Turner in January: A Light in the Darkness: The Vaughan Bequest of Turner Watercolours
January is not just a time of year for resolutions, shivering in chilly mornings and wishing for spring. It is also the time for popping into the National Gallery of Ireland for the annual outing of the ‘Vaughan Bequest of Watercolours by J.M.W. Turner’ (1775-1851). Many of the paintings were done during Turner’s European travels, including exquisite views of Venice. Although despite this, one of my favourite scenes is a view of the Reichenbach Fall in Switzerland (1802), but that is partly due to it being the setting of a certain well known Sherlock Holmes adventure.
Henry Vaughan (1809-1899), an English art collector bequeathed thirty-one paintings to the National Gallery with the stipulation that they should only be shown in January when the light levels are lower to preserve the colours in the artworks. I have been to make my January visit to see Turner’s work for several years now, but I did not realise that Henry Vaughan had generously made gifts to other public collections too. This includes leaving thirty-eight watercolour Turners to the National Gallery of Scotland under exactly the same terms.
Vaughan may have been inspired to leave his Turners to public collections by the example of art critic John Ruskin (1819 -1890) who also had a collection of Turner’s work that he then willed to public galleries. Ruskin made bequests to Oxford and Cambridge while Tate Britain also holds twenty-three Turner watercolours from Vaughan’s collection (as well as Turner’s own bequest). Thus, it is possible to do a January Turner themed art gallery trip between three countries if the mood takes you. Good weather (fortunately) will not be a requirement for the jaunt.
Walter Armstrong was the director of the National Gallery of Ireland at the time and in 1902, he wrote of Vaughan’s bequest:
that in his will he stipulated that the collections left to the National Galleries of Scotland and Ireland should be publicly exhibited for only one month in each year, and that month January, perhaps the most sunless of the whole twelve.
At least there is some benefit to suffering cloudy winter days. Another condition of the bequest is that none of the artworks are ever to be sent anywhere on loan.
The NGI has been running a series of lectures to accompany the exhibition, the last of which will be held on 29th January at 3pm. Dr Philip McEvansoneya from TCD will talk on ‘Images of Europe in the work of Turner’. The exhibition runs until 31st January, Print Room, National Gallery; the paintings will then be safely stored away for the next eleven months. Catch them before that if you can and forget about the January chill for a while.