Niamh MacNally, Curator of the Prints & Drawings Study Room, tells us more about the new exhibition “JMW Turner: The Visionary” currently on at the National Gallery of Ireland, which she co-curated with Adrian LeHarivel.
Can you remind us of the significance of the Vaughan Bequest and why he chose January for this particular exhibition?
In 1900, the National Gallery of Ireland received a bequest of 31 watercolours and drawings by JMW Turner (1775–1851) from the English collector Henry Vaughan (1809–99). 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 in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, stipulating that they be exhibited every year, free of charge, for the full month of January, when the light is at its weakest. Since 1901, the Gallery has upheld this tradition, which ensures that this exquisite collection of watercolours remains in pristine condition. The Vaughan Bequest at the National Gallery of Ireland is a representative collection of Turner’s work on paper. Highly finished works, engraved for various print series, hang alongside evocative sketches from his annual tours of Switzerland and Italy. This collection, tracing the artist’s development, reveals his pioneering style and life-long enthusiasm for landscape. In the heart of winter, Turner’s luminous watercolours light up the darkness. This exhibition is like an annual pilgrimage for many of our visitors, while many others are being introduced to it for the first time. Visiting this exhibition is a great way to both mark the start of a new year and enjoy a much-loved artist who excelled at capturing diverse weather effects and various locations in his homeland, and further afield.
Why was Turner such a visionary?
Turner’s watercolours chart a development from studied 18th-century technique to a more personal treatment of nature. They reveal his interest in recording the world around him and responding to light and atmosphere. His mature work offers a vision that can still transport the viewer. Turner emancipated the watercolour technique, employing various experimental effects. Such innovative techniques are imitated by artists to this day. Turner’s impact on artists who followed in his footsteps is evident in the diverse range of works on display in this year’s exhibition. These works not only reveal his influence, but the continued evolution of the watercolour technique itself. Turner’s revolutionary approach to landscape and exploratory methods continue to mesmerise all those who engage with his work.
Can you tell us a little about the artists whose works are displayed alongside those of Turner?
This year the Gallery’s Vaughan Bequest of Turner watercolours is complemented by 23 works by artists who were inspired by him. The majority of these works, also from the Gallery’s collection, are either relatively unknown or recently acquired. This exhibition presents a real opportunity to view some stunning watercolours by William Leech (1881–1968), Evie Hone (1894–1955), Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). Some recent acquisitions by Basil Blackshaw (1932–2016) and the leading Welsh artist Kyffin Williams (1918–2006) are also included.
Can you tell me if you have any favourite artworks in the exhibition?
There are some outstanding works in this year’s display, an example being Cézanne’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire from Les Lauves, near Aix-en-Provence of 1902/04, presented to the National Gallery of Ireland by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty in 1954. Cézanne’s ability to conjure form and a sense of light, from what appear to be random brushstrokes of pure colour, shows how he built on Turner’s legacy. As with Turner’s Swiss lakes or Rhine castles, Montagne Sainte-Victoire became an absorbing subject for Cézanne. However, unlike Turner, he didn’t travel far to capture it, as it could be seen from his studio-home, on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence. The white paper support plays a key role in the overall effect of this watercolour, as is often the case in Turner’s work.
Another highlight for me is Emily Sargent’s The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Emily Sargent (1857–1936) lived in the shadow of her famous brother John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), yet she was an accomplished watercolourist, who may in fact have influenced him. Like Turner, she adopted a loose technique. Her travels took her to the Old City of Jerusalem, where she captured one of its most famous sights, The Wailing Wall, a place of prayer and pilgrimage sacred to the Jewish people. I’d also like to mention Boats on a River by Frances Hodgkins (1869–1947). Hodgkins came from a traditional artistic background in New Zealand. From 1910 she taught in Paris at Colarossi’s Academy, and opened her own watercolour school. She travelled extensively, and established her artistic reputation in Britain. The work in this year’s display represents her later watercolour style, using simplified forms for greater expressiveness. Turner would have appreciated the aqueous effects she achieved through the application of extremely dilute colour, as he himself was known to soak his papers in buckets of water. There really are a lot of works to enjoy so do take the time to drop by the exhibition as it only runs until January 31!
Need to Know: “Turner: The Visionary”, co-curated by Niamh MacNally and Adrian LeHarivel is on until January 31 in the Print Gallery of the National Gallery of Ireland. Admission is free; www.nationalgallery.ie