Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) was born in Maiden Lane on a site now occupied by the Porterhouse pub. His father William Turner came from Devon but married and set up business in London as a barber and wig-maker. During the 1790s father and son lived at 26 Maiden Lane. The household may also have included Turner’s mother Mary, who was committed to Bedlam at the end of the decade. Their modest apartments were described by artist Joseph Farington as ‘small and ill calculated for a painter’. However, Maiden Lane was a convenient location for Turner since in December 1789 he started attending the nearby Royal Academy Schools, then situated in the Strand.
In 1800, enjoying increasing prosperity, Turner moved to more spacious premises in Harley Street. He ran a busy studio and gallery and at the age of 31 became Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy of Arts. Ambitious, energetic and hard-working, he longed for a rural retreat from which to escape the pressures of the London art world. In 1807 he took the opportunity to purchase land near the River Thames in rural Twickenham and in 1813 achieved his aim by designing and constructing a small country villa in Italianate style.
Although often described as truculent and abrasive, Turner had a close circle of friends. Among them was the architect Sir John Soane, another highly successful self-made man. In his youth Turner had gained experience as an architectural draughtsman and many works reveal his abiding interest in architecture and architectural detail. Although no plans or elevations of his villa survive, sketches for the evolution of his design are recorded in his sketchbooks, held at Tate Britain. Interestingly, there are distinct similarities of detail between his villa and those of Soane’s houses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London and Pitzhanger Manor in nearby Ealing.
Turner initially named his villa Solus Lodge, changing it a year later to Sandycombe Lodge. His father William, affectionately referred to as ‘Old Dad’, took charge of running the house, ‘farming’ the extensive sloping garden and managing the fish pond. Twickenham proved a convenient location: close enough to London for Old Dad to travel to his son’s Queen Anne Street studio to assist and act as agent; offering easy access to the River Thames where Turner could indulge his love of angling; and providing nearby pastoral settings for works such as England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday.
Turner constantly travelled in England, Scotland, Wales and Europe and after thirteen years reluctantly concluded he spent too little time at Sandycombe Lodge to justify retaining it. Furthermore, his devoted father was ageing. He sold the property in 1826. At the end of his life he reflected that had he not become an artist he would like to have been an architect. Sandycombe Lodge is possibly unique; a house designed by a major painter for his own use.
Over the following decades it changed hands several times, eventually becoming a shadow factory (a factory set in a private house to conceal its location) producing gloves and goggles for the RAF in the Second World War. At the end of the War it was in poor repair and at risk of demolition. Fortunately it was bought by Professor Harold Livermore and his wife who restored it and lived there until the Professor’s death in 2010. Again in need of restoration, it is on the Heritage At Risk register.
The house is open to the public during the summer months. For more information visit http://www.turnerintwickenham.org.uk/.
Mary Rose Rivett-Carnac, Art UK Copyright Officer