Look Closer

J.M.W. Turner, the Original Artist-Curator

Explore another side of Turner: the curator who designed his own gallery to display and promote his paintings

Interior of Turner’s Gallery c.1852 Courtesy the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

George Jones
Interior of Turner’s Gallery c.1852
Oil on panel
14 x 23 cm
Courtesy the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Introduction

J.M.W Turner is an artist best known for his atmospheric paintings of landscapes. But he had another less known talent. He created bespoke galleries specially designed to display his paintings. In 1822 Turner opened a gallery behind his West End House. The painting above by George Jones shows us what it looked like. Every aspect of the gallery – from its heating and lighting to the arrangement of paintings on its walls – was carefully planned by Turner.

What inspired him to open a gallery?

Like many artists, Turner wanted to have more control over how his paintings were seen. In the early 19th century, the main opportunity that artists had to show their work was at the Royal Academy Summer exhibitions. These were very overcrowded with artworks crammed together on the walls. Turner realised that to show his work so people could see it at its best, and to promote it to potential buyers, he needed a dedicated space to show them. In 1804 he converted some outbuildings attached to his house into a gallery. His house was on the corner of Harley Street and Queen Anne Street in London’s West End. The gallery had room to display up to around thirty artworks. Among the early exhibitions he put on in this makeshift gallery, was a display of his spectacular watercolours based on sketches he had made during a tour of France and Switzerland in 1802.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘A Ravine in the Pass of St Gotthard’ 1802
Joseph Mallord William Turner
A Ravine in the Pass of St Gotthard 1802
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His gallery project was a great success. Crowds of wealthy and distinguished people visited his exhibitions – including enthusiastic buyers. One of the visitors, art collector Sir John Leicester, was planning his own gallery at Tabley, his country house in Cheshire to show his art collection. He asked Turner to help him with the design of his gallery. Turner sketched various plans for the gallery design, and arrangement of paintings in his sketchbook.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Plan of a Picture-Hang in the Picture Gallery at Tabley House’ 1808
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Plan of a Picture-Hang in the Picture Gallery at Tabley House 1808
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A hands-on designer

In 1818, encouraged by the success of his gallery design projects, Turner began to plan a new purpose-built gallery behind his house. His sketches show us that he took a very hands-on approach to its design. There are sketches for the structure of the space (its walls, doors and ceilings); as well as designs for features such as heating, lighting and moulding. The sloped ceiling and glass skylights that we see in George Jones's view of the gallery, can be clearly seen in Turner's sketches. His sketches also include some rather elaborate (and expensive) plans for draped fabric to frame pictures and shield them from bright light. But Turner (who was rather penny-pinching), used the cheaper option of herring nets stretched across the ceiling skylights to filter the daylight.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘A Picture Gallery with Roof Lights, and Related Plans’ c.1818–22
Joseph Mallord William Turner
A Picture Gallery with Roof Lights, and Related Plans c.1818–22
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Designs for Roof Lights in a Picture Gallery’ c.1818–22
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Designs for Roof Lights in a Picture Gallery c.1818–22
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Designs for Roof Lights in a Picture Gallery’ c.1818–22
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Designs for Roof Lights in a Picture Gallery c.1818–22
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Design for Moulding of a Joist, Heating Pipes, and Notes on Blinds and Heating for a Picture Gallery (Inscriptions by Turner)’ c.1818–22
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Design for Moulding of a Joist, Heating Pipes, and Notes on Blinds and Heating for a Picture Gallery (Inscriptions by Turner) c.1818–22
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Designs for an Arrangement of Curtains around Pictures’ c.1818–22
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Designs for an Arrangement of Curtains around Pictures c.1818–22
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Hanging Plan for an Exhibition in Turner’s Gallery’ c.1812–13
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Hanging Plan for an Exhibition in Turner’s Gallery c.1812–13
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Take a tour

Measuring around 5.8 metres long by 4.5 metres wide (19 x 15 feet), with red walls, a fireplace and a central skylight; visitors came into the gallery through a door at one end of the room. They would have seen the natural light from above softened by the nets covered with tissue paper and hung across the ceiling. These images show a recreated impression of the gallery based on George Jones's views.

A recreated view of Turner's gallery using George Jones's paintings
A recreated view of Turner's gallery using George Jones's paintings

Explore the paintings on display

As well as designing the space Turner also curated it, selecting and arranging paintings on the walls (and on the floor!). Take a tour of the exhibition and see the paintings Turner chose to display.

