In 2018, Sotheby’s in London sold the painting ‘Walton Bridges’ by J M W Turner to an overseas private buyer. According to the Arts Council, once certain cultural goods reach or exceed specific age and monetary value thresholds, the goods require an individual licence for export out of the UK.
‘Walton Bridges’ was painted by Turner in 1806 and as such is considered a significant early Turner work. It is now also worth £3.4 million thus meeting the requirements for an Export Stop, a pause in the granting of an export licence. This became the point at which the process of fundraising to save the painting for the nation began. In 2019, with considerable funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Art Fund and a private donor, the painting was purchased for the country. And, as none of the public museum collections of Essex, Suffolk or Norfolk held a Turner for public display, it was decided that ‘Walton Bridges’ would have a new home at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. East Anglia would at last have a Turner.
As is the way these days, there are loans and sharing between museums across a region and as part of this practice ‘Walton Bridges’ has so far been shown at Colchester Castle Museum and Lynn Museum. It is currently at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, as part of the ‘Landscape Rebels’ exhibition and will eventually return to Norwich in 2023.
The exhibition ‘Landscape Rebels’ explores how human activity impacts landscapes and has split the exhibition into different categories of rebels. These include Nature Rebels, Art Rebels, Coastal Rebels, Global Rebels, Local Rebels and Material Rebels. Naturally, ‘Walton Bridges’ is part of the Art Rebels section as Turner’s works are known for challenging how landscapes and seascapes were traditionally depicted particularly with his painterly expression of light. His painting of this particular Thames crossing is complemented in the exhibition with a loan from the National Gallery, London, of Claude Monet’s ‘The Thames Below Westminster’, painted in 1871.
It isn’t just that both these paintings feature the River Thames, but Monet too was an artist who offered a new, different way of seeing and can also be considered an Art Rebel. I thought it was fascinating to see these two paintings side by side and up close as well. To stand before the work of two artists, a couple of generations apart, but both 31 years old at the time they painted these pictures, was fascinating. They both challenged the received conventions of their time and rebelled.
And, finally if you were wondering about the header photo, it’s another river, not the Thames, but the River Orwell shrouded in mist. I wonder what Turner and Monet would have made of the digital revolution and today’s pictures taken on mobile phones? Detail, colour, mood all achieved instantly, momentarily assessed, perhaps saved and shared, but just as likely to be instantly deleted.