1 March 2022

The Ritz Herald: When Painters Try Their Hand At Architecture

British landscape painter Oliver Maughan explores the talent of the iconic J.M.W. Turner, both as an artist and architect of his home Sandycombe Lodge in Twickenham.

One of the greatest landscape painters of all time, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) produced some of the most celebrated and cherished works of art in British history.

Famed for his Romantic depictions of landscapes and seascapes, Turner is also commonly known as ‘the painter of light’. While his paintings are now iconic images in the artistic canon, he was actually considered quite radical in his time. Considered the ‘first modern artist’, Turner subverted the standard artistic practice of his day by painting en plein air, observing his landscapes from life. His expressive, free treatment of traditional subject matter was also extremely new for the late 18th and early 19th century artistic community.

‘The Fighting Temeraire’ (1838), voted as the nation’s favorite painting in 2005, is a cultural masterpiece familiar to most audiences, sharing the screen with Daniel Craig’s Bond in ‘Skyfall’ (2012) and featured on the £20 note since 2020.

While the artist is most well known for his pictorial work, there is a building in Twickenham that showcases another facet of his talents. Entirely designed by Turner, Sandycombe Lodge is his only architectural work to be realized in brick and mortar.

Seeking a respite from busy urban life, Turner purchased a large plot of land in 1807 between Twickenham and Richmond Bridge, an area which was still considered far enough from the city to be rural in the 19th century. Living with his father, this was his home between 1813 and 1826.

We do not normally immediately think of architecture in relation to Turner, but he was strongly interested and active in the discipline early in his career.

Turner was a skilled draughtsman, also working for the architect Thomas Hardwick, his teacher at the Royal Academy of Art. He created a great number of perspective drawings and paintings of James Wyatt’s designs for Fonthill Abbey. In 1807, he was made Professor of Perspective at the RA.

Sandycombe Lodge is a fascinating example of the results produced when artists, particularly those usually working in two-dimensional media, try their hand at architecture. There have been many notable examples of painters closely collaborating with architects to create stunning and highly creative studio homes. Famous cases include Lord Frederic Leighton and George Aitchison’s Leighton House in Kensington, and Joaquín Sorolla and Enrique María Repullés’s Casa Sorolla in Madrid. However, Sandycombe Lodge is particularly unique, as Turner took up the mantle of both artist and architect.

The house is a small country villa in what is called the ‘Italianate’ style. Unlike most of the other artist-architect collaborations, Turner intended for this space to be solely used for living and leisure, and for his own personal use. As an escape from the pressure of the London art world, his Twickenham home was the perfect location for him to enjoy the beauty of the nature. It was said he would walk on the Thames towpath with his sketchbook and seek creative inspiration, as well as go fishing with his friends. Even though this was a space of freedom and relaxation for Turner, it was still a strong source of inspiration. The imagery of riverside architecture in nature, whether depicted as a direct en plein air piece or incorporated into historical narratives, are constant and iconic in Turner’s oeuvre.

Turner making the choice to build his dream home in his area also held significant meaning. The Thames riverside already had a rich cultural history at this time, known for being the home of significant artists and writers also admired by Turner, including Alexander Pope, Horace Walpole, and James Thomson. In fact, Turner had expressed his distress at the demolishing of Pope’s villa in 1807, featuring it as the subject of an 1808 painting, sketches and several lines of verse.

Not only does Turner associate himself with notable artists and writers through his choice of location, but the design of the house itself makes various reference to the work of his close friend, Sir John Soane.

Soane was a Georgian architect famed for his Neoclassical buildings, especially the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery. The influence of Soane’s architecture can clearly be seen throughout Sandycombe Lodge, sharing distinct similarities with Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London and Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing.

In 2017, a £2.4 million conservation project organized by the Turner’s House Trust meticulously restored the building to its original state, removing features added by its subsequent owners. Now, we can see the vision Turner had for his countryside retreat, a relatively modest but cosy dwelling with views of his garden and the River Thames in the distance, and gain some insight into his domestic life.

It took many years to collect sufficient funds for this project, and it raises the question, why do we need to go to such efforts to fix old buildings? The answer is simply that these buildings are works of art themselves, and immensely valuable for our cultural and historical education. Sandycombe Lodge, Leighton House, Casa Sorolla, and almost any historical building should all be prized as products of artistic innovation, showing the magic that can happen when people apply their talents to diverse fields.

Turner once told a friend that ‘if he could begin life again, he would rather be an architect than a painter’. It is a blessing that he did not abandon his painting career, and that we have the privilege of being able to visit and enjoy all his artworks – both two and three dimensional.

Read the full article here: https://ritzherald.com/when-painters-try-their-hand-at-architecture/

© Oliver Maughan. All Right Reserved. Copyright notice.
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