Artistic License: JMW Turner & Place – Landscapes in Light & Detail - The Gloss Magazine
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Artistic License: JMW Turner & Place – Landscapes in Light & Detail


2021 marks the 120th anniversary of the Vaughan bequest in which 31 watercolours and drawings by Turner are displayed at the National Gallery of Ireland. This year the online exhibition is shown alongside rare Irish topographical drawings by Francis Place. Curator Niamh McNally tells us more about the annual exhibition and why she chose to unite the two artists’ work …

Firstly can you tell us about Francis Place, who visited Ireland in 1698, and this particular collection of drawings?

The artist and collector Francis Place (1647–1728) was born into a landowning family in Dinsdale, Co Durham, yet lived most of his life in York. Apprenticed to study law in London he left on account of the plague to become an artist. Largely self-taught, he was a friend of the celebrated etcher Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677). He visited Ireland in the summer of 1698, making panoramic studies of settlements in the east and southeast of the country. Landing at the port of Drogheda, he continued south to Dublin, Castledermot and Kilkenny before sailing home from Waterford sometime in 1699. Place’s drawings are among the earliest known accurate recordings of the Irish landscape. Their importance lies in the fact that so few visual records from that time exist today. The Gallery’s collection of 19 Irish views formed part of a large group of works owned by Place’s descendants until 1931, when they were sold at Sotheby’s. At that time the drawings were bought by the antiquarian John Maher, who published two papers on them in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (Maher, 1932, 1934). When the drawings reappeared on the market in 1972 the Gallery purchased them for £19,500 through the Shaw Fund. The high price paid at the time reflects their rarity and historical value.

Francis Place (1647-1728) Dublin from Phoenix Park, 1698 Photo © National Gallery of Ireland 

What do Francis Place’s drawings tell us about 17th-century Ireland?

Place’s drawings offer the viewer a rare glimpse of 17th-century Ireland. Recording the transition from medieval to modern times, his carefully observed landscape studies contribute significantly to the topographical history of the cities and towns he depicted. Historians have suggested that Place intended to make a set of engravings from these Irish views but this was never carried out. Unlike Place, JMW Turner (1775–1851) never visited Ireland, although a view of Clontarf Castle by him, probably after a sketch by another artist, exists in a private collection. Visitors to the exhibition will marvel at the level of detail in Place’s expansive vistas, and will see bridges, buildings and fortifications that are no longer in existence today. Place’s views, the earliest known depictions of Drogheda, Dublin, Kilkenny, and Waterford, provide an insight into how these places actually appeared in the 17th century.

Francis Place (1647-1728) Kilkenny Castle and City from Wind Gap Hill, c.1699 Photo © National Gallery of Ireland 

What was the inspiration between uniting Place and Turner’s works in this exhibition?

This year, I chose to display the Gallery’s exquisite collection of 31 light-filled watercolours by Turner alongside Place’s 19 detailed drawings, which were purchased almost 50 years ago. This is the first time that these two important collections have been brought together, and the first time since 1972 that Place’s drawings have been displayed as a group. The exhibition showcases the work of two prominent English artists who viewed the landscape at first hand, albeit with radically different results. The jewel-like colours and experimental effects in Turner’s luminous watercolours are captivating, while the precise detailing in Place’s prospects, executed in ink and wash, encourages close inspection, with the aim of identifying what has changed, or indeed stayed the same, over time. The exhibition also highlights the importance of two key benefactors – Henry Vaughan (1809–1899) and George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) – who both made lasting contributions to the Gallery.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) A River in the Campagna, near Rome, 1794/1797 Photo © National Gallery of Ireland 

Of the Turner works – which resonates with you most?

My favourite watercolour in the exhibition from the artist’s late period is The Doge’s Palace and Piazzetta, Venice, c.1840. 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. The Vaughan Bequest at the National Gallery of Ireland comprises three of these highly atmospheric Venetian scenes.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) Bellinzona, Switzerland, with the Fortresses of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, 1842 

This year is an anniversary year of the Vaughan bequest, can you tell us about this collection and why it holds so much appeal for visitors to the Gallery?

In 1900, the National Gallery of Ireland received a bequest of 31 watercolours and drawings by Turner from the English collector Henry Vaughan. In his will, Vaughan divided his collection of Turner watercolours between the national galleries in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, stipulating that they be exhibited every year, free of charge, for the month of January. 2021 marks the 120th anniversary of this celebrated annual exhibition, the works having been displayed for the first time in Dublin in January 1901. The Gallery’s Turner exhibition has become an annual event in many people’s cultural calendar. In the heart of winter, these evocative watercolours light up the darkness. Taking time to contemplate this stunning collection is a great way to usher in the new year. Pouring over the various evocative sketches, from Turner’s annual tours of Switzerland and Italy, can almost transport you there. The works also reveal what a truly influential and innovative artist Turner was, having revolutionised the watercolour technique and reinvented the way landscape is depicted. 

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) Below Arvier, looking down the Val d’Aosta towards Mont Emilius, 1836 Photo © National Gallery of Ireland 

Need to Know: Individual works by Turner and Place are all documented digitally in the National Gallery’s online collection There will be a series of pop-up talks starting this Thursday January 14 when Curator Niamh MacNally will give an illustrated online talk Turner & Place: Landscapes in Light and Detail, this Thursday, January 14 from 6pm – 7pm, via Zoom, €5;


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