Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Turner: the Vaughen Bequest

My hugely talented friend Aileen Blaney allowed me to post this here. Read a review of Turner's watercolours that were recently on show at the National Gallery, Dublin,.

Image from National Gallery, Dublin

In the year 1900, the Vaughen Bequest of Turner watercolors was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Ireland. Henry Vaughen, son of a prosperous hat maker who left him a sizable fortune, was a curator in the oldest sense of the word embodying as he did a caretaker of artworks under his watch. Vaughen took care of his prized Turner collection in death as he did in life. In his bequest he stipulated that the watercolors be shown only during the sun starved month of January, safeguarding them from the corrosive effects of sunlight. And so it came to pass in the 100 and more Januarys since, in a room in the National Gallery in Dublin, the Vaughen Bequest has been brightening up winter’s darkest month.

Ironically, Turner’s predilection for extreme weather conditions is being mirrored in scenes unfolding over the last few weeks along North Atlantic seaboards. Red alert weather warnings for Ireland have been accurately forecasting 150km/h winds, unprecedented rainfall and tidal surges that are sundering promenades, spewing up the sea’s organic and calcified innards onto coastal roads, and submerging low-lying car parks. And yet on the coat tails of Christmas and New Year’s Atlantic storms are the coral hues of munificent sunsets and skies splashed with generous vaults of blue. Only the 19th Century great masters committed to a life soldered to a sketchpad and paintbrush could hope to approximate the elements’ aesthetic imprint on the earth’s land and water bodies. Walking through a chronological arrangement of Turner’s landscapes and seafaring scenes, I could not but see a progression from art imitating life to that of art’s ability to transform the subject, noticeably achieved in Turner’s more impressionistically styled mid-to-late career works. So successful he was in this entreprise that it is not unusual to hear it said that a sunset is reminiscent of a Turner and not vice versa.

Depictions of transient weather conditions are what earned for Turner the attention of art collectors in his own lifetime. In his hands watercolors become the accelerating wind gusts that send an afternoon squall whirling through Val d’Aosta, a valley in the Swiss Alps and reference point for two of the works on display. Colour and tonality paint the alpine weather more so than the landscape into existence - inclement conditions are represented in contrasting ochre, umber and grey washes of colour. The timelessness of these watercolors is in their beauty and enhanced by the context of viewing them at a moment in history of heightened anxieties surrounding a perceived increase in hurricane activity. A scene set in the estuary at Plymouth depicts a navy blue and black sky bearing down on a ship precariously unsteadied by steep crested white waves, spelling doom for the crew. Among other achievements these watercolors are commanding reminders of the vulnerability of human life in situations that can be neither exploited nor controlled for man’s own ends.

Many of the works in this January’s Turner exhibition were sketched on European tours undertaken by the painter in the company of wealthy art collectors and landowners. A respite in the Napoleonic wars in 1802 provided the first opportunity to embark on one of these expeditions. Venice, the Lake of Lucerne, Reichenbach Falls, the Swiss, German and Austrian Alps and the Rhineland were all scenic stops visited by Turner and his entourages, each location in turn giving him cause to fill a sketchpad with the outlines of later masterpieces. Turner would generate a prodigious volume of drawings on these European tours, the impulse to draw everything that drew his eye having a contemporary counterpoint in the volume of images taken on digital cameras and phones by holiday makers to photogenic locations around the world.

Unsurprisingly, during a Venetian tour in 1840, Turner was pulled into the city’s thrall. In The Doge's Palace and Piazzetta, bragozzi and other Venetian watercraft sit aloft an aqua marine lagoon mirroring the waterfront’s elegant buildings. A pen dipped in red watercolor gives the reflection of Doges Palace the rosy red of its concrete double. By the end of the 19th century, the inauguration of the Venice Biennale meant that the city would no longer be the giddy discovery of artists and adventurers, rapidly becoming one of the main satellites of the art market. In 2013, 475,000 visitors attended the biennale, among them many collectors. However, their investments are firmly in the artworks. Each January, the National Gallery reminds us of a bygone era when collectors invested themselves in the preoccupations of the artists, following them through high mountain passes, rising at dawn to see the sun rise over Venice and watching mists descend on valley lakes.

--- Aileen Blaney

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