The first two Turner paintings in the United States were bought by James Lenox (1800–1880) in 1845 and 1850, and were on display in The Lenox Library, which was demolished in 1912 to make way for the construction of the Frick mansion. In 1877, the Lenox Library was open to the public on Mondays and Fridays from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., but required advance application for a ticket; the hours and ticketing were later relaxed. The art collection (as of 1879) consisted of 145 paintings, 15 sculptures and 59 "paintings on porcelain, enamels, mosaics, etc." It included British artists such as Calcott, Constable, Gainsborough, Landseer, Leslie, Morland, Mulready, Raeburn Reynolds, Roberts, and Wilkie, as well as Turner; American artists such as Bierstadt, Church, Clark, Cole, Copley, Durand, Kensett, Morse, James and Rembrandt Peale, Stuart and Trumbull; and European artists such as Delaroche, Ruysdael, Verboeckhoven, Vega, Vernet and Wauters. The Lenox Library's holdings became a foundational collection of the New York Public Library, but its works of art were dispersed in a series of sales. The Turners were sold at Parke-Bernet Galleries, on October 17 1956 (items 39 and 43), for $47,000 and $56,000.
One of the two works (Item 34 in the 1879 Lenox Library catalogue), Staffa, Fingal's Cave, had been shown at the Royal Acdemy in 1832. It was bought from Turner by James Lenox through the artist C. R. Leslie (1794-1859). Before he made the painting, Turner had been to see Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford in connection with engravings for an illustrated edition of Scott's Poetical Works. Afterward, Turner traveled to Edinburgh and Glasgow, sailing on the steamer Maid of Morven to Staffa and Iona. In a letter to Lenox, Turner described the rough sea conditions: "The sun getting towards the horizon, burst through the rain-cloud, angry, and for wind." When it arrived, the painting may have bloomed, as Lenox found it "indistinct." Turner wrote back that the "indistinctness was my fault." Turner suggested wiping the surface with a silk handkerchief, which seems to have worked.
Lenox owned one more Turner-related work, J. T. Willmore's engraving after Turner's The Old Téméraire.
This blog post has been written to coincide with The Frick Collection's exhibition Turner's Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time, on view through May 14 2017.
J.M.W. Turner, Staffa, Fingal's Cave, exhibited Royal Academy, 1832. Yale Center for British Art
J.M.W. Turner, Fort Vimieux, exhibited Royal Academy, 1831. Private collection