This time of year I would be looking forward to visiting the annual Turner exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland. Not this year of course, with the coronavirus rampant. Last year I wrote the essay below, which was published in the Senior Times magazine and I offer it to those who admire Turner’s work and, like me, feel singularly disappointed that they cannot meet him again this year. The paintings / drawings mentioned in the essay are exquisitely reproduced in the the Gallery’s publication, The Works of J.M.W Turner at the National Gallery of Ireland (above), compiled by Anne Hodge and Niamh Mac Nally, and available from the Gallery. Give yourself an excellent New Year’s present! Also, please have a look the gallery website at https://www.nationalgallery.ie for great information and talks on its paintings,, including Turner.
My thanks to the National Gallery of Ireland and to the National Portrait Gallery, London, for permission to reproduce some of Turner’s works.
Time Again for Turner
January again and it’s time to view the Turner watercolours and drawings at the National Gallery of Ireland. Susceptibility to damage caused by exposure to too much light means that they are kept under wraps for the rest of the year and so a visit to view them has become something of a ceremony, almost akin to the journey people make to Newgrange for the solstice. It is an event that marks the opening chapter of a new year still in its infancy and that has yet to reveal its epiphanies and pitfalls.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was an enthusiastic traveller, fascinated by the natural world wherever he happened to be – Wales, the Lake District, Scotland, Europe. Unfortunately, he never visited Ireland and one can only regret that he did not furnish himself with subjects from our own wonderful landscapes. There does exist a watercolour of Clontarf Castle (not in the exhibition) which was probably worked up from someone else’s sketch and is evidence of Turner’s skill at working from a previous drawing, an expertise he refined over the years and which allowed him to capture a scene in situ in a sketch book for later development. In an age before photography and smart phones this method of working was a valuable skill and one used by many a predecessor. The Gallery holds a rich collection of his outlines and drawings and they provide a fascinating insight into his ways of working.
This Turner collection arrived in Dublin by way of bequests from a number of English well-to-do collectors, among them Henry Vaughan (1809-99) who inherited a large fortune from his father, a successful Southwark hat manufacturer. British museums and galleries acquired most of his collection, but he left 31 watercolours to the National Gallery of Ireland, stipulating that they ‘be exhibited to the public all at one time during the month of January in every year’ and that they should otherwise be kept in the specially-built cabinet which he provided. There followed many other contributors of prints and watercolours, such as those from the print dealer and art collector William Smith (1888-76) who gave over 50 works to the Gallery in 1872.
Mere descriptions of the works on display do them little justice. Nevertheless, one can single out a few that are personal favourites, if only for the pleasure of writing about them and drawing attention to them, and even these ‘favourites’ are constantly displaced on successive viewings. This continual process of ‘displacement’ attests to the imperceptible changes which occur in one’s own psyche over the years. Pictures that seemed most striking at one time give way to others as the course of life brings new concerns, attitudes and insights. As is the case with all great artists, Turner’s works keep up with us and our changes, and always seem enough ahead of us to satisfy the same, but different, individual who walks into the Gallery’s print room every new January, having experienced one more year of excursions and alarms (and, hopefully, some happinesses!).
People and their occupations were always part of Turner’s artistic concerns. ‘Fishing Boats at Folkstone Beach, Kent’ (c. 1826-27) exhibits all his professionalism as a keen observer of workers and their working days. Developed from a previous sketch, it shows figures engrossed in gathering fish and cleaning nets. The delicacy of his treatment of the people and the landscape is at one with the tranquillity of the scene, while never downplaying the arduous nature of their labour.
‘Clovelly Bay, North Devon’ (c.1822) is another watercolour which captures a similarly quiet mood. Again, although the coastal backdrop of rock and sea and cloud takes up most of this watercolour – and is a harbinger of the great sky canvases to come later in his life – it is the daily life of the people and their work at this quarry that takes our interest. And their animals too: see those donkeys waiting patiently while being loaded.
