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Papers relating to the Turner Bequest



Papers relating to the Turner Bequest



Archive reference number



These papers include contemporary copies of legal material created or used during the dispute over the Turner Bequest, such as copies of Turner's will itself and of the ruling by the Court of Chancery, material from the National Gallery's custodianship of Turner's work, including a list of those pictures selected by the Gallery for display, and various items of correspondence between those involved in the administration of the Bequest, such as John Ruskin and Ralph Wornum.

Record type


Administrative history

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), who is acknowledged to be one of Britain's greatest artists and perhaps the foremost painter of seascapes and landscapes, left a complex will which gave rise to much dispute.

He made his first will in 1829. He left small amounts to his relatives and also bequeathed funds to the Artists' General Benevolent Institution and the Royal Academy. The rest of his estate was to go to setting up a 'college' for distressed landscape painters, to be built on his land at Twickenham. Two of his paintings were to be hung in the National Gallery, as long as they were placed next to two paintings by Claude Lorrain. However legal complications regarding the bequest of lands to charities forced Turner to make a new will in 1831, in which he directed his executors to sell his land and to use the proceeds to set up a charity for English 'poor and decayed male artists'. At various stages he also produced four codicils to his will, one of which he subsequently annulled. His codicil of 2 August 1848 bequeathed his completed pictures to the National Gallery, provided that a room was built to house them.

On Turner's death a group of his relatives tried to stop probate being granted on the grounds that Turner had been of unsound mind, but they were unsuccessful. They then challenged the legality of the proposed decayed artists' charity. The Court of Chancery finally approved a settlement between the executors and the claimant group on 19 March 1856. The principal provisions of the settlement were that the charity was declared invalid, the relatives received Turner's money, property and engravings, and his works of art were left to the nation. Thus 100 finished pictures, 182 unfinished pictures and 19,049 drawings and sketches in colour and pencil entered the National Gallery Collection.

In 1897, on the foundation of the National Gallery of British Art [Tate Gallery], the larger part of the Turner Bequest was transferred there. It was not until the completion of the Clore Gallery at the Tate Gallery in 1987 that the pictures were housed together as a collection in rooms specifically built for them, as Turner had intended.

Custodial history

The source of acquisition of this material is unclear. Sections of the papers may have been deposited in the Gallery at different stages.

Related material

Records relating to the bequest and its history can also be found within the minutes of the Board of Trustees (NG1), the dossiers of transferred pictures (NG3), letters read at Board meetings (NG7), letters and papers concerning loans (scattered throughout NG16), the Gallery's Annual Reports (NG17), the papers of Ralph Wornum (NGA2, especially NGA2/3/2/6), and the Directors' files on the bequest which date from 1917-1993 (S000989).

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