Turner in Twickenham

Sandycombe Lodge was built by 1813 to the designs of England’s great landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner, working here as his own architect to create a quiet retreat for himself, away from the pressures of the London art world. It also provided a home for his father, old William, in retirement from his trade as a barber and wigmaker in Covent Garden, and with old William’s declining health and changes in his own life, Turner sold the house in 1826.

Turner the architect
In 1807, aged 31, Turner acquired two plots of land in open countryside, bordered by two large estates, Twickenham Park on the far side of the road which ran to Richmond Bridge, and Cambridge Park to the south. The smaller plot remained a meadow throughout Turner’s ownership, perhaps providing grazing for the pony which pulled his gig on his sketching trips, and the larger two-acre plot the site of the house which was built by 1813.

In his teens Turner had some training in architectural drawing, and later in life expressed the wish that if he could have his life again, he would have chosen to be an architect. His paintings often set imagined or real buildings within a landscape, always realised with consummate understanding, In Sandycombe Lodge he was able to fulfil this wish, a building within a landscape, but in this case one in three dimensions rather than the paintings for which he became – and remains – so famous.

The Inspiration of the ‘Matchless Vale of Thames’
In the five or six years before the house rose, Turner became very familiar with the Thames around Isleworth, Twickenham and Richmond, renting riverside houses nearby, walking the towpaths, climbing Richmond Hill, taking a boat on the river. The famous view from Richmond Hill had inspired the l8th century poets James Thomson and Alexander Pope (the latter had also built a villa in Twickenham). Turner paid homage to these poets in two great oil paintings of the vista, and revisited it in one of his most famous paintings, England: Richmond Hill on the Prince Regent’s Birthday of 1819. The river Thames in this particularly lovely area, and the eighteenth-century poets who had praised its beauties, continued to inspire Turner for many years, even after he sold Sandycombe Lodge in 1826.

Designing the house
Turner’s sketchbooks, now part of the Turner Bequest in Tate Britain, contain many ideas for his own house, early plans for a larger house being superseded by a more modest but well-balanced design that is close to the house as it was built. The apparent simplicity of the building is deceptive, particularly in the way in which the ends of the wings are rounded, with over-sized ornament set within recessed panels. This detail is reminiscent of the more rustic buildings of Turner’s great friend, the architect John Soane, whose country house was at nearby Ealing, and whose London house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields was rising at the same time as Sandycombe. The interior shows Soane’s influence even more strongly apparent . Although no surviving drawings by Soane’s hand can be linked to Sandycombe Lodge, placing images of the two hallways together provides convincing evidence that Soane must have advised his friend here.

The grounds of Sandycombe Lodge
The two-acre plot was wedge-shaped, narrowing towards its lowest point. Turner sketched the plot, showing a large existing pond which he made very much larger. The lane to the front was edged with hedgerows, and this sketch suggests that the whole plot was enclosed by a picket fence. A path ran around the border of the plot, and other paths looped across the slope. Havell’s drawing of c. 1814 shows a sunlit lawn sloping away from the house, with informal planting of hollyhocks and ‘cottage garden’ plants close to the house. Turner took a small cutting from a fallen weeping willow in Pope’s garden, and successfully nurtured it to maturity. For the most part, the garden must have been relatively untamed, since it stood in such a rural and wooded area, though the pond was thickly covered with water lilies.

Life at Sandycombe Lodge in Turner’s time
Undoubtedly Turner sought a quieter life at Sandycombe than he had in London, but his letters and the accounts of friends show that it was by no means solitary. Turner’s much-loved father made Sandycombe his home, tending the garden, providing the provisions for his son’s visits and those of his friends, and trudging the ten miles to Turner’s studio to carry out further duties, stretching canvases and preparing pigments, for his famous son. Accounts by visiting friends show that picnics, of a fairly generous kind, were very much Turner’s means of entertaining.

Sandycombe itself was modestly furnished, and social life here was for friends, not for impressing clients. Turner was a keen fisherman and shared this pastime with John Soane, also with Francis Chantrey, the sculptor, breakfasting on bacon and eggs and then ‘angling out the day’. The ornamental pond had another function – many of the fish the anglers caught were slipped into the pond, to provide meals at a later date. Turner’s most famous acquaintance in his ‘Twickenham years’ was the Duc d’Orléans, later Louis Philippe, King of the French, a man who was exiled from France several times and found refuge in Twickenham.

One question is asked many times by visitors – did Turner use Sandycombe Lodge as a studio? It is not possible to prove this, but it is most likely that he worked here in watercolour, and It is recorded that he kept models of ships in cases (now in Tate Britain) at Sandycombe, which could only have been for preparatory sketches for marine subjects.

Sketching, fishing, modest entertainment of his friends assisted by his ‘Old Dad’, Turner’s life in his rural retreat at Twickenham reveals aspects of the man which are less well-known than that of great artist, academician and exhibitor of famously controversial works at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.

Turner’s hopes for a charitable institution
Turner acquired some additional land in Twickenham, a couple of miles to the west of Sandycombe Lodge, a few years after its completion. In his will of 1829, he expressed the wish that this should become a ‘College or Charity for decayed ‘English artists (Landscape painters only) and single men’. Turner intended that this ‘college’ should include a picture gallery, similar intentions to those which were fulfilled at Dulwich where both almshouses and picture gallery were built. Turner and Soane were both founder members of the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution and both displayed a sensitivity to their own wealth and success through a wish to benefit those of their profession who had been less fortunate. Since Turner’s relatives contested this part of his will, his wishes were never executed.

For more information
For more detail about the design of the house and Turner’s activities in and around Twickenham, please see our Publications page.