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The Man Who Discovered Turner’s Secret

July 2024
5min read

He devoted his entire life to finding signatures only he could see.

A few seasons back, an oil painting by J. M. W. Turner went at auction for $10,023,000. When I read this in the paper the next day, I made up my mind to do something about my father’s Turners. He had bought several of the artist’s watercolors before World War II, and they had spent the intervening years in a battered, black portfolio under the couch in his study. Since an early Turner watercolor might sell for ten thousand dollars and a good late one for ten times that, it seemed to me ours should be appraised and insured.

But when I mentioned my plan to my father during a visit that weekend, he was cavalier. They were “pleasant little paintings,” he said, but he doubted whether they had “any real value.”

This was simple perversity: if they were Turners, they were valuable. And they came accompanied by a magnificent deckle-edged certificate that radiated the serene authority of a medical school diploma and announced that each painting had originally been part of the J. M. W. TURNER COLLECTION OF THE LATE JOHN ANDERSON, JR.


I could not prod my father into any enthusiasm for the project, but he handed over the paintings cheerfully enough, and the next Tuesday noon my wife, Carol, and I took them over to Christie’s auctioneers. “I don’t have an appointment,” I told the receptionist, “but I wonder if somebody could see me?” I held up the mangy portfolio. “I have a small collection of Turner watercolors.”

This turns out to be a very effective way to get attention in an auction gallery. Please, said the receptionist, would Carol and I just sit down for a moment; somebody would be with us immediately. She got on the phone and about forty seconds later a man emerged from a door behind her and came over to us. “I understand you have some Turner paintings.” “Yes, about a dozen,” I said, handing him the portfolio; and I added helpfully, “They’re from the Anderson Collection.”

“Oh,” he said. “John Anderson, eh?” And he laughed.

Nobody ever loved an artist more than John Anderson, Jr., loved Joseph Mallord William Turner, although he came to his chief and consuming devotion fairly late in life. Born in 1856, Anderson attended school in Brooklyn and, as soon as he was able, set up as a rare-book dealer. Books, however, were not his main interest; he was, he said, “a lover of good pictures many years before I was able to buy one,” and “books cost less than pictures,” so he collected works on various painters, and while he taught himself about art, his business did well. After a few years he was able to move uptown from his stark original store on Nassau Street in Manhattan to 30 East Fifty-seventh Street, where he opened the Anderson Auction Company. He sold books and then prints and quickly became a real force in the city’s art circles. But that wasn’t what Anderson wanted. Having established one of the best-known auction houses in the country, he promptly sold it, and in 1908 he took his profits and went to Europe to buy paintings. “My ambition was to become the possessor of at least one good, authentic picture, by one of the acknowledged great painters of the world.” He did better than that: in a few months he was back in New York with dozens of Old Masters, among them a van Eyck, a Raphael, and a previously unknown Rembrandt, The Entombment of Christ.

In 1916 he issued a magnificent illustrated catalog of these paintings and put the entire collection up for auction, producing at the same time a lengthy defense of the paintings’ authenticity. The New York Times critic was impressed by Anderson’s erudition but said: “There still remains the impression of authority made or not made by a picture, and the present writer must confess to missing the luminous shadow quality and the inner glow of light which characterize the finer examples of Rembrandt’s undisputed work.” The Raphael and the van Eyck “also fail strongly to make an authoritative impression.”

No one else was much impressed either. When the paintings went on the block in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, “it was,” the Times said succinctly, “not a night for old masters.” Thomas Sully’s Head of Rembrandt went for fifty-four dollars. A Velázquez called Happy Spanish Beggar brought two hundred dollars, and the Rembrandt Entombment sold for twenty-five hundred dollars to the sole bidder.

This wan showing probably did not distress Anderson for long. For by now all his formidable energies were taken up with the quest that had begun a few years earlier, when he made the most important discovery of his life. While studying a group of twenty drawings he had recently purchased, he found that “one of them bore Turner’s signature and date, in a place and manner that clearly indicated his intention to have it remain hidden.” He scrutinized the other drawings. Sure enough, the artist’s secret signature appeared on all twenty. “In possession of a key that might unlock the hidden treasury of Turner’s art, I determined to make a thorough and systematic search in Great Britain for his drawings and sketches.…”

It took years, but it was worth it; nearly every week Anderson turned up “new revelations of Turner’s marvellous and all-embracing art. I found that the same brain and hand which evolved and executed The Fighting Temeraire’ was also responsible for a series of comic sketches, a street representation of ‘Punch and Judy,’ and a design for wallpaper!”

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.”

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