December 29th, 2004

An Acrid Whiff

When the painter J.M.W Turner died, his executor, the great critic John Ruskin, went through the archives and made a bonfire of a lot of stuff he disapproved of- "painting after painting of Turner's of the most shameful sort - the pudenda of women - utterly inexcusable and to me inexplicable".

Or at least that's what we were told. And Ruskin's memory has been tainted with an acrid whiff of burning art-works ever since.

But now it seems as if the bonfire never happened. Ian Warrell, the Turner expert at the Tate Gallery, has been through the huge Turner collection and, checking and counter-checking, reports that there's nothing missing. Instead of burning the erotica, Ruskin sort of "lost" it in his highly complicated filing system.

And the bonfire story? Who knows? I guess Ruskin put it about to bolster his image with the Victorian public as a righteous arbiter of public taste. It's what he wanted people to believe he'd done.

I'm so glad he didn't.

He was a weird, prissy, ridiculous man. Also a genius- a visionary. One could write a play, a TV play perhaps- about good Ruskin and bad Ruskin fighting it out over Turner's porn stash.

Which leaves one final question: when are we, the British public- the ultimate owners of the Turner collection- going to be allowed to see this stuff?