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Tate Turner catalogue delayed again

The Tate still has 21,000 works to publish online—but those already posted suggest it will be worth the wait

An exhibition of J.M.W. Turner’s late works opened to critical acclaim at Tate Britain in London last month, but behind the scenes, the gallery has made only slow progress in producing a detailed catalogue of the works by the artist in its collection. Two years ago, the gallery planned to publish the full catalogue online by this year, but considerably less than half the entries are available. It has now pushed back the expected completion date to 2018.

Since 1987, the Tate has been responsible for the 37,500 works Turner bequeathed to the nation in 1851. The vast majority are sketches on paper. An inventory was published by Alexander Finberg in 1909, but this is simply a checklist. The works on paper originally went to the British Museum, where the current cataloguing project started in 1980. Seven years later, the Turners (and the curator in charge) moved to the Tate. By December 2012, 11,000 entries had been posted online. A further 5,500 have since been added, leaving 21,000 still to be published.

Turner scholars

The Tate lost a senior Turner scholar when Ian Warrell, who was the head of the cataloguing team, left the gallery two years ago during a curatorial reorganisation. David Blayney Brown, the remaining experienced Turner specialist, is now in charge, but he has also been organising the exhibition “Late Turner—Painting Set Free” (until 25 January 2015). A spokeswoman for the Tate says that, “as with all long-term projects, there are inevitable changes in personnel and periods of absence… [but] we have an expert team of cataloguers, led by our Turner expert, Dr Brown”.

The catalogue is “one of the most ambitious projects to be developed by a British art museum”, the spokeswoman says. During the past five years, “ideas and technologies changed, which required fresh thinking and development”, and the redesign of the Tate’s website created further complications. The institution expects to add a further 3,500 entries by next March and to complete the catalogue by March 2018.

Slow progress

Nicholas Powell, the secretary of the independent Turner Society, regrets that progress has been so slow. He says that “entire swathes” of Turner’s works remain uncatalogued, such as those the artist made during his visits to Switzerland in the 1840s, which are represented in the current exhibition. Nevertheless, most specialists feel that, despite the delay, the scholarship behind the existing entries is excellent, with detailed descriptions and reference data all available on the Tate’s website.

Most public galleries have limited resources for major cataloguing projects, but the theft of two oil paintings by Turner in 1994 produced an unexpected windfall. The Tate later bought back title to the pictures, and when they were subsequently recovered—the first in 2000, the second in 2002—the invested windfall from the balance of the insurance payout was £27m. Of this, £1m was earmarked for Turner scholarship.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Turner catalogue delayed again'