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Thirty-year wait for Turner catalogue almost over?

The Tate says all detailed entries will be available online by 2014, but critics fear loss of scholarship

Thirty years after efforts began to catalogue the Turner Bequest, the project may be approaching completion, The Art Newspaper has learned. So far, around 22,000 entries have been written, covering 60% of the works in the bequest, although these have not yet been made available on the web. Nicholas Powell, the secretary of the Turner Society, describes the lengthy delay as “a scandal”, but the Tate, which took over the project from the British Museum in 1987, says that the project should be complete and online by the end of 2014.

Sample entries in the catalogue seen by The Art Newspaper suggest that the catalogue will eventually represent a major scholarly resource. Subjects of the drawings have been properly identified, original inscriptions transcribed and datings revised, accompanied by critical commentaries, bibliographies, exhibition histories and technical data.

Although the new catalogue was originally envisaged as a print publication, by the early 2000s the Tate had decided to put it online, which allows entries to be more easily searched and updated. Technical considerations have delayed posting the existing entries to a website, although the Tate promises that the 60% that has been completed should be available this autumn.

Loss of expertise

Questions emerged about the catalogue because of personnel changes at Tate Britain and the departure of a number of senior curators. An editorial in last month’s Burlington magazine accused Tate Britain of “a lamentable disregard of the gallery’s responsibilities—the cavalier attitude to the Turner Bequest, for example”.

The Turner cataloguing project is continuing under David Brown, but his team is changing. Until this spring this comprised a curator and three cataloguers, but all four are leaving Tate Britain. The entries have been and will continue to be written by a pool of up to ten outside contributors, possibly including the departing scholars.

The new cataloguing staff team now comprises the head of collection research, a digital editor, a database architect and a web developer. Nicholas Powell is worried by the changes. He says: “The catalogue can only be done by people with the necessary skill and not by IT people who have no familiarity with the artist’s work.”

Insurance pay-out

On his death in 1851, J.M.W. Turner bequeathed 37,000 works to the nation. This is the most important collection of works by a major British artist in a public gallery. Although the bequest included 300 oil paintings (now at the Tate), the vast majority are works on paper, mainly sketchbook pages. An inventory of the sketches and watercolours was published by Alexander Finberg in 1909, but this is simply a checklist and is now outdated.

The works on paper originally went to the British Museum which, in 1980, decided to embark on a new catalogue, under curator Andrew Wilton. Seven years later, with the opening of the Tate’s Clore Gallery, the collection was transferred to Millbank (along with Wilton himself). Although cataloguing continued at the Tate, progress was slow. Wilton points out that he had “wider responsibilities for the Clore Gallery and later as keeper of the British collection”.

By an unexpected twist of fortune, the theft of two Turner paintings resulted in extra funding for cataloguing. The Tate’s Shade and Darkness and Light and Colour (both 1843) had been stolen while on loan to Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle in 1994. This led to a £24m insurance pay-out. Four years later the Tate made a deal with the insurers, buying back legal title to the missing paintings for £8m. The Turners were subsequently recovered in 2000 and 2002.

After the recoveries, the Tate was left with a huge windfall (the £24m had been invested and grown, and even after buying back title and recovery costs, the total sum was £24m by 2005). It was then decided to designate £1m for Turner scholarship. The Tate is unwilling to say how much of the £1m remains, but a spokeswoman says that “we will be reviewing whether additional funding will be required to complete the catalogue.”

At present, the information on Turner’s works on paper on the Tate’s website is largely confined to basic data. A spokeswoman says that although there were earlier “discussions” about a printed catalogue, it was decided to commit funds for an online version in 2006. There will be speedy action to complete the detailed catalogue of the 37,000 works. She also stresses that an IT system is being developed to give greater benefits to users: “We aim to complete the catalogue and get it online by the end of 2014.”