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Turner Comes To Town

— May 2011

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Turner Contemporary, Margate

Jeff Fendall visits the new Turner Contemporary gallery at Margate

The connection between the major 19th-century artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) and the seaside town of Margate is not, in truth, all that substantial. It is true that he attended school there at the age of 11; and that one of his mistresses (he never married), a Mrs Booth, owned a property on the seafront where he sometimes stayed.  It is also true that he remarked to art critic John Ruskin, ‘The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe’. Otherwise he was mostly a London man, but one who travelled widely at home and on the continent. Much of his childhood was spent with his uncle in Brentford, and at the age of 14 he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art Schools. A year later he exhibited a watercolour in their Summer Exhibition, and rarely missed a year after that for the rest of his life.

Turner travelled widely to France, Switzerland, and Italy, particularly Venice. In the UK, his work encompassed Yorkshire, Sussex, and Dorset. But in 2011, Margate, Kent claimed him as one of her own with the opening of the Turner Contemporary Gallery on a site hard upon Mrs Booth’s boarding house. The suggestion first arose in the early 1990s. The local council got behind it, as did Kent County Council, and Arts Council England.  An international design competition was held. In 2001, seven designs were shortlisted, and the winner was Snøhetta and Spence, the distinguished Norwegian architects.

Snøhetta’s design was for an egg-shaped construction on the seaward side of the harbour arm. Locals did warn of the dangers of this, in view of the fierce storms that sometimes occur. The budget was £7 million with a completion date of 2004. Within a year the costs had risen to £11 million, then £17M, then £30M, and finally £50M. When the engineered miniature mock-up blew away in 48 hours, Kent C.C. decided to start all over again.

Turner has not been well treated by the nation to which he bequeathed his substantial legacy of artworks. He is one of the few British artists who can claim international status. Yet much of his work, even today, remains hidden away in archives, some never viewed since his death 150 years ago. If Margate, best known for Dreamland, amusement arcades and ‘kiss-me-quick’ hats, should be the place, fully supported by local girl Tracey Emin RA, to revive an interest in his work, then how postmodernist is that?

So the powers-that-be, ever-determined, turned to David Chipperfield to take the project forward. Perhaps not as well-known a name as his celebrated compatriots Norman Foster or Richard Rogers (with whom he worked early in his career) he was nevertheless knighted in 2010. Most of his major projects have been outside the United Kingdom, particularly in the USA, such as the Figge Art Museum in Davenport Iowa. He was also the architect behind the reconstructed Neues Museum in Berlin. 

Sticking to his usual modernist style, Chipperfield’s building is placed toward the northern light, for the benefit of exhibitions, and toward the west, up along the Thames estuary, whither Turner gazed upon his beloved sunsets. The exterior may be regarded as somewhat stark, but the internal areas and galleries are particularly successful. He has been quoted as calling it a secure and wholesome building, saying that the light inside is fantastic, ‘the best we’ve done’.

The location of the gallery is known locally just as ‘Rendezvous’, and is at the land end of the harbour arm or jetty. It used to be a car park alongside a rundown pub (now demolished) and the sailing club (now moved). The only other building that remains on the site is the historic Droit House, the old harbour-master’s office, used in the interim as a temporary gallery and carrying Tracey Emin’s recent tribute to her home town, a neon installation: I never stopped loving you.

To reach it by road or from the railway station, you pass along the seafront, beside the vast expanse of Margate’s golden sandy main beach. Opposite the gallery itself is Margate’s old town, a charming warren of narrow streets, including the old town hall. It is this area that Thanet District Council hopes will lead the regeneration of the town. They see it becoming a fashionable area of cafe-bars, boutiques, bistros, galleria, where the world’s art-lovers will gather, chatter, laugh, and spend money.

The new gallery has cost a mere £17 million (plus £11 million expended on the earlier failed venture) and is funded by Kent C.C., Arts Council England, the Lottery, and the South-East Development Agency. Private funding has also been obtained, for example from two Foundations, the Foyle and the John Sunley, both of which have rooms named after them.

The Director of the TC is Victoria Pomery, who was appointed in 2002, when the original design was still current. To her credit, she has stuck with the project and spent the intervening years organising a wide array of contemporary art displays in various temporary venues around the town. She has a wealth of experience in the field. She started in 1989 at the Mead Gallery, University of Warwick, then moved to the Angel Row Gallery, Nottingham. From there she became Senior Curator at Tate Liverpool, and had secondments to Tate St Ives, and the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at the University of Western Australia.

The opening exhibition, supported by the Henry Moore Foundation,  is called  ‘Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens’ and runs from 16 April –  4 September,  exploring the themes of imagination, discovery, wonder and the creative spirit. The single Turner exhibit is the striking The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains, in the Island of St Vincent, at Midnight, on the 30th of April, 1812. New commissions by distinguished international contemporary artists Daniel Buren, Russell Crotty, Ellen Harvey and Conrad Shawcross will also show alongside selected works by Teresita Fernández and Douglas Gordon. This will be followed by ‘Nothing in the World but Youth’ from September until January 2012,  and then by ‘Turner and the Elements’ from January to May 2012.

There has been a gradual but steady build-up of publicity and interest over the past few months, leading to the public opening on 16 April, including visiting groups from the local tourist industry and a launch meeting on 16 March at the House of Commons with culture minister Ed Vaizey. This continued with a ten-day festival of arts event after the opening under the title ‘You Are Here’, including music, dance, and live performance. High hopes are placed upon the success of the new gallery, and that a memorable moment was created the day Turner came to town.


Jeff Fendall MA
Isle of Thanet, Kent
Independent art historian

Media credit: © Richard Bryant/

Background info

Joseph M.W. Turner was born on St George’s Day, 23 April 1751. His mother was subject to fits of rages, and died in a mental hospital when Joseph was 15. His father ran a barbershop in Maiden Lane, London, and encouraged his son’s talents. Joseph’s success at the Royal Academy saw him elected a full member aged 27, when he had more commissions than he could fulfil. Short and stocky, with a prominent nose, Turner was a secretive, taciturn, parsimonious character. He worked quickly and profusely, producing 1500 sketches from one visit to Venice alone. His earnings were substantial, enhanced by patronage from Lord Egremont of Petworth and others. In later life, out of fashionable favour, his career was revived through the defence of his work by the young art critic, John Ruskin. Many of Turner’s most admired works, such as The Fighting Temeraire, and Rain, Steam and Speed were still to come. Through these explorations of the effects of light, he is often seen as a forerunner of the Impressionists. Turner died at his studio in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea on 19 December 1851, and is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.  He bequeathed 300 oil paintings and 20,000 watercolours to the nation.

Editor's notes

 See Jeff Fendall’s review of the first exhibition at Turner Contemporary, in this issue of Cassone.

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