- Historic Sites
The Man Who Discovered Turner’s Secret
He devoted his entire life to finding signatures only he could see.
December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
For Anderson’s Turner was not merely the author of boiling seascapes and gleamy, light-charged views of the English countryside. Anderson’s Turner had cut paper silhouettes of Dickens characters, painted on French silk, done a watercolor portrait of Lola Montez, mapped the Lakes of Killarney, and turned out a deck of humorous playing cards. All of them with the minute, hidden signature.
Anderson had found that signature on fifteen thousand paintings by 1926, the year he published the summation of his life’s work, The Unknown Turner . Throughout the big, handsomely produced book, the tone is calm and lucid, the author indulgent and even sympathetic toward those who do not accept his claims. Utterly secure in his greater knowledge, he quotes John Ruskin with irritated amusement: “Hunt could paint a flower but not a cloud; Turner, a cloud, but not a flower.” Wrong. Anderson has a Turner flower, fifty of them, in fact, done with the greatest fidelity to nature. He even defies Turner himself. The painter once wrote his friend Thomas Moore: “But Ireland, Mr. Moore, Ireland! I have often longed to go to that country, but am, I confess, afraid to venture myself there.” In fact, says Anderson, Turner had already made six visits to Ireland; the paintings prove it. The artist simply enjoyed “mystifying his friends.” Indeed, Anderson had discovered paintings from many countries where Turner’s biographers never knew him to visit —Russia and Persia, Palestine, Egypt, and Dalmatia.
The Unknown Turner is illustrated with dozens of pictures, some quite skillful, some not. There are fussy architectural renderings and works clearly turned out by young English ladies at a time when some training in watercolor was as much a social staple as a knowledge of the spinet; there is a stiff duck-hunting scene, a portrait of somebody’s country house, and an ingenuous charcoal scene of a stream and a tree labeled in a copperplate hand: “sketched with Burnt Wood.”
It is probably not necessary to say that the book was published at Anderson’s expense.
He kept on ferreting out Turners for the rest of his life and had gathered twenty-nine thousand by the time he died in 1941. His wife, Mary, to whom he dedicated his book, helped sell off the collection. When W. G. Constable, curator of paintings at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, went “through some five thousand of these,” he “could only find three or four which could conceivably be by Turner.”
Anderson would merely have been amused by this verdict. After all, Mr. Constable just didn’t know how to find the signatures.
My wife and I left Christie’s and went around the corner to have lunch. As we sat down, I bumped the portfolio sharply against the edge of the table. “Be careful,” said Carol, “of the McGillicuddys.”