Turner’s House: Follow in artist JMW Turner’s footsteps at his Twickenham retreat
Twickenham is home to some famous former stately homes, such as Marble Hill House and Strawberry Hill. However, there’s a rather less grand, but equally important building that recently been restored to its original Georgian splendour – Turner’s House.
Otherwise known as Sandycombe Lodge, Turner’s House is the Grade II-listed former home of one of Britain’s greatest artists, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). In his teens/early adult life, he briefly considered becoming an architect with his Twickenham home the only one of his building designs realised in bricks and mortar. Having opened last year following an extensive renovation and restoration project, what’s left of Turner’s garden has now been completed for the spring, full of green grass and flowers to complement the stunning architecture. I went along last week with some fellow Londoner bloggers for a special tour of Turner’s country retreat.
In the early 19th century, Twickenham wasn’t a part of London but the open countryside. It had become a popular spot for the wealthy to build riverside abodes as a retreat from the bustling city. While born and bred Londoner Turner had a home and studio in the capital, he desperately sought an escape from the pressure of city life. In 1807, he purchased two plots of land in between Twickenham and Richmond and started designing his dream home in a cottage style. Finally, his plans were realised in 1813 and Turner moved in his beloved father, ‘Old William’ Turner (1745–1829), who had retired as a barber and wigmaker. Old William acted as housekeeper and tended what was then 3 acres of garden. The house was relatively modest, just two bedrooms upstairs – a large main overlooking the garden and the River Thames in the distance, and a smaller bedroom in the front. Downstairs, the ground floor featured a main living room, a dining room and small parlour, with a kitchen and further smaller rooms in the lower ground. Although Turner didn’t paint at the house, he did sketch and spent time fishing and strolling along the Thames and occasionally entertaining friends. One famous pal to visit was the Regency architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837), with his influence in the design of Sandycombe Lodge clearly visible in the hallway and staircase.
Turner sold the house in 1826 to a neighbour Joseph Todd, who extended it and rented it out. Turner’s garden was dramatically shrunk in the 1880s after the nearby opening of St Margaret’s railway station saw the area transforming into a more built-up commuter suburb of London. The house remained a residential home until World War II, when it was converted into a ‘shadow factory’ to make goggles. It was during this period, the house really began to deteriorate. However, a saviour came in Professor Harold Livermore (1914-2010), who bought the house in 1947. He was particularly proud of its history and campaigned for its Grade II listed status in the 1950s. Following Prof Livermore’s death in 2010, he gifted the house to the Turner’s House Trust with the provision it should be enjoyed by the nation.
The Trust managed to secure funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, along with other charities and individuals, to restore the house. When they received the house, it had ground and first floor extensions, some dating back over a century, but made the decision to bring the building back to Turner’s original vision using original sketches. Although there is no record of what Turner kept in the house, they used an inventory from his London home following his death to inspire the choice of period interiors. During the project, they found a scrap of Turner’s original wallpaper, which is on display in the small bedroom. It is amazing to see a piece of wallpaper dating back nearly two centuries that Turner himself would have chosen. The trust have managed to reproduce the pattern from the old sample to decorate the main bedroom. Using paint analysis, they have painted the staircase a light blue in a similar shade to what the artist would have used when decorating his abode. One of the crowning glories of the property is the beautifully restored skylight above the winding staircase.
Aside from the wonderful restoration of the building, it’s easy to imagine how it would have been in Turner’s time thanks to clever interactive tools throughout the museum. In the kitchen, the ‘ghost’ of Old William appears in a rocking chair smoking a pipe. The small parlour’s south-facing window features a painting depicting what would have been Turner’s view in the early 19th century with the sight of the grand Marble Hill House in the distance. What I found particularly clever was the use of the period telescope in the master bedroom. Instead of the actual view of 21st century people’s back gardens, Turner’s vista of his large garden, pond, the Thames and the Richmond estates have been superimposed into the telescope as you move it up and down. Although we can’t be sure if any belong to Turner and his father, a host of 19th century artefacts, such a pipes and shoes, are on display which were found during the restoration and archaeological digs of the grounds.
As well as the house, visitors can also enjoy the garden, which has been inspired by an 18th century drawing of the original layout. The flowers were just beginning to bloom during our bloggers’ tour so being spring, it’s a great time to visit. You can easily imagine Turner sitting in his back garden looking at his home thinking, ‘I built this!’. The Trust offers guided and self-guided tours, as well as hosts various special events, such as talks, throughout the year. If you’re a fan of Turner, architecture or history, I highly recommend a visit.
- Sandycombe Lodge, 40 Sandycombe Road, Twickenham, TW1 2LR. Nearest station: St Margaret’s (trains from Waterloo, Vauxhall and Clapham Junction). Open Wed-Sun: 10am-1pm for self-guided visits, and 1pm-4pm for guided tours. Entry: Adults £6, Children (5-15yrs) £3, Under 5s free. For more information, visit the Turner’s House website.
Watch: Artist Ken Howard talking about his work and JMW Turner in his studio.
© Turner’s House Trust
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