Catch it before the end of the month… Light in Darkness exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland

By Lisa Marie Griffith

One of my recommendations for January was to go and see the Tuner exhibition at the National Gallery ‘A light in the Darkness Turner’s watercolours & silhouettes and miniatures The Mary A. McNeill bequest’. For those of you not familiar with the exhibit, and I have to admit that I was not until recently, the collection is unique because when the bequest was made to the gallery strict terms stipulated that the paintings be exhibited in January only. The dark winter month, it was hoped, would mean that the paintings would not have to suffer the light and be saved from fading. Each January the gallery exhibits the collection and to update it and keep regulars interested they add to the exhibit in some way; this year the exhibition was accompanied by a bequest from Mary A. McNeill of eighteenth and nineteenth century silhouettes and miniatures.

I will have to admit that I had not seen the exhibit when I recommended it at the beginning of the month but I waded through the snow last Saturday (for fear the following week would be worse as predicted) to see the exhibit and follow through on my own January ‘to do list’. I have no grounding in history of art so bear in mind this review is not written by a connoisseur. Indeed, wallowing in my ignorance I prefer to go to galleries and point at what I like and what I do not like. It may be my lack of training but I was disapopinted and found Turner’s watercolours very dull. A couple of watercolours of stormy seas certainly stood out but on the whole it would have been a forgetful event without the addition of the wonderful McNeill bequests.

A very small exhibit, I found this interesting nonetheless. Miniatures, and their cheaper counterparts silhouettes, were the photographs of their day. As such they are an integral part of the social and cultural landscape of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and an interesting way of accessing the people who inhabit the period. You can not watch a costume drama, read a novel or biography from this period without some figure fawning over the small images so I was curious to see what they were really like. While miniatures vary in size I was surpised how small both the miniatures and silhouettes were. This of course makes sense as they would have been carried around as treasured keepsakes. Both are also a cheaper form of the larger portraits that we associate more readily with the upper classes. While both the upper and middle class engaged enthusiastically with both formats (the image inset is by William Grimaldi and portrays Lady Bellingham)  the miniature and silhouettes can bring us a little closer to the material culture of the Irish middle class. This was a fascinating exhibit that left me wanting more. If you are interested in miniatures I would recommend Paul Caffrey’s Treasures to Hold (out of print I spotted a couple of copies in the gift shop), an interesting look at the genre with a useful catalogue of miniatures which the National Gallery own. This really is a must see before the end of the month because while Turner will be back who knows when the miniature and silhouettes will be on view again!

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