The National Galleries of Scotland has presented an exhibition of the work of JMW Turner every January for more than a century. Sadly, we were unable to do that in 2021. In this blog, Senior Curator Charlotte Topsfield tells the story of the collector whose bequest saw a selection of the artist's precious works enter Scotland's national art collection more than 120 years ago.
In 1900 the National Galleries of Scotland received a most generous bequest: 38 watercolours by the most famous British artist of the nineteenth century, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). The Galleries’ benefactor was Henry Vaughan (1809-1899), a modest and private man who was nevertheless one of the most discerning and generous of Victorian art collectors. Born in London in 1809, Vaughan inherited a fortune from his father, who was a successful hat manufacturer in Southwark. He used his wealth to travel in Europe, acquire works of art, and support charitable projects. His collecting interests were varied; visitors to the house he shared with his sister near Regent’s Park would have found rooms richly decorated with sculptures, bronzes, ivories, Spanish clocks, medieval stained glass, frames from Siena and Venice and Rembrandt etchings.
Vaughan acquired superb drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt and Claude, all of which he bequeathed to the British Museum. His chief interest was eighteenth and nineteenth century British art and he owned works by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Flaxman, Millais and Leighton, among others. His most famous oil painting was John Constable’s The Hay Wain, which he lived with for twenty years before presenting it to the National Gallery in London in 1886. Vaughan had hoped to keep the gift confidential, but this proved impossible and it was announced in the House of Commons to roars of approval.
Unusually for a Victorian collector, Vaughan was particularly interested in informal, preparatory drawings and sketches, which reveal the artist’s ideas and working methods. He acquired fifteen of Constable’s oil sketches, but the artist he admired above all was J.M.W. Turner, whom he may have met in the 1840s. Vaughan eventually owned more than one hundred watercolours and drawings by Turner and as many prints; his collection was described in an obituary as ‘singularly choice and indeed hardly paralleled in this country’. His Turners included examples of almost every type of work on paper the artist produced, from early topographical drawings and atmospheric landscape watercolours, to brilliant colour studies, literary vignette illustrations and spectacular exhibition pieces. It was a collection that truly represented the diversity, imagination and technical inventiveness of Turner’s work throughout his sixty-year career.
Vaughan was hailed by the art critic John Ruskin as ‘a great Turner man’. Ruskin probably visited and studied the collection and made a copy of a detail of rocks in the watercolour Llanberis Lake and Snowdon, Caernarvon, Wales. Vaughan shared Ruskin’s belief in the power of art to educate and inspire and followed his example in donating his Turners to museums and galleries. In addition to the 38 works left to Scotland, he bequeathed 31 watercolours to the National Gallery of Ireland and 23 to the National Gallery in London (now part of the Turner collection at Tate). Vaughan was probably aware that, although Turner toured Scotland on six occasions and was much inspired by his experiences, his work was then scarcely represented in Scottish public collections. Vaughan himself selected which watercolours would be destined for which museum, making certain that each would have a representative selection.
Each January, 'Turner in January'
In his will, Vaughan stated that his bequests to Edinburgh and Dublin should be exhibited free of charge during the month of January in every year…. and no longer time in every year. Watercolours can fade and become discoloured if over-exposed to light; in specifying January, when daylight is weakest, as the only time of year in which his watercolours could be shown, Vaughan ensured that his Turners would retain their intensity of colour and fine condition for future generations to enjoy. He also specified that throughout the rest of the year the watercolours should be kept together in a cabinet, enabling the whole group to be easily shown to anyone who would like to see them. The Vaughan Bequest has been exhibited each January for more than a century, bringing colour and light to the dark days of an Edinburgh winter. While this year we are unable to show the bequest, the full 38 watercolours normally displayed in January can be explored online.