Walking into the Print Room at the National Gallery of Ireland, Francis Place’s (1647-1728) drawings are incandescent against their navy backdrop. His eclectic collection of Irish scenery is exhibited in a series of 19, from when he spent time in Ireland in 1698. They are hung beside a room of 31 watercolours by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), gifted to the gallery in 1900 by Joseph Mallord Vaughan (1809-1899). The exhibition, Turner & Place: Landscapes in Light and Detail, curated by Niamh MacNally, is free admission for the whole month of January 2022. It runs from the 1st to the 30th, and was made possible in Vaughan’s will, which stated that the watercolours should be exhibited as part of the national collection annually and to the public. This January marks a celebratory moment; it has been 121 years since this bequest was first displayed in the gallery.
Place’s typographical scenes are the earliest known and recorded of Drogheda, Dublin, Kilkenny and Waterford, amongst the gallery’s collection. It allows its viewers a glimpse into late 17th-century Ireland; the collection was purchased 50 years ago through the Shaw fund, coming into the state collection by donation. It will also be the first time since 1972 that the series will be exhibited as one group.
“Beamed by spotlight, their minute details dawn on some of Ireland’s architectural beauties, in elevated plans and aerial views.”
Hugged by traditional wooden frames, Place’s drawings are nothing short of illuminating. Beamed by spotlight, their minute details dawn on some of Ireland’s architectural beauties, in elevated plans and aerial views. Those that catch my eye are St. Canice’s Finglas, 1698 and Boggotrath Castle, 1698, and especially Waterford, County Waterford, from across the River Suir, 1699. The finely drawn picture with ink and wash on paper captures the vastness of Waterford’s suburban agriculture. The scene offers a simplistic view of a landscape with foliage underneath, with only animals properly filled by wash. Waterford’s city walls had been expanded by the Normans after Strongbow captured the city in 1170. Place captures the land’s enormity with his negative space. His plans are exalted with more detail and become richer with further colour.
I transitioned to room two, where Vaughan’s watercolours hang. Niamh MacNally comments: “Turner’s atmospheric watercolours can envelope the viewer, whereas Place’s carefully observed studies contribute significantly to the typographical history of the cities and towns he depicted in the final years of the 17th century.” I took a closer look at the first, Storm at the mouth of the grand Canal, Venice, 1840, and I do my predictable banging of face against glass. Luckily, MacNally comes over to me and explains the anti-reflective quality of the newly installed cases.
“Many are from Turner’s last visit to Venice; he stayed in the Hotel Europa in the mid-1800s and vigorously examined the subject of climate, the nature of weather change and its relationship with its surrounding architecture.”
The watercolours have strong white highlights and are scraped out on paper. Many are from Turner’s last visit to Venice; he stayed in the Hotel Europa in the mid-19th century and vigorously examined the subject of climate, the nature of weather change, and its relationship with its surrounding architecture. As I go to the The Doge’s Place and Piazzetta, Venice, 1840, they only grow in beauty. The colours get richer, they bleed into the paper and Piazzetta’s hues of red are romantic with orange undertones. At the end of Turner’s European tour, he took the cross-channel ferry in 1840, where he travelled to Great Yarmouth. Here he made at least three scenes of Ostend harbour, exemplified in Ostend Harbour, 1840. A lighthouse and a windmill stand still, and like in his ‘Würzburg, Rhine and Ostend’s sketchbook’, he hones in on walls, fortifications, and stately sunsets. A lonely figure sits at the cliff’s edge and mulls over the sea.
Turner enjoyed most depictions of nature, especially rain clouds and choppy waters. Lake Lucerne from Flüelen, 1841 shows the addition of graphite. The enchanting lake is surrounded by blue mountains that mystify an eerie lake scene. His view of Bellinzona in Switzerland, has 13th-century fortresses that once guarded the Alpine passes of St. Gotthard and San Bernardino in Italy with an even more mystical atmosphere. The moon shines in the background and floats behind the illustrated valley, almost consumed by darkness. The white highlights jump from the scraping, and the dark ink fades into layers that only watercolours can produce.
A favourite is Beech Trees at Norbury Park, Leatherhead, Surrey (1797). This 44 by 43.1cm piece, is of beech trees in Norbury Park. It was theorised that Dr Thomas Monroe (1759-1833) or Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) introduced Turner to William Lock (1732-1810), park owner at the time. Turner paints these trees in their most majestic form, displaying a nurturing painter who deeply appreciated his subjects. The trees are in their most alive sense; if you stare hard enough you can see the leaves shake. It bends over slightly and Turner captures its lofty movement. Another is A Ship against the Mewstone, at the entrance to Plymouth Sound, 1814. He paints the epic Mewstone as waves taunt a ship side to side. Turner’s detail accentuates the danger of water, and was so finely executed that it was engraved in 1815 for the Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England (1811-26) series.
Turner continues his subjects of ships and shipwrecks in A Shipwreck Off Hastings, 1825. His figurative inclusions are shown in Clovelly Bay, North Devon (1822), and he heroes sunlight once again in Kent, in The West Gate, Canterbury, Kent (1794) where he painted a commissioned view of Rochester Castle, in late summer of 1793 when he visited several coastal towns. His fanciful sunsets capture an emotive landscape, and as I walk through the 1820s and 1830s, his paint is applied with a bigger brush and the wash reveals a more rapid quality.
“Set against their dark background, these drawings and watercolours take centre stage; their radiance highlights their keeper’s masterful show of watercolour preservation and Turner’s prolific style lives on in this expansive series.”
Two prominent English artists were showcased in this exhibition, with the importance of two key benefactors of the Gallery – Vaughan and Shaw; both of which made continuing and monumental donations to our National Collection. The exhibition also includes symposiums such as pop-up talks, the curator’s talk, a lecture by a Francis Place expert, a family activity video, and the incredible virtual option to view the exhibit via the gallery’s website. Set against their dark background, these drawings and watercolours take centre stage; their radiance highlights their keeper’s masterful show of watercolour preservation, and Turner’s prolific style lives on in this expansive series.