Five things to know about Turner

A watercolour painting showing a purple mountain in front of a glowing yellow sky. On the water to the right of the mountain is a small boat.
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), The Dark Rigi: Sample Study, c.1841-1842. Photo © Tate.Credit

This January, we're lucky to have two wonderful exhibitions of artworks by the English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner on display here at the National Gallery of Ireland.

As well as our annual exhibition of his watercolours, Turner: The Henry Vaughan Bequest, you can also visit a very special exhibition called Turner: The Sun is God, which features almost 90 stunning artworks from Tate’s impressive collection, on display in Ireland for the first time.

Read on to discover five interesting facts about Turner and these exhibitions before you visit. Turner: The Henry Vaughan Bequest must close on 31 January, and Turner: The Sun is God will close a week later, on 6 February.

#1: Turner - the great Romantic landscape painter 

The artist was given the title ‘king of painting nature’ by many of his peers and contemporaries, and it was said of him that "in the glorious list of British Landscape Painters, the name of Turner stands as the acknowledged chief". Turner: The Sun is God delves into Turner’s obsession with nature and landscape painting, and examines how he captures the essence of nature with techniques that were ahead of his time. 

An oil painting of a landscape. In the right foreground, a clump of dark trees. Receding into the background, we can see a tall arched viaduct bridge.
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851),The Ponte Delle Torri, Spoleto, c.1840 - 1845. Photo © Tate.Credit

#2: Turner was alleged to have strapped himself to the mast of a ship for his art

"Turner claimed to have strapped himself to the mast of a ship in rough weather in order to experience, at first hand, a storm at sea. He went to such lengths in order to correctly render such weather conditions in his own work". While now widely regarded as myth, a visit to either exhibition will make it clear why this story has persisted for so long! Keep an eye out especially for the dramatic 'A Ship against the Mewstone, at the Entrance to Plymouth Sound' (below) in Turner: The Henry Vaughan Bequest, and 'Stormy Sea with a Blazing Wreck' in Turner: The Sun is God to understand how Turner skilfully captured the vast, humbling forces of nature in his art.

Stormy seascape painting with ship against a large rock and dark stormy clouds in the sky
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), A Ship against the Mewstone, at the Entrance to Plymouth Sound, c.1814. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.Credit

#3: You can spot some of the same views in both exhibitions!

To denote the different categories of landscape art, Turner created his famous Liber Studiorum (Book of Studies) print series. This series comprised original landscape compositions aimed at elevating the status of landscape art. As prints, they were more accessible to a wider public than his paintings, and therefore served as an highly effective advertisement for his work. A selection of Liber Studiorum prints in our annual exhibition, Turner: The Henry Vaughan Bequest, relate to original watercolour drawings in Turner: The Sun is God, including views of the St Gotthard Pass in Switzerland and the Ovidian subject 'Procris and Cephalus'. 

Why not visit both exhibitions and try to understand the similarities between some of the artworks, and what this tells us about his artistic process?

 Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Frontispiece to the Liber Studiorum. Image © National Gallery of Ireland
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Frontispiece to the Liber Studiorum. Image © National Gallery of IrelandCredit

#4: Turner the innovator!

Turner was something of a controversial figure during his lifetime. His work was often harshly criticised by artists and critics alike. His painting, 'The New Moon; or, 'I’ve lost My Boat, You shan’t have Your Hoop'' (on view in Turner: The Sun is God) was described in less than glowing terms. In 1840, The Times noted; "This new moon has the merit of being perfectly novel. It resembles no moon that has ever yet illuminated the heavens. The substance appears to be putty." At the time, the figures in the painting were also described disdainfully as 'lifeless'. 

However, today, more than 180 years later, Turner is regarded of one of Britain’s finest landscape artists. If you have visited either exhibition, how do you think these criticisms have stood the test of time?

A watercolour by J.M.W. Turner showing purple storm clouds at the mouth of the Grand Canal in Venice and a gondola in the foreground.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Storm at the Mouth of the Grand Canal, Venice, c.1840. Image National Gallery of IrelandCredit

#5: Our collection of Turner’s watercolours is only on display in January

Henry Vaughan was an art collector who wanted his collection to be seen and enjoyed by a wide audience, but he was also keen to follow best practice in terms of displaying and caring for his delicate collection of Turner watercolours. In his will, Vaughan stipulated that the 31 watercolours be given to the National Gallery of Ireland on condition that they be “exhibited to the public all at one time free of charge during the month of January in every year”.

The works arrived in Dublin in September 1900, in a custom-made wooden cabinet - which is on display in this year’s exhibition - and went on show in the Gallery for the first time in January 1901. Today, no trace of natural light can be seen in the Print Gallery – the space where the exhibition is shown - however, the Gallery continues to uphold the conditions of Vaughan’s bequest to display the artworks in January. Vaughan was very farsighted; due to the fact that our Turner watercolours haven't been overexposed to the damaging effects of light, they remain in pristine condition today, with vivid, glowing colours that mesmerise our viewers some 120 years on.   

Turner: The Sun is God is organised in cooperation with Tate.

The exhibition is proudly supported by Grant Thornton, Exhibition Partner.

The Gallery would like to thank the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media for their ongoing support.

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