Mr Turner and Mr Gillott

Went to see Mr Turner on Saturday and was excited by the prospect. It’s had good reviews and Timothy Spall is said to have given the performance of his life. As the grunting, snorting, taciturn Turner he was superb; his complexity alluded to but not fully explored. Turner was a painter who sought an almost Platonic idealism in his work – the whole in the particular. And seeing the film, I was struck once again with the tendrils of connection that sneak across our worlds.


Avalanche in the Grissons

Mike Leigh had an impossible task, of course – condensing a complicated life of genius into an accessible 150 minutes. And he did it admirably. A brilliant, prolific painter, Turner was interested in how much his paintings sold for – at his height he could command 300 guineas a piece and in 1810 he received that much for his painting ‘The Wreck’. Acquisitive and careful with his money, it was all the more remarkable that when Joseph Gillott visited Turner in Queen Anne Street, offering to buy `all his paintings`, the master famously refused, saying he wanted them to go to the nation. Hanging in the air like an elephant in the room to anyone who knew how things turned out, was the knowledge of what Gillott did next.

Gillott’s fortune had come from steel nibbed pens. In 1830 he had patented a process, which he then went on to refine, adding two additional slits in the sides to counteract the inflexibility of the steel nib. The results were a success; he had on his hands a revolution and when he mechanised the process and could turn out thousands of pens a year, he rapidly made himself a fortune. Interested in art, Gillott was a keen collector but when Edwin Atherstone proposed trading him ‘good fiddles’ for three works of art, his attention turned to the violin. According to David Schoenbaum’s excellent new book ‘The Violin –a Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument,’ the scene that greeted George Hart – cataloguing the collection following Gillott’s death – was a bit like Carter entering the tomb of Tutankhamun. Seventy or so violins and violas lay stashed on a table – including several Strads, two Guarneris, one Bergonzi and an Amati and a number of other important instruments. They were sold subsequently by Christies – Vuillaume missing the sale by miscalculating the day – and the takings were £4, 195. Among them was the Guarneri later known as The Vieuxtemps, a 1697 viola bought by an Earl and thereafter bearing his name – the Lord Harrington – and of course the Gillott Strad.

Gillott violin salevieuxtemps


            ‘Viewing of the violins’ 1872                                    One of violins, the Vieuxtemps Del Gesù 1741

 Back to the film. Mike Leigh perhaps supposed that Turner was interested in music. It is alluded to but not fleshed out and it is wonderfully ironic that Turner himself turned down an offer of £100,000 from a man who would then go on to spend a little of the money laying down a notable instrument collection. But could it really be £100,000? The London Journal of Art 1871, reports that Turner turned down an offer by a manufacturer (not Gillott) saying that he’d ‘had a very similar offer before’ which could have been made by Gillott. When he died, Turner left a fortune of £140,000 and made a significant legacy to Hannah Derby his housekeeper of over 40 years by whom Turner may have had two daughters, although the film gives parentage of these girls to the widow Sarah Danby – a relation of Hannah and the wife of a composer friend. Hannah’s face, arms and neck are red with some strange disease – syphilis we conjectured as we left the cinema? Did Turner give her syphilis? But like so many things in the film; that is left an unanswered question. Rightly so, as at the time Hannah Danby’s condition apparently was permanently undiagnosed.

Petworth Park: Tillington Church in the Distance c.1828 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Sunrise in the Deer park at Petworth

Turner and violins, money and pens. I was reminded of Mr Gillott the next day in the workshop watching us painstakingly pore over our fittings with as much care as if we were crafting a revolutionary pen nib. Gillott’s great fortune eludes me – but if I ever found a way to become very rich, it would be a hard decision whether to spend my money on paintings, violins or both. One thing’s for certain – those 19th century collectors knew a good thing when they saw it. We are all the richer for their wealth.

  1. Really enjoyed this article. Haven’t seen Mr turner yet but will soon I hope. I am a great fan of Mike Leigh’s work so have an added interest. Whilst I admire turners work, I never feel I understand it but I don’t have to understand things to enjoy them, do I? Both Mike Leigh and Turner have a meticulous understanding of their craft, achieving every ounce of atmosphere possible.
    I love wood that I can touch and I get pleasure from Perry Lancaster’s sculptures, -so tactile. Apple wood is beautiful so no more leaning on trees Iona!

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