and microscopic accuracy." (Life and Work, 1902, 175)

In support of his thesis about secret signatures, Anderson had toiled gathering proof that Turner was a secretive ‘mystery-man’. This he did quite successfully, showing the type of puzzle-making personality the artist had, and how such a personality might be expected to play games with his signature. Turner’s old friend David Roberts recorded for Thornbury that:

 “His life partook of the character of his works; it was mysterious, and nothing seemed so much to please him as to try and puzzle you…if he began to explain or tell you anything, he was sure to break off in the middle, look very mysterious, nod, and wink his eye, saying to himself, ‘Make out that if you can;’ and it was no doubt this love of mystery that led, at last, to the sad muddle in which he left his affairs.” [xxxix]

If Anderson were right, and all, or at least a goodly number of Turner’s paintings were signed and dated in some way, what effect would this have on prominent Turner specialists? Control of ones realm is much easier if there is decision-making flexibility, and with everything effectively firmed up, signed and dated in such a stylized way, expert opinion would no longer be such a powerful criterion for assessment. Experts would lose much control. Anderson was under no delusion; he wanted his readers to understand that for this very reason self-interested actions of individuals can run amok:

 "But 'human nature is human nature.' Let one but announce the fact, as I do now, that this same 'mystery-man' placed his hidden signature and the date on every drawing and sketch that he ever made, and immediately there are cries of 'impossible, unreasonable, incredible,' and the like. Happily, however, this attitude of mind is assumed almost exclusively by a limited number who labour under the mistaken impression that because of such a discovery, their individual work and reputation are affected." [xl]

The Unknown Turner: British Museum

is an un-catalogued yet well painted and finely finished topographical watercolour called Vale of Avoca in the author's collection (see below). It was framed and lettered on the inner liner: J.M.W. Turner R.A. by Thos. Agnew and Son, years ago. It has a top provenance: Turner’s friend, Rev. William Kingsley in fact.

     Giving Anderson the benefit of the doubt, I searched long and hard for a hidden signature, and although my search was in vane I still refuse to ignore the 35 years of dedicated effort Anderson applied to his study of Turner. In some cases Anderson’s claims are weak, for instance, with regard to the alleged  portrait of Turner’s mother—he gave it a date of 1808. This was four years after her death. The optimist might suggest that the obscure nature of the hidden signature caused a misreading of the possible 1803 date. The pessimist might say that the picture has nothing to do with Turner or at least nothing to do with his mother. But regardless, in many other cases his arguments are believable.


Ultimately, in his own lifetime, all the impassioned efforts of the freewheeling American John Anderson Jr. were crushed. All it took was the one edict from abroad, the one from the Tate Gallery to banish him to eternity in dark obscurity. His plans were unarguably altruistic, he wished to have his collection go to an English collection, the Tate, and as such would not have been eligible for even a tax credit back home in America. He believed Turner; the great patriot would have wanted the works back in their native land. Anderson, after reading much about the artist had apparently become a Turnerphile and it is clear by his own declaration that he was compelled to act accordingly: “Being aware of Turner’s ardent love of his native country…I endeavourer to find a way by which my collection of Turner’s drawings and sketches might become the property of the English nation.” [i] It was in deference to what he believed were Turner's wishes that Anderson in late life attempted the generous offer of his collection to the Tate Gallery:

“I was prepared to make a great monetary sacrifice in order to bring this about," Anderson explained: "A visit was made to my home [by a delegation from the Tate Gallery], a small portion of my collection was examined, and the receipt of the letter, from which an extract is given, followed: 'I have to inform you that your collection is of no interest to this gallery… J. B. Manson, Assistant Director, Tate Gallery, London.' Almost every drawing and sketch shown to the representative of the Tate Gallery came from either the Landseers (father and son), John Henderson, Lady Leicester, Sir Charles Fellows, or Sir Wilfred Lawson, although no mention of this was made at the time." [ii]

As for Anderson being mad—anyone that expended as much time as he, looking for hidden signatures on so many thousand drawings deserves to be a bit mad. I am still looking for the signature on mine.

A fingerprint is easily seen here behind the foliage of the tree: Vale of Avoca - Rev. Kingsley collection
Remember the watercolor mentioned earlier--Vale of Avoca? April 9 2002, 2 years after first efforts to find a signature, Eureka! While comparing Turner's complex tonal variations as described by Eric Shanes—guess what? In the center of the structure found lower left, in two lines running vertically upwards the elusive inscription was found obscured by a smudge from a soiled finger or the like. This was all  in the manner that Anderson described? Not so much intentionally hidden, it was merely integrated with its surroundings. I hope this is more than what Jack Lindsay would call an Anderson “delusion!”


