I have just returned to London from visiting my home city of Edinburgh and, as I have done every January for as long as I can remember, I visited the Turner watercolour exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland.


Visitors have been able to do the same for over a hundred years, thanks to Henry Vaughan (1809 – 1899). The son of a hat manufacturer, he inherited a large fortune in 1828, thereafter leading what could be thought of as a rather self-indulgent life, travelling widely and collecting art, both ancient and contemporary. He was something of a recluse, never married and had no children. His importance lies in what he did with the art he collected and, in so doing, the incalculable benefits he gave to the public.

In 1886 he donated Constable’s ‘Hay Wain’ to the National Gallery, and in 1887 he gave five important Michelangelo drawings to the British Museum. He left his greatest bequests in his will, with the British Museum, the V&A, and the Tate all benefiting. What is perhaps more surprising was the inclusion in his will of the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh and the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, to whom he bequeathed 38 and 31 of Turner’s watercolours respectively. Vaughan was a friend of Turner (1775-1851), and had amassed a substantial collection of his works. He stipulated that that the paintings should be ‘exhibited to the public all at one time, free of charge, during the month of January’, and so they have been ever since.

The watercolours include views from across Britain and Europe. Visitors would recognise views from Edinburgh, possibly the Borders, and in so doing, appreciate the likeness of images portrayed in his paintings of for example Venice or the Valle d’Aosta.

The condition of ‘all at one time’ gives the public the chance to see a whole array of Turner’s work, spanning his years of painting, without having to pay repeated visits to enjoy the whole collection. Even if the exhibition itself is free, viewing may entail travel costs, and certainly time. For much of the twentieth century, travel for the majority, even within Britain, let alone abroad, was largely inaccessible. Leisure time, money and opportunities were limited. Vaughan’s vision provided a window through which the wonders of life beyond limited horizons could be viewed, admired and appreciated.

The requirement that the exhibition be ‘free of charge’ was important. By stating this, Vaughan was a man ahead of his time: a visionary, a pioneer. Art, unfortunately but with some justification, has always been regarded as elitist; for those with talent, money or connections. But Vaughan was a man, born into wealth, for whom the vision and passion for bringing art to the masses promoted the early beginnings of the democratisation of the arts. It was almost half a century later before the Arts Council of Great Britain was granted a royal charter, to provide ‘a greater knowledge, understanding and practice of the fine arts exclusively’ and ