1 year ago

Artistic Licence: JMW Turner


“Turner – The Vaughan Bequest” at the NATIONAL GALLERY OF IRELAND is an annual event in many Dubliners’ cultural calendar. In the heart of winter, Turner’s luminous watercolours light up the darkness, delighting visitors for the month of January …

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), A Shipwreck off Hastings, c.1825. Image © National Gallery of Ireland

Curator Niamh MacNally believes that taking time to contemplate this collection is a great way to usher in the new year and also show what an influential and innovative artist Turner was, having revolutionised the watercolour medium and reinvented the way landscape is depicted. MacNally tells us more about the exhibition …


Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Bellinzona, Switzerland, with the Fortresses of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, 1842. Image © National Gallery of Ireland

What is the focus of this year’s exhibition?

The focus of this year’s exhibition is our prized collection of Turner watercolours from the Vaughan Bequest. In 1900, the National Gallery of Ireland received an unexpected bequest of 31 watercolours and drawings by JMW Turner from an English collector Henry Vaughan. The works arrived in September 1900 in a custom-made oak cabinet and were exhibited for the first time in Dublin in January 1901. In his will, Vaughan divided his collection of Turner watercolours between the national galleries of London, Edinburgh and Dublin, stipulating that they be exhibited every year, free of charge, for the full month of January. To this day, the Gallery upholds the conditions of his bequest. The Vaughan Bequest at the National Gallery of Ireland is very much a representative collection of Turner’s work on paper. Highly finished works, engraved for various print series, are shown alongside evocative sketches from his annual tours of Switzerland and Italy. This collection, tracing the artist’s development, reveals both his experimental style and enthusiasm for landscape.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Le Pont du Château, Luxembourg, 1839. Image © National Gallery of Ireland

Who was Henry Vaughan?

Henry Vaughan was born in Southwark, London in 1809. His father, a wealthy hat manufacturer, died in 1828 leaving his only son a great fortune. This inheritance allowed Vaughan to travel and he became a cultivated art collector, acquiring numerous works by British and European artists. Vaughan was greatly influenced by the leading English art critic John Ruskin (1819 – 1900), who wrote widely about the damaging effects of light on watercolours. Vaughan had special wooden cabinets with removable frames made to house his collection of watercolours so that when they were not on display they were protected from the light. This year I have included the Vaughan Bequest cabinet in the display, which shows the visitor how the Turner watercolours are stored when not on exhibit in January.


How is this year’s exhibition different?

Together with the Turner watercolours, a selection of prints from the artist’s Liber Studiorum series are on display. In 1807 Turner embarked on his most important publishing venture, the Liber Studiorum or “drawing book”. The series of 71 prints was divided into landscape categories including Architectural, Historical, Marine, Mountainous, Pastoral and Epic Pastoral. It was Claude Lorrain’s (1604/05 – 1682) Liber Veritatis or “book of truth” which inspired Turner to begin his own ambitious print project. Claude’s book of drawings was conceived as a record of his landscape paintings, to prevent forgery. In contrast, Turner’s Liber Studiorum was a set of original compositions aimed at elevating the status of landscape art. As prints they were accessible to a wider audience and served as an effective advertisement for Turner’s work. In 1903, the Irish-born clergyman Stopford Augustus Brooke (1832 – 1916) presented the National Gallery of Ireland with a complete set of Liber Studiorum prints.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Storm at the Mouth of the Grand Canal, Venice, c.1840. Image © National Gallery of Ireland

What are your favourite works in the exhibition?

Two of my favourite watercolours in the exhibition from the artist’s late period are Storm at the Mouth of the Grand Canal, Venice, c1840 and The Doge’s Palace and Piazzetta, Venice, c1840. Venice held a special fascination for Turner. In addition to scores of pencil sketches and oil paintings, he produced some 170 watercolours of this magical city, nine of which were once owned by Henry Vaughan (1809 – 1899). Three of Turner’s Venetian watercolours now form part of the Vaughan Bequest at the National Gallery of Ireland. I also chose to highlight these particular Venetian views for the exhibition signage as they tie in nicely with another spectacular exhibition “Canaletto and the Art of Venice”, which runs at the Gallery until March 24.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), The Doge’s Palace and Piazzetta, Venice, c.1840. Image © National Gallery of Ireland

What is the programme planned around the exhibition?

The Education team has devised an excellent programme of events to complement the Turner exhibition. This includes a series of pop-up talks and lectures related to Turner and his work, along with drawing and painting courses, and drop-in family workshops.   Many of these events are free and require no booking.

Need to Know: “Turner – The Vaughan Bequest” exhibition, curated by Niamh MacNally runs until January 31 at National Gallery of Ireland; www.nationalgallery.ie.

Penny McCormick

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