In contrast is the detailed wash ‘The Great Fall of the Reichenbach’ from his first visit to mainland Europe in 1802. There are no figures here and if we are to speak of delicacy, we are speaking of technique rather than subject matter. Here is raw power, majestic and – subliminally – threatening. One can almost hear the roar of the deluge as it plunges down the mountain slopes, recalling something of the vision of his almost exact contemporary, the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who often wrote of the threat hidden in the beauty of nature (‘the ghostly language of the ancient earth’). It really is a fascinating work and forms the basis for the finished watercolour, now in the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery in Bedford (UK).
It is for this depiction of raw natural power and our relation to it that Turner is perhaps most famous. In our National Gallery we do not have paintings like ‘The Battle of Trafalgar’ (Greenwich Museum) or his wonderful ‘Calais Pier’ (National Gallery, London), with their extraordinary convulsions of earth and sky and water. However, in the Dublin collection we do have the seedbed of these great works. ‘A Ship against the Mew Stone, at the Entrance to Plymouth Sound’ (c.1814), (see above at the head of this post) foreshadows magnificent works such as ‘Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth’, painted some 28 years later, and now in London’s Tate Gallery. All the power and cataclysmic force of the natural world depicted in these great later canvases are present in Dublin’s ’Mew Stone’ picture. Such waves! Such louring clouds! And a ship that must look quite sturdy when viewed in dock or on calm seas, but when caught up in the merciless force of nature … such fragility! Again, the extraordinary brushwork and the grey-blue vault of the warring skies can even trick us into imagining that we can actually hear the noise of the storm.
On viewing these sketches and watercolours, many of them depicting high drama or pervaded by an atmospheric mistiness, it is always a surprise to come upon a watercolour like ‘Sunset over Petworth Park’ (c.1828). This work is one of a number executed at the invitation of a wealthy friend who allowed Turner to set up a studio in his country home. The artist’s interest here is to make a record for future working and there is no inclusion of people or animals. The result is an unrestrained concentration on the setting sun and the riot of colour it creates in the clouds above. It is a wonderful piece on its own account but is also one that looks ahead to the later Turner and the extraordinary works he was to execute, works in which it was the natural forces that surround mankind, rather than man himself, that would fascinate him.
Many of the later works were not received well at the time of their creation and there was even a rumour that the aging artist must have been slipping into some kind of mental instability. His extraordinary ‘Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway’ (1840: Tate Gallery, London) remained unsold during his lifetime. Rather like Wordsworth with his revolutionary ‘Lyrical Ballads’ (published with Coleridge in 1798), Turner was an innovator who broke with prevailing practices. He was ahead of his time, as all great artists are.
The fact that he derived much of his technique from his watercolour practice also did him no favours with his contemporaries. There was the view that watercolours were all very well in their own charming way but were essentially inferior to oils. In his later work Turner, the consummate watercolourist, is often clearly discernible behind Turner the oil-painter. Techniques he developed in wash he was to put to good use in oils, so much so that some of his later paintings were described in his lifetime as incomprehensible.
There is no doubt but that in many of the pictures on display the artist is laying the groundwork for the bigger, more developed canvases of later. For instance, the ‘Sketch by Turner’, which arrived in the Gallery in 1904, is an early drawing that would later become his much more detailed watercolour of the picturesque German town of Bacharach (c.1841-45), a work now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Similarly, his depictions of Venice look forward to later great works.
However, in maintaining that these pictures are ‘forerunners’ of his more developed works and that they are mere early indications of his genius, it should not be thought that they are in any way the lesser on that account. They are, all of them, works of art in their own right – and not just because they are by Turner, although this is always a consideration: there is often a glimmer of an artist’s genius in the most seemingly trivial piece from his or her hand. (There is the story that Picasso once employed a workman to do some renovations on his house and, in order to help him, quickly made out some rough sketches of what he wanted done. When the work was finished, Picasso asked how much he had to pay. The workman is reported to have told him that he did not want any payment as long as he could keep the sketches.)
This collection is a wonderful resource for any young and aspiring artists, and for those of us who are no longer young and whose aspirations are by now become … aspirational! It is a yearly reminder of a great artist’s achievements, even before he had risen to his subsequent greatness. And if you missed this year’s exhibition, you should now immediately put it in your diary for January next.
Revised version of an essay first published in ‘Senior Times’ magazine, January 2020