This beautiful work has only recently returned to view, having been in a private collection for many years. It is one of the finest of Turner's Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England, that long series of watercolours, intended for engraving, in which he refined his technique to a point at which he could compress a mass of visual ideas, and a wide range of information, into a small compass. As usual, he contrives to embody all the characteristics of the place in a single, wonderfully detailed view: the fishing town, the bathing spa, the fashionable resort, a medieval settlement lifted in the course of history to new heights of commercial and technical modernity.
Published as 'Brighthelmstone, Sussex', using the old name for Brighton, Turner's watercolour, engraved by George Cooke, was one of his last contributions to this great topographical publication (the
engraving is illustrated in Herrmann, op. cit. , pl. 73).
Picturesque Views of the Southern Coast of England was published by George and William Cooke, in sixteen parts between 1814 and 1826, Turner contributing 39 of the subjects. The first eleven parts were published by John Murray, the remainder by John and Arthur Arch; the scheme was left unfinished. (For the Southern Coast, see in particular, Shanes, 1981, passim, and Herrmann, op. cit., pp. 76-90.)
Brighton had already been the subject of an engraving in Part III of the Southern Coast series based on a drawing of the beach by Henry Edridge. The late inclusion of a second plate devoted to Brighton was almost certainly on account of the recent completion of a number of important building projects. Although Brighton had been a popular watering place from the mid-18th Century, it was the attention of the Prince Regent, who established his mistress Mrs Fitzherbert in the town, that stimulated developments such as the Pavilion, completed to the designs of John Nash as recently as 1823, and the Chain Pier, completed in 1823 to the designs of Captain (later Sir) Samuel Brown, R.N. at a cost of £30,000. Turner's patron Lord Egremont advanced £ 300 towards this project, and evidently felt sufficiently proprietorial towards it to have it included as a subject in the set of landscapes he commissioned Turner to paint for his carved dining-room at Petworth. That picture (M. Butlin and E. Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner,2nd ed., New Haven and London, 1984, 291) was probably executed at the end of the decade, shortly after Turner had stayed with John Nash at his home, East Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight.
It is the newly completed pier which is Turner's main focus in the present watercolour with a very clear view of the elegant suspension structure, with its panelled and pedimented pylons. Turner executed drawings relating to the Pier in the Brighton and Arundel sketchbook (TB CCX, pp. 31 & 32, see fig. 1), though most of the pencil drawings are general views along the coast from East and West or summary views of the buildings along the front with very little emphasis on the Pavilion. The commentary by William Cooke (Turner had suggested himself for the text of the Southern Coast but his original draft was unacceptable to the Cooke brothers) also concentrated on the pier, concluding 'the effect of this magnificent Pier on the eye, in its grace and lightness, induced many fears for its instability; but the very tempestuous winter of 1824-5, has fully proved its power of resistance.' The pier was, however, destroyed as a result of the great storm of 1896.
The 14th Century church of St. Nicholas can be seen on the hillside above the old town, with a windmill close by. A gun battery on the front to the left reveals the fact that Brighton, like other towns along the south coast, was on the front line during the Napoleonic Wars. Behind the pier on the right runs the Marine Parade, also under construction in the mid-1820s, as was what appears to be the Albion Hotel, the large building immediately to the left of the Pavilion; behind it, just to the right is the Duke of York's hotel, and along to the left the Prince of Wales's hotel.
Turner had already visited Brighton in about 1786 and his watercolour from that visit shows how very different the little port was in those days (Wilton, op. cit., p. 315, no. 147, illustrated: q.v. for other early works done along the coast near Brighton).
B. G. Windus (1790-1879), who owned this watercolour together with nineteen other examples painted for the Southern Coast project, probably owned more Turner watercolours than any other private collector; he also had works by other contemporary artists, in particular Stothard and Wilkie. A coachmaker by profession, Windus appears to have derived most of his fortune from 'Godfrey's Cordial', an opium-based throat cordial. He inherited a house at Tottenham Green, on the outskirts of London, adding several rooms including a library where he displayed most of his Turners, as depicted in a watercolour by John Scarlett Davis in the British Museum (illustrated in Whittingham, op. cit., p. 29, fig. 2). His collection, according to William Robinson, contained about seventy Turner watercolours; in 1841 he switched to collecting oil paintings. He was already selling parts of his collection before his death, becoming instead an important patron of the Pre-Raphaelites. Nevertheless an obituary of Turner, in the Gentleman's Magazine for February 1852, stated 'But it is at Mr. Windus's on Tottenham-Green that Turner is on his throne. There he may be studied, understood, and admired - not in half-a-dozen or twenty instances, but in scores upon scores of choice examples' (Whittingham, op. cit., p. 29, q.v. for Windus; see also T. Riggs, 'Windus, Benjamin Godfrey', in E. Joll, M. Butlin and L. Herrmann, The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford, 2001, pp. 386-7).
We are grateful to Andrew Wilton and Martin Butlin for their help in preparing this catalogue entry, to Desmond Seward for his help in identifying the topography and to Shona Milton of the Brighton History Centre, who drew our attention to J. Pigott-Smith's map of 1826.