10 May 1872

Thos. Agnew & Sons, Stock Book, 10 May 1872 (Agnew’s Archive)

  • 1375 – ‘Kirkstall Abbey’. Bought from ‘J. Mc.Lean’. Sold to ‘Lord Dunmore’ for £105, 31 May 1872

11 May 1872

J. H. M. (John Hornby Maw), ‘Turner’s Drawings’, The Builder, vol.30, no.1527, 11 May 1872, p.364 (reprinted as ‘Turner’s Drawings. – Will they Stand?’, Birmingham Daily Post, 14 May 1872, issue 4,314)

John Hornby Maw (1800–85) was the first to record the deleterious results of the use of the fugitive indigo pigment in the watercolours of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) as well as the ‘framed and glazed’ drawings of Thomas Girtin. Maw describes the effect of light on Turner’s Powis Castle (Manchester Art Gallery), but he might have equally been talking about one of the three watercolours by Girtin that he owned, the badly faded A Rainbow over the River Exe (TG1730).


The extraordinary prices realised by Turner’s drawing in the Gillot sale, on the 4th inst., compels me to remind you that you some years ago published a letter of mine warning the possessors of these wonderful works of the fugitive nature of some of the colouring materials used by Turner in his water-colour pictures. The astonishingly increased value set upon them by purchasers seems to render needful a repetition of my detailed statement, published in the Builder at a time when Turner’s drawings could not be sold for as many hundreds as they now fetch thousands. … Now, sir, with regard to the fading, my former letter to you on the subject will show that I had one other of the drawings – sold on Saturday for 1,210 guineas, – I gave £60, or £70 for it – hanging for perhaps a year in a frame too small for it, so that on taking it out of the frame to clean the glass, or for some other purpose, the margin which had been under the rebate of the frame, protected from the effect of light, was very much stronger and more vivid in effect than the rest of the picture, which, by comparison, was seen to have greatly faded. My letter went on to say that I took the drawing up to London, for the purpose of showing it to Turner, and that on calling on him, without the drawing, I met, at his house, in Queen Anne Street, the gentleman from whom I had the drawing. When Turner “pooh-poohed” my report of the fading, I asked him and the vendor of the drawing if they would wait together for an hour, that they might see and judge. They very willingly did so, and on my throwing the drawing on the table, Turner said, “I will never make another water-colour drawing.” I replied, “There is no need for that; but let me beg of you never more to use indigo. The drawing before us shows that it is not the colour, but the light and shade which have so miserably perished, and any one can see that the whole effect of light and shade is given by indigo.” “Well,” he replied, “what else can I use?” I said, “I suppose there is nothing which would so exactly suit your purpose if it would stand, but you must make shift with cobalt, which you use freely enough as colour, though not as shade.” Then he reminded me that in the days of Girtin they had nothing they could use but indigo. “True,” I replied, “and can you show me a single framed and glazed Girtin drawing, or Turner drawing of the Girtin period, that has not become feeble in the grey, and foxy in the warm parts, because of the fugitiveness of the indigo, and the permanency of the iron pigments?” Those who knew me at the time when I made the discovery of the fading of the drawing in question, know that I made no secret of it, but, on the contrary, spoke out at once to my numerous Turner collecting friends; but neither that nor my letter to the Builder in years gone by seems to have damped the ardour of those by whom these over-rich picture-collecting people are led captive at their will.

J. H. M.


A Rainbow over the River Exe