Context really does affect how one experiences art. I always find looking at things in Sotheby’s or Christie’s quite exciting – everything’s for sale!! – but if it is an important piece, the time one spends looking at it is somehow more heightened and valuable than if it was, say, in the National Gallery where it will still be next week, if one fancies coming back.
I popped into Sotheby’s last week to have a look at the ‘Sudeley Turner’ – Sudeley no more as it has now been sold for almost £5.5 million. I’ve never seen it before, and can’t really say it featured heavily in my Turner studies at Uni. Its official title is Pope’s Villa at Twickenham.
It’s pretty gorgeous: Joseph Mallord William Turner in the full flow of his attempt to out-do the miraculous evening glow of the celebrated French master Claude Lorrain. Indeed, one critic immediately after viewing this picture called Turner “indisputably the first landscape painter in Europe”.
Turner was motivated by the vandalism of Baroness Howe (known as “Queen of the Goths”), who so hated the literary tourists drawn by the poet Alexander Pope’s villa that she decided to tear the villa down. Turner portrays the already roofless villa catching the raking last rays of the sun (very restrained and subtle, the melodrama of the Fighting Temeraire is absent here). The sun-washed villa is reflected in the limpid Thames. In the foreground, a group of workmen are negotiating the sale of architectural salvage from the house.
It is fascinating that a lively debate about national heritage was thriving that far back in history, and it is equally ironic that the painting itself enacts its own circumstances, as another great piece of national heritage is lost, perhaps to leave the country forever.