An eagerly anticipated annual event in the art world, January brings the watercolours of genius painter JMW Turner to the National Gallery
One of the world’s most famous artists, JMW Turner (the initials stand for Joseph Mallord William), made paintings that showed nature at its most beautiful, whether coolly calm, or wild and exciting. Painting at the turn of the nineteenth century, he also travelled the world, beguiled by how light plays across ancient ruins, mountains and stormy seas, as well as the new industrial landscapes of his age.
For many modern art lovers, the details of Turner’s life came as a surprise, with the release of Mike Leigh’s 2014 award winning film Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall in the title role. But he was a fascinating figure. The same man who frequented country houses, dens of iniquity, and had himself strapped to the mast of a ship so that he could paint a storm, has been both celebrated and reviled over the years – although that’s frequently the case with true geniuses, in life as well as in art.
He was passionate and uncompromising too. One of his favourite colours, a rich red, was known to fade with time. The art critic John Ruskin remarked that “no picture of Turner’s is seen in perfection a month after it is painted”, but Turner didn’t care, if he could see what was in his mind’s eye, on canvas or paper, just for a moment or two, it was enough for him.
When colour maker William Winsor, of Winsor and Newton fame, took him to task, Turner simply replied: “your business, Winsor, is to make colours. Mine is to use them.” While some of Turner’s colours have faded, a special bequest to our own National Gallery preserves some of his most miraculous works in near-perfect condition.
The 31 watercolours that make up the Vaughan Bequest (named for the English art collector, Henry Vaughan who donated them), go on show for just one month each year. Vaughan was so concerned about the possibility of his precious works fading, that it was a condition of his Will that they be shown only during January, when natural light is at its lowest.
Times have moved on, and art museums can now filter light, but the National Gallery of Ireland keeps up the lovely legacy, just as they have done every year since 1901, and it’s just one more of those things that make Dublin in January a very special place to be. This year’s exhibition, Good Morning Mister Turner, shows the wonderfully luminous watercolours alongside new works by Irish artist Niall Naessens until January 31st. There’s even a screening of Mr Turner on January 25th at the Gallery. See nationalgallery.ie for times and further information.