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BEAVERBROOK: Turner landscape worth tens of millions

Cathy Dobson Editor’s Note: The doors open Oct.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fountain of Indolence (1834) oil on canvas, 105.7 x 166.4 cm, Beaverbrook Art Gallery: Gift of the Beaverbrook Foundation

Cathy Dobson

Editor’s Note: The doors open Oct. 2 at the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery on an exhibition billed as the most important art event in Sarnia’s history, the only Ontario stop for the internationally-acclaimed Masterworks of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. This is the third in a series of articles.

As Lord Beaverbrook made plans to open a world-class art gallery in 1959, he and a team of experts scoured the globe for a painting to be the cornerstone of the collection.

He chose British master J.M.W. Turner’s The Fountain of Indolence, which he bought in the U.S. from the Vanderbilt family in 1958.

Nearly 60 years later, The Fountain of Indolence is the most valuable painting in the Beaverbrook collection, and could generate more interest than even Salvador Dali’s Santiago El Grande, says curatorial assistant Darryn Doull.

“We know the Dali will be one of the most popular in Sarnia, but I think people who know about Turner will be more excited about this one.

“So seldom do you get a Turner in your collection. It’s truly a rare event.”

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in London, England in 1775, the son of a wig maker and mentally ill mother whose struggles affected Turner deeply.

He had little formal education and was said to be an unkempt fellow with few social skills. But he showed immense talent early and by age 13 was selling drawings in his father’s shop.

He was admitted the following year to the Royal Academy of Arts, then the only art school in England. He immediately showed brilliance at landscapes and by age 17 was earning a steady income through art.

Various biographers have called Turner an eccentric, a hoarder and a recluse who fell into a funk each time he sold a painting.

He produced thousands in his lifetime, and when he died in 1851 at least 2,000 Turners were in private collections. Amazingly, about 19,000 drawings and sketches were found in his two studios along with 300 partially completed paintings.

Through the 1830s and ‘40, Turner produced a steady stream of masterpieces, taking little effort to explain his work.

The public clamoured for his watercolours and oil paintings but didn’t necessarily understand his highly interpretive subjects.

The Fountain of Indolence, painted in 1834, is believed to depict a scene from James’ Thomson’s 1748 poem, The Castle of Indolence.

It is an imaginary landscape with classical buildings and ruins around an elaborate fountain that, inexplicably, is surrounded by people and cherubs.

In 2003, when The Fountain of Indolence was at the centre of a dispute over ownership, Sotheby’s valued it at $16.7 million to $25 million. An arbitrator ruled that it would remain the property of the Beaverbrook Gallery.

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