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Turner and the Thames: David Attenborough’s ‘Joy’ at Discovering Painter’s Riverside Retreat

Explorer: Sir David Attenborough looking at the views JMW turner would have seen described Turner’s House as a ‘joy’, Twickenham | Anna Kunst © Turner’s House Trust

Sir David Attenborough is world-renowned for unearthing unusual creatures across the planet, but he could not have been more thrilled than stumbling upon JMW Turner’s old house in west London, down the tracks in his neighbourhood when he opened the first exhibition of Turner’s original work in the great landscape artist’s house in Twickenham.

Attenborough, 93, who was born in Isleworth and has lived in Richmond for nearly 70 years, declared: “I would say to local people come here, because this is a joy. I thank you all as a local resident.

“I can imagine Turner now walking to Richmond Park, there is a lot of Turner still around here, but you won’t find it as vividly and as movingly as you do in this most beautifully and lovingly restored house. I congratulate all those who have been responsible and am privileged to declare it open.”

“I would say to local people come here, because this is a joy. I thank you all as a local resident.

Thames views: ‘Sunset on the River’, one of the five paintings on show would have been inspired by the views from Turner’s bedroom window | TATE

The exhibition, Turner and the Thames: Five Paintings, features rare oil sketches at Sandycombe Lodge, which the artist designed in the 1800s after being enchanted by riverviews and landscape. Attenborough was given a private tour by the House Director Ricky Pound and trustee and curator of the exhibition, Andrew Loukes who explained that before its award-winning restoration two years ago, the house had looked very different to the one which Turner had masterminded. And to preserve its delicate features, pointed shoes and food are not allowed in the building.

The broadcaster and natural historian — famous for his BBC output; Seven Worlds, One Planet; Blue Planet; Life of Plants; Life in Cold Blood; The Life of Mammals; Life in the Freezer; Our Planet and several other popular series — later remarked: “Of course, I knew that Turner was around here, but I never dreamt that there was a hidden gem like this. And it was hidden, of course, because it was rendered on the surface and had accretions of one sort or another; you could have walked up and down Sandycombe Road all your life and never known that this was the place of the greatest 19th century painters.”

Apparition: ‘Old Dad’, the shadow of Turner’s father William speaks to exhibition visitors | Turner’ House

He marvelled at ‘Old Dad’, a feature in the kitchen, where the shadow of Turner’s father, who lived with his son in Twickenham, speaks to visitors. “Downstairs there is an extraordinary stroke of genius. Really, really remarkable and only achievable, I imagine, in a little place like this, where you can walk in and see a silhouette of an old, toothless chap sitting in a chair smoking a pipe – Turner’s father. I’ve never seen a device like this before, it’s original and I congratulate whoever did this.”

He was also impressed with the restoration of the original brickwork and the hand- blocked wallpaper hung in the large bedroom, recreated from a tiny old scrap of original wallpaper. Attenborough was full of praise for “all the local people and art historians who have given such care and imagination and love in bringing this house back. Removing the render, taking such care in getting the right sort of contemporary wallpaper, reconstructing the wallpaper upstairs from a little fragment. It’s an extraordinary journey of imagination that you can make… this is a time machine”.


Sandycombe Lodge was completed around 1813 to Turner’s exacting tastes; working here as his own architect to create a quiet retreat for himself, away from the pressures of the London art world. He designed the villa so he could glimpse the river from his bedroom window. He spent a lot of time on the Thames working and fishing, keeping his catch in two ponds in what was then a large, country garden. The house also provided a home for his father, old William, in retirement from his trade as a barber and wigmaker in Covent Garden. With old William’s declining health and changes in his own life, Turner sold the house in 1826.


Retreat: Windsor Castle from the River was painted in Sandycombe Lodge built by Turner after he fell in love with the Thames | TATE

The works in the exhibition have been chosen for their depictions of scenes close to his house near the river, and feature riparian landscapes from Isleworth to Windsor. At the time Turner painted the exhibition’s five oils on mahogany panels he was renting Syon Ferry House in Isleworth, escaping from the pressures of London life. Although this house no longer exists, his experience there was instrumental in his subsequent acquisition in 1807 of a piece of land in Twickenham on which he later built Sandycombe Lodge.

During Turner’s time in Isleworth he acquired a little boat and modified it for use as a floating studio from which he could record first-hand impressions of the river. The exhibition features five stunning examples from this extraordinary series of work created on the river, painted on small panels of wood which were portable yet solid, making them easier to work on in situ. Unusually, they are painted on mahogany veneer and it is thought that Turner, who is known for improvising with materials, may have made them using recycled bits of furniture.

Turner created many pencil sketches in situ which he collected in notebooks for reference when making larger, finished works in oils and watercolours in the studio. He declared that painting outdoors was a waste of time, as it was easier to mix the paints and work on canvas indoors. This is why the five oil studies in the exhibition are so rare and yet affirm the importance he placed on accurately depicting his favourite river.  These smaller pieces would have helped him to more convincingly evoke the mood of the Thames in larger, finished oil paintings back in his studio in Queen Anne Street.

Verse: Turner also enjoyed the works of poet Alexander Pope who lived nearby as he painted Walton Reach, 1805 | TATE

The Thames was an inspiration that flowed through Turner’s life, from his birth near the river in Covent Garden to the houses he lived in at Hammersmith, Brentford and Chelsea. He not only valued the river’s aesthetic and emotional qualities but also its cultural potency and he read the work of poets like Alexander Pope who had lived nearby.  While his monumental and sometimes allegorical   depictions of the Thames were refined through the lens of the 17th-century landscape masters he admired, such as Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, it is in the fresh oil sketches displayed in this intimate exhibition that we see Turner at his most spontaneous and responsive to the natural potential of a landscape which was particularly special for him.

Turner and the Thames: Five Paintings,  until 29 March 2020, Sandycombe Lodge, 40 Sandycombe Road, St Margarets, Twickenham TW1 2LR.

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