Turner, the painter of light

In 1900 Henry Vaughan bequeathed a number of pictures to the National Gallery of Ireland. These watercolour paintings and drawings are one of the finest collections of works by JMW Turner ever assembled. Turner belongs to a class of artists whose work grows steadily more significant as each new generation comes to recognise his genius. Every year the Turners of the Henry Vaughan collection are given a special showing and on 1 January 2007 the latest of these exhibitions, Turner and the Traditionalists, will open, introducing audiences to the dramatic beauty of this magisterial, aesthetic craftsman.


Turner achieved the singular feat of creating artworks that won both public and critical acclaim. Whether they responded to his/images/village/people/copley.jpg virtuoso use of colour or his personal vision, it is impossible to be left untouched by a Turner painting. The breathtaking range of visual experiments that he attempted in his career captivate the imagination. Turner had the artistic freedom to change painting styles, moving from traditional views to bold, impressionistic ones. His protean sensibility constantly re-interpreted the world. To study him is to search for the countless artists his mind contained.Joseph Mallord William Turner  was born in Covent Garden, London on 23 April 1775 and his early years were filled with strife. His father, William, ran an unsuccessful barber shop and Mary Marshall, his mother, became mentally unstable and was committed to an asylum. Taught to read by his father, Turner received no education until he entered the Royal Academy of Art in 1789 at the age of 16. He decided early on to become an artist and sold his early drawings from his father's shop.

Within a year of entering the academy he had exhibited his first work.After establishing a formidable reputation as a painter of landscapes and seascapes, Turner travelled to the Continent in 1802, sketching regions of France and Switzerland. On his return he converted a house on Harley Street into a gallery. Turner grew increasingly bored with the realistic images and began to develop innovative techniques. Fantastical, allegorical works representing the destructive power of nature, such as ‘Hannibal Crossing the Alps', were produced during this period. Later Turner began to spend more of his time abroad, particularly in Venice, which inspired some of his most sublime works.

By nature a solitary individual, Turner drifted into depression after the death of his beloved father. Out of this sadness came the sublime ‘light pictures' on which his fame rests. Turner no longer considered exact reproduction to be the true endeavour of the artist. As he said, “My job is to draw what I see, not what I know.” In paintings like ‘The Fighting Temeraire' and ‘The Slave Ship', Turner becomes the composer of a visual symphony.

The pictures are stunning displays of raw energy that at times verge on the hallucinogenic. In 1851 Turner's health failed and he passed away. His last words were, “It is through these eyes, closed forever at the bottom of the tomb, that generations as yet unborn will see nature.”Turner and the Traditionalists at the National Gallery offers an opportunity to compare the gallery's Turners with some of the artists who continued in more traditional methods while occasionally adopting some of his innovations. Treated thematically, the exhibition will consider aspects such as the impact of the Royal Academy, Turner's aspirations as an illustrator and landscapist and his influence on his contemporaries. Included in the display will be works by Edward Dayes, Copley Fielding, William Alexander and Nicholas Pocock. 

Edward O'Hare

More Turner and the Traditionalists will be on show at the Print Gallery of the National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Square West & Clare St, Dublin 2 from 1-31 January. www.nationalgallery.ie, 01 6615133. Admission free