The Ashmolean Museum has launched a campaign to raise the final £60,000 needed to buy ‘the greatest painting of the city that has ever been made’.

 Bid to save Turner's Oxford masterpiece

The Ashmolean has launched a public campaign to raise the final £60,000 needed to secure for the nation an iconic Oxford painting by J M W Turner.

The High Street, Oxford (1810), on loan to the museum from a private collection since 1997, has been offered to the nation in lieu of inheritance tax. The painting would settle £3.5 million of inheritance tax — which is more than the tax liable on the estate — so the Ashmolean must raise the difference, £860,000, to acquire the painting.

Over 90 per cent of this sum has been secured already. The museum has received lead support from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) with a grant of £550,000; a grant of £220,000 from the Art Fund; and a further £30,000 from the Friends and Patrons of the Ashmolean.

The High Street has materially changed little since Turner painted it, as the 1930s postcard and modern photograph below demonstrate. Although he painted many townscapes in watercolour, Turner never again attempted such a picture in oils.

Dr Alexander Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean, says: ‘The importance of keeping this beautiful painting in Oxford cannot be overstated. High Street, Oxford is the young Turner’s most significant townscape and the greatest painting of the city that has ever been made.

‘We are profoundly grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and our patrons who have already shown their support for this campaign. If the Ashmolean does not acquire the painting, it will be sold on the open market. All major oil paintings by Turner that have been offered at auction in recent years have been bought by foreign buyers.’

Over the summer, the Ashmolean will mount public events giving the people of Oxford and the city’s thousands of tourists the chance to engage with the painting in the place where it was created. A photography competition, My View of Oxford, is being launched this month, encouraging photographers of all ages and abilities to respond to the Turner painting by capturing their personal view of the city. The winning entries will be shown at the Ashmolean later in the summer.

On the streets of Oxford, full-size reproductions of the painting will be displayed in prominent locations, encouraging the public to join the campaign and visit the Ashmolean to see the original picture.

Bid to save Turner's Oxford masterpiece

Acknowledged as one of the greatest landscape artists of all time, Turner painted more than thirty finished watercolours of Oxford views, by far the largest group devoted to a single place in his entire output. He was familiar with the architecture of the city since visiting relations in the village of Sunningwell (five miles southwest of Oxford) during his childhood.

In 1799, he received his most prestigious commission to date, to provide two designs for the University’s annual calendar, the Oxford Almanack. The success of these two watercolours led to commissions for a further eight, published between 1799 and 1810. They show a deliberately wide variety of street scenes, colleges and interiors. It was, no doubt, the quality of these pictures that led Oxford printseller, James Wyatt, to commission the view of the High Street.

The painting is one of the most fully documented of all Turner’s works because Wyatt kept his correspondence with the artist, which was included in his posthumous sale. The original purpose of the commission was to have the design engraved. Wyatt settled on an oil painting, instead of a watercolour, half the size of Turner’s normal canvases, at a cost of 100 guineas. The artist worked on the painting over the winter of 1809–10, consulting Wyatt on the details of the architecture included in the view. 

The final stage involved the introduction of figures, members of the University and clergy, and some women ‘for the sake of colour’. The painting was completed in March 1810 and was exhibited in Wyatt’s shop before being shown at Turner’s own gallery in his house in Queen Ann Street. Wyatt was evidently delighted and commissioned a pendant View of Oxford from the Abingdon Road (held in a private collection). Both were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812. When, in the 1830s, Turner was choosing views of Oxford for his greatest series of watercolours, he rejected the High Street. He felt that, in the painting of 1810, he had achieved an unparalleled view of technical mastery that he could not repeat.

Bid to save Turner's Oxford masterpiece

Stuart McLeod, head of Heritage Lottery Fund South East England, said: ‘It would be unthinkable for this particular painting, unique among Turner’s work, not to remain on public display in the city. We have been delighted to support its acquisition and wish the Ashmolean well in its public appeal for the balance of the funding required.’

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: ‘This most important picture simply must be saved by the Ashmolean: we’re pleased to have supported the campaign substantially ourselves and fervently hope that anyone else who loves Turner, Oxford and the Ashmolean will now do the same.’

Update, July 2015: Thanks to public support, the Ashmolean reached its fundraising target in four weeks.

See also:

Article reproduced, slightly edited, from Oxford University’s News and Events page. High Street, Oxford by J M W Turner, private collection courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. 1930s postcard © Oxford University Images / Oxfordshire History Centre. Oxford at night © Oxford University Images / David Williams.


By Tom

I find it astounding that people are so rich that they can just give away paintings to the nation instead of being taxed properly for their obscene wealth

And the painting is OK but you only care because of the name attached to it - I suggest the Ashmolean goes to the covered market and gets some paintings of Oxford by people who are actually alive - they could probably get an OK one for 60 quid, not sixty thousand.

By Sonia Parsons

How do I make a contribution to the fundraising effort? I can't contribute a lot but would like to do offer what i can

By William Longland

I was interested to see the article 'Bid to save Turner’s Oxford masterpiece' in Oxford Today, dated 8 June 2015. It mentioned that "[t]he Ashmolean Museum has launched a campaign to raise the final £60,000 needed to buy" the painting, but no link was given to the campaign's website. Can this be put right? I realize you were reproducing an article, "slightly edited" from Oxford University’s News and Events page (presumably a print publication), but couldn't the editing have included a link to the fundraisers, thereby adding a bit more point to the OT article?

By Rachel Murphy

I couldn't see a link in this article for where people go to donate - might be good to add it?

Also, sites like JustGiving are a good way to make donations, as there is a visual showing the target and how much has been achieved - I think it encourages people who might want to donate, but for smaller amounts, as they can see the figure rising in real time - see campaign organised for Wentworth Woodhouse: It would be great to have this on the Oxford site for individual campaigns.

By Alice Williams ...

How do I send a contribution, ever so small, to the picture fund? Alice

By Richard Gowing

I shall be visiting Oxford in late July and will make a point of seeing this great picture by one of my favourite artists.

By Dr. Mike Springate

Once known as 'The loveliest street in Europe' it is obviously right to keep it where it belongs - in the best university in Europe. I shall donate.

By Noel Vautier

I have an engraving based on the painting . It states on its foot that it was published March 14 1812 by James Wyatt High Street Oxford and that it was engraved by S.Middleman and John Pye. It is dedicated to Very Rev John Parsons Dean of Bristol, Master of Baliol and VC of the University of Oxford. Curious to know whether the engraving is one of many "published "by Mr Wyatt. I purchased it an auction in Auckland about 1970

By Sterling W.

This article is a reminder of the simple truth that tax is theft.