“Turner apathy” at the Tate raises questions about spending

What will they spend the insurance money on?

You report (The Art Newspaper, No.111, February 2001, p.9), that the £24 million or so which the Tate has received for the two Turners stolen in 1994 are to be used solely for purposes related to Turner and not, as claimed by Geoffrey Robinson, MP, to make good the Tate’s funding gap. What exactly then will the money be spent on? So far it seems that a £7 million loan (repayable with or without interest?) has been made to buy a non-Turner store. Meanwhile, Luke Herrmann (letter, The Art Newspaper, No.112, March 2001, p.6) complains of the Tate’s “Turner apathy” and reduction in its expenditure on Turner publications.

How does all this add up? The fear must be that money will be siphoned off for non-Turner purposes, as has happened for generations in the case of the Royal Academy’s Turner Fund.

In 1924 W.R. Sickert complained that the catalogue of the Turner Bequest drawings had been remaindered off “for some occult reason comprehensible only to the profounder students of the ways of the Civil Service”.

In the panic engendered by my proposal in 1975 to reunite the Turner Bequest, the British Museum promised to publish a new catalogue within six years, an undertaking later transferred to the Tate. We have yet to see the first volume.

If there is Turner apathy at the Tate, a contribution to that has been the abandonment 20 years ago by Luke Herrmann, among others, of the the campaign to reunite the Turner Bequest in the closest possible approximation to Turner’s wishes.

In his latest book Nineteenth-century British Painting, Professor Herrmann says that the Clore Gallery “did at last achieve a situation fulfiling some of Turner’s most important wishes.” The implication is that it did something in that respect which the Duveen Turner wing of 1910 had not. No one has ever explained what that was. Acceptance of the inferior Clore alternative, which was designed primarily to maintain the status quo, sent a signal that Turner lovers would swallow half-hearted and fallacious answer to the problem posed by Turner’s bequest. It was, therefore, predictable and, indeed, predicted by myself in 1981, that the Tate, which has much greater priorities, would again, in due course, demonstrate “Turner apathy”. One has only to learn the lessons of history. After the 1910 Turner wing placated the impressionable, the National Gallery not only remaindered the Turner catalogue, but, in 1916, almost succeeded in selling off part of the bequest.

Selby Whittingham Editor, J.M.W. Turner, R.A.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 115 June 2001