Turner’s London

One benefit of having a rather vague theme like ‘London Miscellany’ is that almost anything can be squeezed in, since a London connection can be found in so many things. So it is that the film ‘Mr Turner’, released last November in the UK, finally gets a mention here. Happily coinciding with a major exhibition of JMW Turner’s late paintings at the old Tate Gallery, located on the Thames, the film revealed to me at least that Mr Turner was a Londoner, and ended his days a couple of miles upstream of the Tate at Cremorne Road, Chelsea. In fact, he lived at various addresses up and down the Thames in his time including lodgings near Syon Park and Hammersmith Mall and of course in Margate – way downstream in North Kent. He lived too in Queen Anne Street in Westminster, a little further from the river, and for some street scenes here the film uses some beautifully preserved roads behind Westminster Abbey which often pop up in films, so perfect are they for filming 18th or 19th century scenes.

The huge Turner collection at the Tate is housed in the Clore Gallery. As one sees in the film, Turner left his art to the nation rather than selling it. Tate, whose wealth created the gallery that bears his name, was of course a sugar magnate, and made his money refining the produce of the sugar plantations of the West Indies in particular, which were manned by slaves for centuries. One wonders how long it will be before some publicity seeking loons seek to make an issue of the origins of the gallery and the many public libraries which Henry Tate endowed. Tate and Lyle remains a big UK company, with a large factory downstream still refining sugar.

In Turner’s day the gallery land was the site of the ghastly Millbank Penitentiary. This vast repository for the criminal and the unlucky was a curious shape, one hint of which can be found in the way the eastern boundary with the neighbouring property (in which I once worked) goes off the road at a strange angle. This is what a guide book of the day said about it:

“This important establishment was formed for the purpose of trying the effect of a system of imprisonment, founded on humane and rational principles; in which the prisoners should be separated into classes, be compelled to work, and their religious and moral habits properly attended to. The external walls form an irregular octagon, and enclose no less than eighteen acres of ground. This vast space comprehends seven distinct though conjoined masses of building, the centre being a regular hexagon, and the others branching from its respective sides. By this means the governor or overseer may, at all times, from the windows in the central part, have the power of overlooking every division of the prison. The buildings are sufficiently capacious to accommodate 1000 persons. No person can be admitted to view this prison without an order from the Home Secretary of State, or unless he is accompanied by one of the committee of management.

I don’t know if it’s true of all other cities, but in London one can find state-owned sites recycled for a variety of purposes. For example, the site of the Bethleham hospital across the river near the Elephant and Castle later became the Imperial War Museum, while the military hospital next to the Tate has become home to Chelsea School of Art.   It makes history and topography even more fascinating, to know a bit about site history. Incidentally, talking of property, Charlie Clore who endowed the wing dedicated to Turner’s Bequest was a major developer, amongst other things, and famously made money by building Centre Point and keeping it empty for decades.

He was also less well known as a client of the equally well-connected Christine Keeler, who died a while back, followed more latterly by Mandy Rice Davies, famous for her words to the judge (see below). Now there’s another story! Suffice it to say that when the official report of Lord Justice Denning into what is known as the Profumo affair came out in about 1963, my father sent me aged 12 to Her Majesty’s Stationery Office Bookshop in Holborn to purchase a copy. I think I might have it somewhere here…Apart from the Highway Code, it was HMSO’s best-selling publication of the year. Truly an eye-opener, and it more than anything else perhaps helped bring about a degree of open scepticism about the establishment and our institutions that superceded the somewhat complacent view of itself that Britain displayed in the 1950s.


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