Desmond O’Neill: Turner, medical history, and ageing

Desmond O'NeillLimiting access adds savour to most sensory experiences, a sentiment captured by Patrick Kavanagh in his poem Advent: “through a chink too wide comes in no wonder.” A narrow aperture to one such wonder is provided every January by the National Galleries of Ireland and Scotland, one that also has interesting linkages to both medicine and ageing.

Each of the national galleries was bequeathed a collection of Turner watercolours in 1900 by the art connoisseur Robert Vaughan. Concerned by the possible impact of light on delicate watercolours, he stipulated that the works should only be displayed during the month of January. Although modern lighting and conditions can extend the viewing of watercolours to an all year experience, the galleries abide by these conditions.

In both capitals, this time restriction has developed into a ritual which augments the pleasure of viewing, with the display of the watercolours a notable annual event in their arts calendars which brightens their damp and cold winters. Each gallery celebrates with lectures and often a themed publication. For 2013, the Irish National Gallery has produced an excellent catalogue of their collection of Turner watercolours and sketches (1).

The medical connection is through one of the greatest of Irish physicians, Robert Graves, who introduced bedside teaching to the English speaking world and after whom Graves’ disease of the thyroid is named. Not only did he live in Merrion Square, near to the site of the National Gallery which opened 11 years after his death, but he was also sufficiently accomplished in sketching to spend several weeks with Turner in Italy.

They met when travelling through the Mount Cenis pass into Italy in 1819. Graves was fascinated by the quiet older man who joined the carriage and sketched cloud formations in a little notebook. They struck up a relationship and continued their journey together to several locations, including Florence and Rome, often returning to the same place for several days. Graves has left us with some fascinating insights into life with the great painter (2).

They would select a place from which to sketch and return to it for several days. While Graves sketched steadily, he noted that Turner would make one careful outline of the scene and would then remain quiet, apparently idling the time away until at a certain moment he would say “There it is!” and then work quickly to commit his concept to paper. “I used to work away,” Graves reported, “for an hour or more and put down as well as I could every object in the scene before me, copying form and colour, perhaps as faithfully as was possible in the time. When our work was done and we compared drawings, the difference was strange: I assure you there was not a single stroke in Turner’s drawing that I could see like nature, nor a line nor an object and yet my work was worthless in comparison with his. The whole glory of the scene was there….”

Turner kept little by way of narrative accounts or letters of his continental tours and accounts by travel companions, such as this one by Graves, provide a significant insight into this most important of tours for Turner. It is widely agreed that his first trip to Italy marked a significant turning point in his career. His really remarkable treatment of light as colour and progressive freedom from tonal contrast date from this tour.

From an ageing perspective, the Vaughan watercolours also track the progress of artistic maturity and productivity into later life, covering a lengthy period of the Turner’s career, with works created between the ages of 18 and 66.  The increasingly free and experimental nature of the works created after the age of 60 show how old age liberates and augments the creative process, mirroring the increasingly radical late style of other great painters such as Titian and Monet and helping to dispel popular mythology that old age is characterised by conservatism and timidity (3).

Apart from these considerations, the exhibitions are also therapeutic in the most generic sense of the word. The luminous watercolours, particularly those of Switzerland and Italy, capture sunlight and radiance in a way that challenges the climate outside and are a healthy antidote to the winter blues. Make plans now if you wish to see these artistic northern lights: otherwise you will have to wait for a whole year to enjoy the experience again!

1) Hodge A, McNally N. The works of JMW Turner at the National Gallery of Ireland. Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, 2012.
2) Coakley D. The Irish School of Medicine. Dublin, Town House, 1988.
3) Dormandy T. Old Masters: Great Artists in Old Age. London, Hambledon, 2001.

Desmond O’Neill is a consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine in Dublin, and is a member of the external advisory panel of the age friendly university initiative.