Forgotten J.M.W. Turner Watercolor Discovered in an Attic

The painter, renowned for his atmospheric landscapes, created the sketch of Hampton Court Castle in England when he was about 21

J.M.W. Turner Watercolor sketch of Hampton Court
J.M.W. Turner created the sketch of Hampton Court Castle around 1796. Minster Auctions

​​A lost watercolor sketch by J.M.W. Turner, the celebrated English Romantic painter, has been found in an attic at Kinsham Court, a country estate in rural England.

Created in the late 18th century, the artwork depicts nearby Hampton Court Castle in Herefordshire. The 12.5- by 17-inch piece is expected to sell for between £30,000 and £50,000 ($38,000 and $63,000) at auction next month.

Born in 1775, Turner is renowned for his atmospheric and luminous landscape paintings. His experiments with color and light were ahead of their time, and his sprawling body of work served as a precursor to the Impressionist movement. Experts say the watercolor sketch, which will be sold by Minster Auctions on March 6, is consistent with his unique artistic style.

“[He] had all sorts of little idiosyncrasies about his technique—the way in which he drew the trees, for instance, the way he filled in the shadow, the way he put various combinations of animals together,” James Pearn, a specialist from Minster Auctions, tells BBC Hereford and Worcester’s Felicity Kvesic. “They’re quite comparable to other examples of his work at this time.”

The most expensive Turner piece is Rome, From Mount Aventine (1835), which sold for £30.3 million (roughly $47.5 million) at Sotheby’s London in 2014.

Turner painted the newly discovered watercolor around 1796. It was commissioned by Viscount Malden (later the Earl of Essex), who lived at Hampton Court. The artist was about 21 at the time, though by no means inexperienced: He had entered the Royal Academy at age 14 and started exhibiting his work not long after.

“Turner’s technique was evolving rapidly,” Pearn tells Adam Dutton of the South West News Service (SWNS). “His accomplished topographical views [attracted] an increasing number of aristocratic patrons eager to employ the artist in the portrayal of their country houses and estates.”

How did Turner’s sketch of Hampton Court end up in a Kinsham Court attic?

In the early 19th century, the inventor and industrialist Richard Arkwright purchased Hampton Court. The property remained in the family’s possession until the early 20th century, when they sold it and moved to Kinsham Court. They likely brought the painting along with them.

Arkwright’s descendants found the watercolor in Kinsham’s attic, where it had been “stuck amongst the middle” of other watercolors and hunting prints, which were “nothing very exciting, to be honest,” as Pearn tells BBC Hereford and Worcester. The family then handed the file to Pearn, who immediately identified it as a Turner sketch. He says that recognizing the Romantic master’s work was easy.

While the artwork is unsigned, Turner’s hand is evident “literally in the paint,” says Pearn. “The signature is in the style.”

Editor’s note, February 12, 2024: This story has been updated to clarify the details regarding the ownership of Hampton Court and Kinsham Court.

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