A Ship against the Mew Stone, at the Entrance to Plymouth Sound
Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

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.

Photo (c) The National Portrait Gallery, London

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!).

Fishing Boats at Folkstone Beach, Kent
Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

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
Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

‘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.

The Great Fall of the Reichenbach
Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

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.

Sunset over Petworth Park
Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland

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.

Eamonn Lynskey

Revised version of an essay first published in ‘Senior Times’ magazine, January 2020

The Nathaniel Hones, the Caryatids and the Elgin Marbles

Nathaniel Hone’s Caryatids (detail)

During the Good Old Days before Covid19 put a halt to our gallops I attended an exhibition of Nathaniel Hone’s paintings at our National Gallery of Ireland. Nathaniel (1831-1917) was a scion of that Hone family that includes his great grand uncle, the painter, Nathaniel Hone the Elder (1718-1784), and the painter and stained-glass artist Evie Hone (1894-1955). Among the younger Nathaniel’s paintings on show, all of them very engaging, one in particular caught my attention: a Greek landscape featuring the famous Erechtheion with its six female figures (the ‘caryatids’) supporting its entablature overhead.

The artist does a fine job in showing the monument in all its ruined beauty. It is indeed a wonderful artifact and makes a compelling subject for any artist, and especially one as accomplished as Hone in conjuring up the beauty of classical Greece.  But it was the gallery note beside the picture that arrested my attention almost as much as the painting. It informed me that although Hone had painted six figures, only five were in situ by the time he arrived in Greece. One can only assume that, as an artist, his sensibilities would not allow him to break the symmetry of the classical design and so perhaps that was the reason why he performed this sleight of brush.

Lord Elgin (1766 – 1841)

But what happened to the missing caryatid? Subsequent excursions on Wikipedia (long may its name be praised!) told me that she had ended up as an ornament in the garden of the Scottish Lord Elgin, having been ‘appropriated’ by him in 1801, the year that he had his men hack off half the frieze from the nearby Parthenon.  He claimed he had received permission but that is seriously in doubt. Subsequently he sold the pieces to Great Britain and they were deposited in the British Museum where they have been on show ever since as ‘The Elgin Marbles’.

The ‘Elgin’ Marbles in the British Museum

It is argued that Elgin did us all a favour in removing these ancient artifacts, thereby saving them from the ravages of erosion. Certainly it is true that they had suffered from the weathering of 2500 years. There is also the sad fact that some stonework from the Parthenon and the monument complex around it had been carted away as building material over the long years. The site was indeed in an increasingly perilous physical condition by 1801. However, since Greece has now the ways and means of overcoming these difficulties there should be no refusal to its request (made many times) that these important cultural artefacts be returned to where they belong. Furthermore, the contention that Elgin was primarily concerned about the physical state of these architectural treasures wears thin when we consider that he attempted to remove a second caryatid and, when technical difficulties arose, tried to saw it in pieces. The statue was smashed in the process and its fragments scattered. It was later restored by the Greek authorities.

Elgin’s dreadful act remains one of the most iconic examples of imperial rapaciousness, but is only one in a sad litany. I was stunned when I saw the great ornamental urns in Beijing’s Forbidden City still bearing the marks left by British occupying forces after they had scraped off the gold coating. In fairness, I should add that the British were not alone in having engaged in ‘cultural vandalism’. Think of the depredations inflicted on the Inca temples by the Spanish. And as for the argument that ‘those times were different times, with different attitudes …’ – that ‘excuse’ does not lessen the horror.

But back to Nathaniel Hone. He was a member of a prominent Anglo-Irish family that arrived in Ireland with Cromwell and which over the centuries produced men and women gifted in several walks of life, including the production of fine artwork. But it was Nathaniel’s ancestor, Nathaniel Hone the Elder (1718-84), that came into my mind while I was viewing the caryatid painting. I hurried down to the Irish Rooms to view again his large canvas, ‘The Conjuror’, which he painted in London in 1775, during a period of intense rivalries in the art world (when was there ever a period without?).

The Conjurer, by Nathaniel Hone the Elder (detail)

‘The Conjuror’ depicts a figure resembling Sir Josuah Reynolds (1723-1792), the famous English portraitist, whom Nathaniel the Elder represents as pointing to prints resembling works by Michelangelo and other famous artists. It is a satirical picture and clearly implies that Reynolds was engaging in plagiarism, as its title suggests. It was a canvas that involved Hone the Elder in a good deal of controversy at the time, not least because by other careful inclusions he managed to cast aspersions on other aspects of Reynolds’ character.

It is obvious that the elder Nathanial was more than miffed at such apparent ‘borrowings’ from the works of others and wanted to make a point about people who might be stealing other people’s work. No doubt the younger Hone shared the strong disapproval of his ancestor in this matter, as would most artists. Perhaps he also may have felt instinctively that he should repair the damage done to the classical Greek monument by restoring the stolen caryatid, thereby rescuing something of its former splendour? An idle conjecture on my part I know, but one which I like to believe. It certainly presents a more pleasing picture than the thought of the Lord Elgin attempting to saw a second caryatid into sections for transport home to sell to the British Museum.

Eamonn Lynskey

Published in Senior Times magazine September 2020

This month’s Senior Times (Sept./Oc.t 2019) includes an essay from me on the subject of John Henry Cardinal Newman, which senior readers will remember from their Leaving Certificate days (back in the mists of time) as the author of essays such as ‘The Idea of a University’ which they studied diligently for their exam. Stirring stuff indeed, but an interesting man whose views on education I have increasingly identified with over the years. Next month (October) he will be canonised by the Roman Catholic Church.

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