Wall 1 – on the left as you enter the gallery

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Crossing the Brook’ exhibited 1815
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Crossing the Brook exhibited 1815
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Second Sketch for ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’’ c.1823
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Second Sketch for ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’ c.1823
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘First Sketch for ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’’ c.1823
Joseph Mallord William Turner
First Sketch for ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’ c.1823
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory’ 1806–8
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory 1806–8
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas’ exhibited 1850
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas exhibited 1850
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Departure of the Fleet’ exhibited 1850
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Departure of the Fleet exhibited 1850
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons’ exhibited 1810
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons exhibited 1810
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Fishing upon the Blythe-Sand, Tide Setting In’ exhibited 1809
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Fishing upon the Blythe-Sand, Tide Setting In exhibited 1809
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Frosty Morning’ exhibited 1813
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Frosty Morning exhibited 1813
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Van Tromp Returning after the Battle off the Dogger Bank’ exhibited 1833
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Van Tromp Returning after the Battle off the Dogger Bank exhibited 1833
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael’ exhibited 1844
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Fishing Boats Bringing a Disabled Ship into Port Ruysdael exhibited 1844
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth’ exhibited 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth exhibited 1842
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Garreteer’s Petition’ exhibited 1809
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Garreteer’s Petition exhibited 1809
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘London from Greenwich Park’ exhibited 1809
Joseph Mallord William Turner
London from Greenwich Park exhibited 1809
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Harvest Dinner, Kingston Bank’ exhibited 1809
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Harvest Dinner, Kingston Bank exhibited 1809
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Wall 2 – on the end wall opposite the door

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet’ exhibited 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner
War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet exhibited 1842
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Peace - Burial at Sea’ exhibited 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Watteau Study by Fresnoy’s Rules’ exhibited 1831
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Watteau Study by Fresnoy’s Rules exhibited 1831
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday’ exhibited 1819
Joseph Mallord William Turner
England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday exhibited 1819
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Lucy, Countess of Carlisle, and Dorothy Percy’s Visit to their Father Lord Percy, when under Attainder ...’ exhibited 1831
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Lucy, Countess of Carlisle, and Dorothy Percy’s Visit to their Father Lord Percy, when under Attainder ... exhibited 1831
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Wall 3 – on the right as you enter the gallery

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl’ exhibited 1823
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl exhibited 1823
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Tenth Plague of Egypt’ exhibited 1802
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Tenth Plague of Egypt exhibited 1802
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Sun of Venice Going to Sea’ exhibited 1843
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Sun of Venice Going to Sea exhibited 1843
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘St Benedetto, Looking towards Fusina’ exhibited 1843
Joseph Mallord William Turner
St Benedetto, Looking towards Fusina exhibited 1843
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J.M.W. Turner The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up 1838 © The National Gallery, London

J.M.W. Turner
The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up 1838
© The National Gallery, London

View this painting on The National Gallery’s website

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire ...’ exhibited 1817
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire ... exhibited 1817
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’ exhibited 1812
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Apullia in Search of Appullus’ exhibited 1814
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Apullia in Search of Appullus exhibited 1814
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Story of Apollo and Daphne’ exhibited 1837
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Story of Apollo and Daphne exhibited 1837
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Joseph Mallord William Turner Rain, Steam, and Speed, 1844 © The National Gallery, London

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Rain, Steam, and Speed 1844
© The National Gallery, London

View this painting on The National Gallery’s website

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Venice - Maria della Salute’ exhibited 1844
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Venice - Maria della Salute exhibited 1844
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Venice Quay, Ducal Palace’ exhibited 1844
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Venice Quay, Ducal Palace exhibited 1844
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Wall 4 – by the door, see them as you head out!

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace’ exhibited 1832
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace exhibited 1832
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 Joseph Mallord William Turner Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire 1815 © The National Gallery, London

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire 1815
© The National Gallery, London

View this painting on The National Gallery’s website

Recreating Turner's gallery for the big screen

Join film director Mike Leigh and and actor Timothy Spall for a behind-the-scenes look at how they brought Turner to life and set about recreating his Queen Anne Street Gallery for the 2014 film Mr Turner.

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Turner's gallery now

As well as taking control of how his paintings were seen during his lifetime, Turner also took steps to control their future display. In doing so he also made sure that his name and his reputation as a great artist would be preserved in the future. In his will he left the contents of his gallery and studio to the British nation. His hope was that a memorial gallery would be built in his honour and that these paintings would be displayed there. Turner also requested that two of his paintings, Dido Building Carthage and Sun rising through Vapour: Fishermen cleaning and selling Fish, should hang in the National Gallery beside the work of the Old Master painter he most admired: Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682). These two paintings and seven other pictures have remained in the National Gallery Collection. The rest of Turner’s gift of paintings and sketchbooks is now at Tate and many are on display in the Clore Gallery.

Explore more Turner