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The Turner Exhibition at The National Gallery

As the National Gallery exhibits their J. M. W. Turner collection, Lauren Moore looks at the annual outing of these famous paintings

The National Gallery of Ireland begins its New Year by exhibiting the Turner watercolour collection for the month of January. Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan in 1900, the stipulations of the bequest stated that the watercolours and drawings could only be displayed in the month of January, when the light was weakest, in order to prevent light damage to the paintings. Modern technology has rendered these stipulations obsolete but the gallery continues to adhere to the request none the less, creating a traditional New Year beginning for both the Gallery and for visitors.

The recent release of the 2014 film Mr.Turner , starring Timothy Spall, is bound to increase the amount of curious visitors, looking to discover for themselves the work of this romantic artist. What these visitors, and everyone else for that matter, will be greeted with is the exciting glimpse of a developing and a far reaching talent than that depicted in the film. We see the daring English painter who worked to elevate both landscape painting and the importance of the watercolour medium from an early age rather than the well known painter he became later in his life. It is also through looking at Turner’s watercolour and graphite pictures that one sees how his later oil paintings and larger works were informed and created.

Great examples of Turner’s early works are the beautifully detailed topographical scenes of Saint Albans Abbey, Hertfordshire and Shakespeare’s Cliff, Dover, (1794/1797). The delicate washes of paint show Turner’s skill at only needing to pick a few colours to render an atmospheric scene. The intricate drawings show great draughtsmanship, something that stays with Turner throughout his career even as his style became more fluid and impressionistic. We also see an early fascination with ships and seascapes in paintings such as Old Dover Harbour, Kent (1794/1797) which can also be seen to be developed in later works on display, with an increased interest in blowing winds and stormy seas.

The later paintings on display such as the Storm at the Mouth of the Grand Canal, Venice (1840), A Ship against the Mew Stone, at the entrance to Plymouth Sound (1814) are real gems as the stormy seas and atmospheric misty colours are iconic to Turner’s oeuvre. It is through these paintings that the viewer can see how Turner’s oil paintings are greatly influenced by the techniques of watercolours. Turner experimented and sketched with his watercolour medium before transferring the washes of colour and shimmering depictions of light to oils.

This year, due to refurbishment of the print room, the Turner collection is displayed in the main gallery among the European art collection. There are benefits to this placement, particularly as we see the original frames in which the pictures arrived in 1900 and the footfall has been increased. However, the print room will be missed when looking at these paintings as the main gallery does not give the same atmospheric intimacy of discovery and allow as close observation for the viewer.

Turner is a man who never ceased looking at the world around him and trying to capture it in paint. From sketching and painting his way through the romantic landscapes of Europe to capturing the both gentle and stormy coasts of England, Turner embraced the scenery and colours around him. He is often called a father of modern painting, inspiring generations of artists after him to capture the transient nature of colour and light. This collection, displaying a career of watercolours developing from his early years until the final years before his death, is a jewel of the National Gallery that is not be missed and a great start to the year for anyone with even a fleeting interest in art.