March 31, 2017
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 catalog), Staffa, Fingal's Cave,, had been shown at the Royal Academy 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.
Fort Vimieux, or, as it was described in the Lenox catalog (Item 32), A Scene on the French Coast, with an English Ship-of-War stranded, was exhibited a year earlier at the Royal Academy in 1831. It depicts an English cruiser running aground near a French fort in 1805, which continued firing until a rising tide allowed it to escape. The source is given as Naval Anecdotes, but this publication has yet to be properly identified. The painting was well received at the Royal Academy: the Library of Fine Arts described "the firing of red-hot shot, the sun of bloody hue 'low, deep and wan.' When will Mr. Turner show symptoms of decay?" Lenox visited Turner's gallery in 1848 but is unlikely to have seen this painting, as it had already been sold to Charles Meigh of Shelton in about 1845. Lenox bought it at the Christie's sale of Meigh's collection on June 21, 1850.
Lenox owned one more Turner-related work, J. T. Willmore's engraving after Turner's 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 (British, 1775–1851), Staffa, Fingal's Cave, exhibited Royal Academy, 1832. Yale Center for British Art
Turner, Fort Vimieux, exhibited Royal Academy, 1831. Private collection