Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reuniting J.M.W. Turner's bequest: the search for justice continues

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, J.M.W. Turner (1823).
Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London
LONDON. When J.M.W. Turner died in 1851, he bequeathed "about 300 paintings and 30,000 drawings as well as a large sum of money" to the nation of Great Britain on two conditions: (i) that the works be displayed in a "Turner Gallery" at the National Gallery in London and (ii) that the money be used "for the foundation of an almshouse for elderly artists in the South London suburb of Twickenham." However, after the artist's death, his descendants were successful in challenging his will on the grounds of the absurd "Mortmain law" of 1736 and, despite the House of Lords' Select Committee holding in 1861 that the conditions had to be fulfilled, Turner's wishes have never been met.

The concept of donor intent is riddled with problems, the most notable being the issue of courts having to decipher -- invariably many decades after the donation was made -- what the donor's intent was, and, assuming a court is able to come up with a formulation, whether or not the intent can in fact be fulfilled. Then, of course, there are the public policy concerns related to limiting the scope of a person's right to tie-up property (personal or real) from their grave balanced against the need to incentivize charitable donations. Setting aside my own misgivings about the notion of "donor intent", why it is that the Select Committee's decision of 1861 -- the highest court in England and Wales -- was and continues to be ignored is uncertain and wholly unsatisfactory. It would appear that the artist's intent was pretty clear (the Royal Academy arguing otherwise) and there has been no attempt whatsoever to honor it even though this would still be possible today with respect to the artworks and the underlying reason for the condition (not that this should really matter, legally-speaking at least) was precisely to display the paintings in a cohesive manner for the very benefit of the recipients of the Turner Bequest.

Today Ray Turner (descendent of the artist) and Selby Whittingham (Turner scholar and founder of the Turner Foundation) continue the quest for justice on behalf of the late artist. Next they will meet with the House of Lords' All-Party Arts & Heritage Group to discuss the 1861 Select Committee decision. I personally agree with Whittingham in that "[Turner's] bequested pictures would gain a lot in coherence and interest if shown together" and Turner being one of my favorite painters of all time, I very much hope a "Turner Gallery" is opened one day soon, whether at the National Gallery or another museum.


  1. I am glad that you agree with me, and hope that you will join our campaign for a proper Turner Gallery, which is (a) adequate to showing his bequest fully and meaningfully, and is (b) planned and administered as near as possible in accordance with Turner's stated conditions. Selby whittingham.

  2. Princess Ingrid Frankopan17 November 2011 at 00:21

    Apart from the present important campaign, there might also be some relief that can be sought from the Courts. To disregard conditions in a Will - under which so many have taken advantage - would appear scandalous in a country which respects the Rule of Law. There might still be a chance to put this right through legal action, which, in addition to political and perhaps even popular pressure, might achieve what Turner wanted. No institution can accept 300 paintings, 30000 drawings and an important sum of money - from a world famous artist - and, at the same time, disregard the donor's conditions!

    Princess Ingrid Frankopan

  3. In my opinion, the conditions in a will need to be observed, whatever the inconvenience. Not doing so discourages others from leaving anything to the nation, or to institutions like the Tate.

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