Inside the Twickenham villa of JMW Turner, artist and architect
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The new polymer £20 note, released this Thursday, will feature the artist JMW Turner — the first UK banknote to have been designed with input from the general public. There were nearly 30,000 proposals for 590 eligible luminaries, whittled down to a shortlist from which Mark Carney, Bank of England governor, opted for Turner.
Alongside the artist’s self-portrait, which shows him at 24 with a markedly direct, assured gaze, the note features his “The Fighting Temeraire”, voted Britain’s greatest painting in a 2005 BBC poll. Evidently, Turner is “still influential today”, says Sarah John, the Bank of England’s chief cashier.
While many appreciate the artist’s talent, few realise that he trained as an architect — working for James Wyatt among other Georgian figures — and even designed his own country house.
Turner’s House in Twickenham — part of London now but at the time a rural outpost — opened to the public two years ago, following a £2.4m award-winning restoration. Its future is secure. But less than a decade ago, the house was in danger of being lost forever.
The modestly proportioned villa, named Sandycombe Lodge, is playful and elegant. Numerous details suggest the influence of Turner’s great friend, the architect John Soane, such as the graceful stair with curved banister, lit by a stained-glass lantern light, and the rounded sweep of the dining-room walls, repainted in the Regency hue of “fawn” following analysis by the paint historian Helen Hughes.
“Everything you see in the house, there is good reason for it,” says Catherine Parry-Wingfield, art historian and former chair of the Turner House Trust. The hand-blocked floral wallpaper that now lines Turner’s bedroom wall was based on a scrap found in the attic that dated back to the artist’s time there.
The soiled remnant is now displayed in a vitrine, testament to the chance discovery and to the talent of Robert Weston of Hamilton Weston Wallpapers, who used this barely legible fragment as a basis from which to recreate the original pattern.
The other, more modest bedroom, which was Turner’s father’s — although house director Ricky Pound tells me he suspects “old Dad” in fact slept downstairs by the kitchen range — is currently host to five of Turner’s “oil sketches” of the Thames.
These riverscapes are from a set of the only oils that Turner made en plein air, and painted on mahogany repurposed from old furniture as opposed to his more usual canvas. On loan from the Tate for a few months, they are the first of Turner’s paintings to be displayed in his former home.
“He was definitely scoping out the territory,” says Parry-Wingfield of these oils, painted while Turner was living a little further along the river at Isleworth. Proximity to the river was key to his choice of location for his own country retreat — it was “a source of really deep thinking for Turner,” she says.
The Thames and Richmond Hill beyond it used to be visible from the artist’s bedroom window, though they have long since disappeared behind encroaching suburbs, encouraged by the development of the railways — which would, of course, come to be a future subject of Turner’s paintings.
Turner’s bucolic view from the window is recreated when peering through a telescope on display. It’s typical of the subtlety of the house’s storytelling: instead of burdening the walls with displays about Turner’s life, interventions are hidden — in a telescope, in a clock.
The passing shadow of the artist’s father, projected against a kitchen wall, is accompanied by an audio recording about his trips to town and back on a local market gardener’s wagon in return for a glass of gin.
“It feels as though Turner has just left the room,” says Pound, and it’s easy to imagine the artist’s life here — fishing trips and picnics with friends, painting in the light-flooded main room, with his father housekeeping and working the garden.
Artist and illustrator Tony McSweeney used to live in one of the house’s upper rooms before restoration was complete. “You could feel Turner’s presence,” he says, which strongly influenced his work. While living there, McSweeney made “cut-outs, life-size profiles of Turner’s head out of card”, which he photographed “so it looked like his shadow was in each room”.
The haunting atmosphere of Turner’s House does not overwhelm the evidence of the artist’s architectural talent — evidence that came close to being lost. In 2013, the building was listed as one of Historic England’s buildings at risk.
“I got involved through talking to a strange man in the post office,” says Parry-Wingfield. Her encounter was with Professor Harold Livermore, who’d bought the house in 1947 and had been living there ever since. “He said: ‘I tried to give the house to the nation, but the nation didn’t want it.’”
Parry-Wingfield was determined to save the dilapidating building, riddled with rot, damp and rogue tree roots. A trust was formed, feasibility studies carried out and numerous fundraising applications filled in, which eventually resulted in £1.4m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
But they needed to raise a further £1m. “We did absolutely everything — we sold calendars, we had a clearance sale, we even dug up snowdrops and sold them,” says Parry-Wingfield, laughing. “I didn’t sleep very well during that time.”
The trust appointed Butler Hegarty Architects to the project. Director Gary Butler explains the “pretty unusual” conservation policy he championed of reducing the size of the house by removing Victorian wing extensions, taking the building back to Turner’s original plan.
It was covered in a white render, which Butler had expected to redo, but: “I turned up to site one day and someone said oh we’ve taken down the ceiling and you can see this penny-line pointing.”
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This sharp “penny-line”, etched into the mortar between bricks, was only ever a feature if brickwork was meant to be exposed, rather than covered with render. “As more render was taken off, the penny-line pointing was everywhere.” So they had to rethink the exterior — opting to conserve and replace the bricks rather than rerendering.
Another “amazing” discovery, says Parry-Wingfield, were the scribe lines used to create a marbling effect on the vestibule wall: “That’s very sophisticated, it’s a fashionable thing; it meant we upped our game when furnishing the house.”
Much of the house’s period furniture was acquired from country auctions. Parry-Wingfield recalls the joy of getting “exactly right” rope-back chairs in the dining room for just £50, although this sum was a tiny fraction of the cost of the following processes of cleaning and reupholstering the chairs in woven horsehair. “I learnt that you have to use horsehair cut from a living horse — it has a kind of lustre.”
There are few better uses for a new £20 note than spending some of it on a visit to Turner’s House. Banknote designer Debbie Marriott, who spent four years working on the note, explains how cutting-edge printing technology enabled the inclusion of a broader range of colours.
“I wanted to emphasise the sun setting” in “The Fighting Temeraire”, she says, so she made use of the technology to “pull out” some of the sunset’s oranges and yellows in this predominantly purple note. It seems apt that before Turner settled on the name Sandycombe for his self-designed country retreat, he called it Solus Lodge — redolent both of solitude and of the sun.
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