The Art Fund’s Auction scheme can help museums react quickly to opportunities that arise in the market. No more so was this the case than in providing funding for the acquisition by the Royal Pavilion of the JMW Turner painting Brighthelmston. It was a time-critical application, as the painting was destined for sale in America, so this meant ensuring that one of our trustees viewed the work before its export.
The trustees were unanimous in their support of the watercolour painting, which depicts Brighton from the sea, highlighting both its past as a fishing town and its new identity as a popular pleasure resort in the early 19th century. The work provides a freeze frame of the city in metamorphosis, with the newly constructed Chain Pier (1823) on the right, and, at its centre, the Royal Pavilion, the recently completed oriental summer palace designed by John Nash for George IV, Prince of Wales. These monuments illustrate recent developments in technology and engineering, as well as the buzz and excitement elicited by these attractions.
The work had been in private hands and unseen by the public for more than 100 years before it was purchased at auction with our help. It seems particularly fitting that, as the only picture Turner is known to have painted featuring the city’s iconic pleasure palace, its main subject would be the place to house it. Having been saved from going back into private ownership, possibly overseas, the watercolour was finally allowed to take centre-stage at the temporary ‘
Turner in Brighton’ exhibition at the museum.