A Scottish tradition | JMW Turner and the Vaughan Bequest

For over a century, the Scottish National Gallery has welcomed in the New Year by displaying the watercolours of JMW Turner throughout the month of January. A stipulation of collector Henry Vaughan, who gifted 38 works to the Gallery, the display has become a beloved tradition, enjoyed by thousands each year. But who was Vaughan and what was his connection to Turner? In this blog, we explore the history of Scotland's Turner tradition.

Henry Vaughan (1809-1899) was one of the most distinguished and generous of Victorian collectors.  He lived in London, and at 21 inherited a fortune from his father, who had been a wealthy hat maker. Vaughan was one of the most discerning and public-spirited of Victorian connoisseur-collectors. He enjoyed the life of a gentleman of leisure and used his wealth to travel across Europe and acquire works of art, but was also a philanthropist who supported a number of charitable projects.

His rich and diverse collection ranged from medieval stained glass to paintings and drawings by his contemporaries. The most important early works he acquired were drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens and Rembrandt, which are now in the British Museum. Above all, however, it was eighteenth and nineteenth-century British art that came to dominate his interests. The most famous oil painting Vaughan bought was John Constable’s The Hay-Wain, which he presented to the National Gallery in London.

Joseph Mallord William Turner Harbour View Mid-1820s

Vaughan probably met Turner in the 1840s and built a remarkable collection of his drawings and watercolours which spanned the artist’s entire career, and only included works in fine condition. Throughout his life, Turner made many thousands of pencil drawings – often slight studies that would establish the structure of a view or composition. These were then used indoors, either in his London studio, or, for example, in a hotel room in Venice, as the basis for more fully developed watercolours and oil paintings. Many of the thirty-eight watercolours in the Vaughan bequest reveal Turner quickly trying to capture a structure or effect, while others concentrate on colour relationships rather than actual scenery.

Joseph Mallord William Turner Loch Coruisk, Skye 1831–4

Vaughan was probably inspired to bequeath his Turners to public collections by the great critic John Ruskin (1809-1899), who had donated works by the artist to museums. A number of museums and galleries across Britain and Ireland were beneficiaries of Vaughan’s generosity, including the National Galleries of Scotland. Like Ruskin, Vaughan was aware of the importance of conserving watercolours, which easily fade if over-exposed to light. He stipulated that measures should be taken to preserve his bequest in its fresh and brilliant condition. In his will he stipulated that the watercolours be ‘exhibited to the public all at one time free of charge during the month of January’. At all other times they were to be kept in a special cabinet in the Print Room.

He specified January as it is one of the darkest months therefore the natural light levels are very weak and less likely to cause damage. His wishes have been respected, and for over a century the annual display of the Vaughan Turners has become a much-loved Edinburgh tradition. They can also be seen by visitors throughout the year by appointment at the Prints and Drawings Study Room.

The Vaughan Bequest of works by Turner inspired important subsequent acquisitions. These include Turner’s only complete set of literary vignettes – the illustrations he created for Thomas Campbell’s poems – which entered the collection in 1988. Other major purchases, such as two illustrations the artist made for Sir Walter Scott’s Provincial Antiquities, mean that that Scottish National Gallery can provide visitors with a remarkably rich overview of the achievement of one of the most accessible and admired of all romantic artists.

JMW Turner and Scotland

Charlotte Topsfield, Senior Curator of British Drawings and Prints at the Scottish National Gallery, discusses the work of JMW Turner and his connections to Scotland.

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31 December 2019