The High Street, Oxford, an iconic view of the city’s main thoroughfare by Joseph Mallord William Turner, has been on display at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum since 1997, on loan from a private collection. Earlier this year the owners offered the painting to the nation under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, a program that allows important works of cultural patrimony to be transferred to the state in lieu of inheritance tax. Because the appraised market value of the painting, £3.5 million ($5,387,000), is more than the tax owing, the Ashmolean had to come up with the difference of £860,000 ($1,324,000) to secure the masterpiece. If they couldn’t meet the price, the painting would be sold at public auction and very possibly to a foreign buyer who would take it out of the country.
Most of the sum was raised through grants — £550,000 ($846,570) from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £220,000 ($338,630) from the Art Fund, £30,000 ($46,180) from the Friends and Patrons of the Ashmolean — leaving just £60,000 ($92,300) outstanding to acquire the painting. On June 3rd, the museum launched a campaign to raise the last £60,000. The response from the public was immediate and enthusiastic. More than 800 individuals donated to the cause and the target was reached in just four weeks. Once the paperwork is done, The High Street, Oxford will officially be part of the Ashmolean Museum’s permanent collection.
JMW Turner had deep connections to Oxford. As a child he spent time in the area visiting his uncle so he was familiar with the city — there is at least one surviving watercolor of Oxford Turner painted when he was in his teens — and over the course of his lifetime he would finish more than 30 watercolors of the city, the largest number of works depicting a single place in his oeuvre. In 1799 when he was 24 years old, he received his first important commission: two watercolor of the college town to be published in the Oxford Almanack, the University’s prestigious annual calendar which had been printed every year without interruption since 1676. The watercolors were so well-received, he got commissions to make another eight watercolors which were published between 1799 and 1810.
The watercolors caught the eye of Oxford printseller, James Wyatt, who commissioned Turner to create a view of High Street that Wyatt would then have engraved so he could sell prints of the work. Turner worked on the painting over the winter of 1809-1810, consulting with Wyatt as he went along. Wyatt, while a townie, had many begowned friends, so the painting deliberately includes men in academic dress as well as more colorful townspeople at focal points along the street. Turner had once contemplated a career in architecture and as a young man he had worked for several architects as a draughtsman. That fascination greatly informed High Street which is drawn with exceptional attention to the architectural details of the buildings.
When the painting was finished in March of 1810, Wyatt put it on display in his High Street print shop. Both the oil painting and the print made from it were hugely popular. Turner displayed the oil painting in his personal gallery in Queen Ann Street, London. In 1812, The High Street, Oxford and a companion townscape Wyatt commissioned after the success of the first were exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Because, as anyone who has watched Morse and Inspector Lewis to the point of overdose can tell you, Oxford is basically frozen in time, what Turner saw when he looked down High Street is pretty much what you see today looking down High Street, give or take a bike or two (thousand). Any institution would be keen to have a Turner oil painting, but this work is so bound to its context, a context which has survived almost unchanged, that it would have been a tremendous loss to see it sold away from the city whose sempiternal beauty he captured so flawlessly.