In July of 2010, Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum bought Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, a shimmering vista of the Roman Forum between the Capitoline and the Colosseum painted from memory by Joseph Mallord William Turner in 1839. The work had only had two previous owners and is in exceptional never-restored condition, so it far exceeded its pre-sale estimates and sold for $45 million, a new record for a Turner. The British government put a temporary export ban on the work to give UK museums a chance to match the price and keep the masterpiece in the country, but the ban expired before any museums could get anywhere near the sum and the Getty is now the proud owner of Turner’s glorious last painting of Rome.
Come December, the Getty will have an almost impossibly rare opportunity to secure another of Turner’s late Roman landscapes with the exact same provenance in the same untouched condition. Rome, from Mount Aventine will go up for auction at Sotheby’s Old Masters sale in London.
Alex Bell, joint international head and co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department, added: “There are fewer than ten major Turners in private hands known today and this work must rank as one of the very finest.
“This painting, which is nearly 200 years old, looks today as if it has come straight from the easel of the artist; never relined and never subject to restoration, the picture retains the freshness of the moment it was painted: the hairs from Turner’s brush, the drips of liquid paint which have run down the edge of the canvas, and every scrape of his palette knife have been preserved in incredible detail.”
Both paintings were commissioned by Scottish landowner and art collector Hugh Munro of Novar, one of Turner’s most important patrons. Turner painted Rome, from Mount Aventine in 1835, seven years after his last trip to Rome and one year before he and Munro traveled to Turin together. (Munro was the only patron of Turner’s ever to join him on a trip to Italy.) He based the painting on detailed sketches from the 1828 trip, sketchbooks that are now in the permanent collection of the Tate.
The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 and was a huge hit with critics. The Morning Post described it as “one of those amazing pictures by which Mr Turner dazzles the imagination and confounds all criticism: it is beyond praise.” Munro kept the work in his London home until he died in 1864. It was sold along with Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, another of Munro’s commissions painted by Turner in 1839, at an 1878 auction of art from the Munro estate. Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, bought them both, Campo Vaccino for £4,240 and Aventine for £6,142. The latter was a record for a Turner work at that time, but Primrose could afford it because he had just married Hannah de Rothschild, scion of the great banking family and the richest woman in Britain. That record held for 10 years even during a period when Turner’s growing popularity drove prices way up.
Both paintings remained in the Primrose family for four generations. Rome, from Mount Aventine has been on long-term loan to the National Galleries of Scotland for 36 years. The family has decided to sell this one for the same reason they sold the last one: to secure an endowment that will provide for the maintenance of the Rosebery estates. The NGS hasn’t commented on whether it will attempt to buy the painting at auction, but with a pre-sale estimate of £15-20 million ($24,530,000 – $32,707,000) that is likely to be left in the dust, the NGS is going to have to do a ton of fundraising to compete with the inky deep pockets institutions like the Getty.