A comparison between the Rev. William Kingsley w/c, Vale of Avoca, 6 ¼ X 10¼
                                      inches, and a recent sale at Sotheby's  Heidelberg, 12 ¼ X  20 1/2 (£2.04M)

               J W T initials          Connoisseurship           Forensics          Art/Science

Art World’s Dirty Little Secret                

[4]  These ‘catalogue raisonnés’ (critical bibliographies) are often proclaimed as definitive by he or she who collated the information. The cataloguer is often times considered the new expert (in 2002 it appears as though IFAR (the International Foundation for Art Research, New York) began conferring over such issues).

[5] It is suspected that Turner never made it as far as Greece, albeit, he was known to fabricate. Several works done of Middle Eastern locations exemplify this, and as for Scotland, his travels were much reduced by 1848.

[6] Art prices appear to have suffered during the war years. “LONDON, 19 Turner Paintings Sold… The prices fell somewhat because of war conditions… Rigi at Sunset on lake Lucerne brought 1,100 guineas, against 2,000 guineas when it sold in 1912. Rigi at Sunrise sold for 1500 guineas, compared with 2,700 guineas in 1912.” (New York Times, 4 July 1942), 15, col. 6. In 2003 either of these would be expected to bring millions.

[7] When Martin Butlin was asked why modern scholarship refuses to believe that Turner made it to Ireland, he replied that Ireland was likely considered an uncivilized place at that time.

[8] The ‘Anderson’ had actually legally changed hands in 1907, purchased by Major Emory S. Turner.


[i] John Anderson, Jr., The Unknown Turner, (pub. John Anderson, printed by The Scribner Press, 1926), 19.

[ii] Eric Shanes, J.M.W. Turner, The Foundations of Genius, (The Taft Museum Cincinnati, Ohio; Corbett Foundation; The Hennegan Co. printers, 1986), 13.

[iii] John Anderson, Jr., The Unknown Turner, (pub. John Anderson, printed by The Scribner Press, 1926), 88.

[xix] C. Lewis Hind, Turner’s Golden Vision, (T. C. & E. C. Jack, Ltd, Edinburgh, 1925), 112.

[xx] Frances Tyrrell-Gill, Little Books On Art: Turner, (Methuen & Co., London, 1904), 126.

[xxi] Andrew Wilton, J. M. W. Turner: His Art and Life, (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 1979).

[xxii] John Anderson, Jr., The Unknown Turner, (pub. John Anderson, printed by The Scribner Press, 1926), 108.

[xxiii] Andrew Wilton, J. M. W. Turner: His Art and Life, (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 1979), 318-319.

[xxiv] Plaza Art Auction Galleries, Inc., Watercolours and Other Media of J. M. W. Turner, The Property of John Anderson Jr., (The Alexander Press, N.Y., 1937), 14. Sale date: March 18th 1937, 151 lots.

[xxv] This comprehensive two vol. set of books with their fine reproductions was for all intents and purposes meant to be an inventory of the artist’s oil paintings (the retail price of the set is several hundred dollars).

[xxvi] Thomas Moore, Journal and Correspondence, vol. vii, p. 77.

[xxvii] Walter Thornbury, Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., (Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, London, 1862), vol. 2, 49- 50.

[xxviii] Frances Tyrrell-Gill, Little Books On Art: Turner, (Methuen & Co., London, 1904), 82-3.

[xxix] Luke Herrmann, The Oxford Companion To J.M.W. Turner, (Oxford University Press Inc., New York, Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin, and Luke Herrmann, 2001), 208.

[xxx] Walter Thornbury, Life of J. M. W. Turner, R.A., (Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, London, 1862), vol. 2, 161.

[xxxi] 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., xix.

[xxxii] Turner Art Sold for $5,410, (New York Times, 14 April 1938), 24, col. 4.

[xxxiii] Turner Art Exhibited, (New York Times, 24 August 1941), 37. col. 2.

[xxxvi] Obituaries, (New York Times, 13 July 1941), 29 col.1.

[xxxvii] Henry McBride, The Flow of Art, Essays and Criticisms, (Selections by Daniel Catton Rich with prefatory essay by Lincoln Kirstein, Atheneum Publishers, New York, 1975), 212.

[xxxviii] John Anderson, Jr., The Unknown Turner, (pub. John Anderson, printed by The Scribner Press, 1926), 43.

[xxxix] Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, (Hurst and Blackett, Publishers, London, 1862), vol. 2, 45-6.

[xl] John Anderson, Jr., The Unknown Turner, (pub. John Anderson, printed by The Scribner Press, 1926), 70.

[xliv] John Anderson, Jr., The Unknown Turner, (pub. John Anderson, printed by The Scribner Press, 1926), 52.

[xlv] Ibid. 56.

[i] John Anderson, Jr., The Unknown Turner, (pub. John Anderson, printed by The Scribner Press, 1926), 58.

[ii] Ibid. 58.