Sandycombe Lodge, the Twickenham villa of JMW Turner RA, engraved by W B Cooke c1814, with later colouring, from an original watercolour by William Havell © Turner's House Trust

Saving Sandycombe

18th July 2014

Sandycombe Lodge, a short walk from the Thames at Twickenham, is the former home of that most beloved of painters, JMW Turner. Jack Watkins finds out how campaigners are trying to save it and transform it into a public attraction….

With due respect to messrs LS Lowry and David Hockney, only John Constable can honestly be said to vie with JMW Turner as Britain’s most revered artist. Turner is enjoying an especially high profile at the moment, with the Mike Leigh-directed Mr Turner, starring the excellent Timothy Spall in the title role, scheduled for cinematic release in the autumn. Meanwhile, a Tate Britain exhibition opening in September is merely the latest in a never-ending stream of shows to examine his prodigious talent.

You might think, therefore, that when a £2million campaign was launched to ‘save Turner’s House’, it would be an absolute certainty to meet with instant success. Sadly, things are never that simple in the slow-moving world of conservation. Four years after the Turner’s House Trust took on the ownership, art history lecturer and chair Catherine Parry-Wingfield admits to feeling frustration at the complicated and laborious process of applying for heritage funding for the Grade II* listed building. Even though the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a development grant of £134,000 last autumn, a further £600,000 is urgently required to save the house from ultimate dereliction.

Sandycombe Lodge today. Photo: Turner's House Trust

Even if you didn’t know that number 40 Sandycombe Road once belonged to the genius behind The Fighting Temeraire and Rain, Steam and Speed, it might catch your eye. It’s a pretty, if oddly-shaped, Regency villa, a jaunty little white-painted island of eccentricity in the ocean of bulky Victorian brick dwellings that characterise the streetscapes of Twickenham.

Inside the door, however, the challenges facing the campaigners are soon apparent. Rosemary Vaux, who handles the Trust’s publicity, is just on the point of explaining to me how the property was recently placed on English Heritage’s Register of Buildings at Risk when Catherine walks into the drawing room and says she’s just found a leak. Heavy overnight rain, too much for the aged gutters and drainpipes to cope with, has left a pool of water in the balcony over the vestibule, and it’s dripping through the ceiling.

“We are certainly at tipping point,” she says. “Of course, we can go on taking lots of little preventative measures. For instance, we recently removed a pair of willow trees which were growing at the front of the house because their roots were coming through the floor of the kitchen. But there will come a point soon when the actual fabric of the building is seriously damaged.”

It’s probably fortunate that the house is still standing at all. During the Second World War, it was requisitioned as a ‘shadow factory’ for the production of airmen’s goggles, a process which required the installation of heavy machinery. This undermined the structure of the house, and the council may have contemplated pulling it down after the War. However, according to Catherine’s recently updated guide JMW Turner, R.A –The Artist and his House at Twickenham, in 1947 ‘poor neglected Sandycombe found its saviours, Harold and Ann Livermore, who bought the house in spite of its dilapidation, and brought it back to life.’

Catherine befriended the widowed Professor Livermore in his later years, when he delighted in showing visitors round, intent on making a gift of the house to the nation. She affectionately describes him as a “hardy old soul” who managed to exist with just two small gas fires heating the entire house, one of which was rapidly condemned as unsafe on his death in 2010. “He was very committed to the idea of the place as a monument to Turner, but never really got round to doing much about it. The house existed in a state of benign neglect, but because he never modernised it, from a conservationist’s point of view it’s like gold dust.”

Turner is known to have been living in Sandycombe Lodge from1813. He’d acquired a two acre plot on the then undeveloped site six years earlier, planning to build the house in what was still open country, with views down to the river a few minutes away. While Turner’s love of architecture is plain from the way in which the ruins of old abbeys, castles and other ‘picturesque’ buildings feature in his oils, watercolours and sketches, it’s perhaps little appreciated that in his earliest years he received training as a draughtsman in several architects’ offices. He once said that if he could have lived his life over again, he would have been an architect.

So Sandycombe reflects Turner’s own architectural ideas. He was also probably much influenced by his friend Sir John Soane, who lived nearby in Ealing at Pitzhanger Manor, itself later to become a public library and now functioning as an art gallery with major plans underway for a full restoration. Soane’s penchant for curved ends, shallow arches and recesses are all reflected in the attractive design of both the interior and exterior of Sandycombe Lodge. An impressive staircase is lit by a stair window, and hints at Turner’s unfulfilled ambition for something on a grander scale.

An established Royal Academician, with his own gallery in Harley Street, before moving here Turner had rented riverside retreats at Isleworth and Hammersmith, and frequently sketched and painted the Thames landscape in the vicinity of Richmond and Twickenham. Catherine shows me copies of the artist’s sketches which show how carefully he worked on the design of Sandycombe in an effort to gain the most advantageous views.

Possibly, Turner used the drawing room as an informal studio, but the place was also a base for fishing trips. Resident with him was his beloved father, ‘Old Dad’, an intriguing character who’d walk miles to open up his son’s gallery or, if he was lucky, get a lift in on a horse and cart. Turner was devoted to ‘Old Dad’ and it was concern for his health that finally caused him to move back into town in 1826, leasing out Sandycombe.

The Trust holds a collection of Turner art works, currently in storage to protect them from effects of years of damp, and it hopes to display them when the property is restored. At present the house opens the first Saturday afternoon of every month until October, although group visits are possible on weekdays by prior arrangement.

Sandycombe Lodge is well placed to feature on the itinerary of the cultural tourist. It’s not far from Marble Hill House, and the Orleans House Gallery, and just down the hill from Richmond, where Turner painted his famous Richmond Hill on the Prince Regent’s Birthday. Horace Walpole’s ‘little gothic castle’ is at Strawberry Hill and, apart from blissful walks along the Thames towpath, Ham House is just the other side of the water.

It’s ‘just’ a matter of raising enough money.

As it is, Sandycombe Lodge has atmosphere enough. ‘Can you imagine… Turner actually stood at this window looking out, even if the view is now blocked by later houses…’ I think to myself in the drawing room. That novelty has worn off for Catherine though. “I’ve spent so many hours alone in here, worrying about the house’s future. I’d just like to see it restored. After all, it was clean and new when he lived here,” she says. “Yes, just to get it to the stage where Turner might walk in and say: ‘Ah yes, that’s how I remember it. It’s still here, thank you,’ agrees Rosemary. How could you not will their project to succeed?

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