A History of Brighton in One Painting

In January 2012, we all held our breath during a nail-biting auction at Christies in New York. Under the hammer was a unique watercolour, Brighthelmstone, Sussex painted by JMW Turner in c1824. At the centre of Turner’s image stands the Royal Pavilion.

Joseph Mallord William Turner R.A. The Chain Pier Brighton c1824
Joseph Mallord William Turner R.A. The Chain Pier Brighton c1824

The painting had been in private hands and unseen by the public for more than 100 years. Now, here was the chance to save this highly significant part of our heritage for public collection and display, and to head off the risk that it went out of public view again and into a private collection, possibly overseas. But we had to move fast.  The Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund both fast tracked our applications and offered funding just days before the auction. Topped up with a gift by a generous patron of the Royal Pavilion & Museums Foundation, we were ready to bid.

Watching the Turner auction
Watching the Turner auction

After tense auction room exchanges, watched via a video link–up live in the office, the hammer finally went down, and the painting was Brighton’s.  This is a very significant acquisition for the Royal Pavilion & Museums, and the city of Brighton & Hove. The painting, by one of Britain’s most famous artists, captures all the characteristics of Brighton in a single, wonderfully detailed view.  Depicting the town from the sea, the composition emphasises what was new in Brighton and wonderfully captures the bustle and excitement of the town. Turner has placed the Royal Pavilion in the centre of the picture, thus emphasizing the contribution George IV made, when Prince of Wales, to the establishment of Brighton as a pleasure resort. It is particularly fascinating to note that the north-south axis of the building has been adjusted so that the Pavilion seems to be parallel with the seafront, thus allowing the building to dominate the centre of the composition. The right hand side of the image is devoted to the recently built Chain Pier, a bold statement of technology and engineering and the country’s first pleasure pier. Beside this modern wonder, Turner depicts traditional Brighton fishing boats, juxtaposing the old and the new. The picture encapsulates the fishing town, the fashionable resort, and the bathing spa. It is regarded as THE defining image of Brighton in the 1800s.

Winning the Turner at auction
Winning the Turner at auction

The watercolour went on display in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery over the summer, shortly after its arrival from New York.  Given the sensitivity of watercolours to light, its display has to be limited to ensure its long term preservation. The painting is now in store whilst we work on plans for a landmark Turner exhibition in the Royal Pavilion from November 2013-February 2014. ‘Turner in Brighton’ will showcase this iconic image, contextualised by loans from national galleries such as Tate and the V&A, and private collectors.

Requests to view the painting in store should be made to: Jenny Lund, Curator of Fine Art, The Royal Pavilion & Museums, 4-5 Pavilion Buildings, Brighton BN1 1EE. Email: jenny.lund@brighton-hove.gov.uk. Phone: 01273 292285.

Laura Williams, Development Manager

One Response

  1. It is very sad when important art works go into virtual oblivion when snaffled for private collections, so congratulations to you and to the fund providers for obtaining this Turner painting for Brighton. I think it is a significant success story.

    I look forward to the Turner exhibition in due course and certainly intend to come to see it.

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