Monday, February 19, 2007

Baron Ullens Watercolour Collection


Sotheby’s announces today that on Thursday, July 5, 2007, it will offer for sale one of the finest collections of watercolours by Joseph Mallord William Turner R.A., (1775-1851) to have come to the market in living memory. Britain’s greatest watercolourist, Turner now enjoys an international reputation – something that has driven prices to ever-higher levels in recent years. …

In subject and style, the works in the Ullens collection cover everything from lively, naturalistic renditions of British coastal scenes to almost impressionistic views in Switzerland, Germany, France and Italy. Spanning the first half of the 19th century, the works allow for a clear chronological appreciation of Turner’s development but, whether early or late, naturalistic or impressionistic, all the watercolours bear the vivid hallmarks of Turner’s unique – and very physical – relationship with the medium: his energetic handling of colour, often applied in rapid, scratch-like strokes, or smeared into place with his fingertips, or scratched away with the tip of a brush to reveal the paper beneath. In addition, almost every one of the watercolours benefits from a distinguished provenance, having previously belonged to notable contemporaries of the artist such as the indefatigable art critic John Ruskin, or Turner’s great patron and friend, the Yorkshire landowner Walter Fawkes.

Painted at around the same time, c.1840, Venice: Looking towards the Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, with a storm approaching (illustrated left), is a free and expressive work. Here, in characteristically unorthodox manner, Turner chose not to focus solely on the architecture of Venice, but

instead uses its architecture as an anchor for the central subject of the drawing – bobbing gondolas and the gathering clouds that presage a storm. One of a number of watercolours on the theme of storms, the drawing was once part of Turner’s “Storm” sketchbook – the works from which rank among Turner’s most profound responses to Venice. Evoking both the beauty and the vulnerability of this magnificent city, Venice (est: £800,000-1,200,000) belongs to a group of late Turner watercolours which are now recognised to be among the most remarkable achievements in British art.

Turner’s watercolours are universal, or absolute, and at the same time very intimate. In that way, they are just like those of the classical Chinese paintings – Song, Yuan, Ming and Ching. For both, landscape was the absolute: peopled with small figures, and perhaps a donkey – almost lost in the immensity of the natural world and its extraordinary light. One of my dreams was always to mount an exhibition of Turner’s watercolours alongside my collection of classical Chinese paintings. It would have been fascinating, but now I am devoting myself to another field that is close to my heart – contemporary Chinese art – so there isn’t scope to realise that other dream.” (Baron Ullens)

Photograph: Sotheby's.


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