Painting on show in Borders could be long-lost work by JMW Turner

The painting of Walter Scott and his family at Abbotsford now thought to be by JMW Turner.
The painting of Walter Scott and his family at Abbotsford now thought to be by JMW Turner.

A small painting on show at Abbotsford, near Tweedbank, is causing a big stir amoing art historians.

Research and scientific analysis suggest that the postcard-size painting of author Walter Scott and his family at Abbotsford, the writer’s home from 1812 until his death in 1832 at the age of 61, could be a hitherto-unknown watercolour by JMW Turner.

A portrait of author Walter Scott.

A portrait of author Walter Scott.

The pocket-sized watercolour, measuring 5.5in by 3.5in, was discovered at a London auction house and is now on loan to the Abbotsford Trust as part of its current exhibition, Turner and Scott: The Painter and the Poet.

The trust suspects that the painting might be a family memento created during a visit by London-born Joseph Mallord William Turner, alive from 1775 to 1851, to Scott’s home in the summer of 1831.

It now hopes to shed light on the mystery 200 years after the artist and the writer first met in 1818.

It is backing ongoing research into the history and composition of the picture and is encouraging all those curious about its story to go and see it for themselves.

A self-portrait by JMW Turner.

A self-portrait by JMW Turner.

The little painting has been subjected to pigment analysis and infrared imaging in a bid to establish its provenance.

If genuine, it might be an early version of another painting of Abbotsford used as the inspiration for an engraving published in Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, a commemorative biography published after the writer’s death.

Kirsty Archer-Thompson, collections and interpretation manager for the trust and curator of the exhibition, said: “This painting is, quite frankly, electric.

“Everything about it, from the minutiae in the detail and the use of scraping out highlights, to the evolution of its composition from pencil sketch to painting – a whole world only visible through infrared scanning – suggests to me that it is not the work of a copyist.

“All of this analysis, including work by painting analysis expert Libby Sheldon, demonstrates that it was executed by an astonishingly skilled hand.

“Turner was a master of these highly intricate and delicate watercolour illustrations, two of which are already owned by the Abbotsford Trust.

“Everything about this little painting feels authentic and consistent with the great man.

“I hope that we can prove the theory with the help and support of enthusiasts and experts in the art world.”

“We know that when Turner stayed here at Abbotsford in August 1831, Scott was keen to point out particular artworks in his collection.

“One of the paintings Turner would most definitely have seen is a view of Abbotsford and the River Tweed by the Scottish artist Elizabeth Nasmyth. This painting is from exactly the same vantage point as the watercolour we believe Turner painted.

“Scott had a personal attachment to the Nasmyth painting and its composition, and my theory is that this gave Turner the idea to compose the same scene, which he based on sketches in the Abbotsford sketchbook used during his visit in 1831.

“These sketches can be explored digitally as part of our exhibition. There are plenty of examples of artworks gifted privately by Turner to his patrons, and I believe this painting of Scott, his family and his beloved home was a commemorative piece with a whole layer of hidden meaning.”

Trust chairman James Holloway, a former director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, added: “It is wonderful for Abbotsford to be able to show such a fascinating painting.

“It will intrigue and delight our visitors. To think that we are publicly displaying the watercolour for the very first time since it was painted by Turner is also tremendously exciting.”

Scott and Turner’s business partnership began in 1818 and culminated in the publication of Turner’s illustrated editions of Scott’s poetry and prose works after the author’s death in 1832.

The exhibition runs until the end of November. For further details, go to www.scottsabbotsford.com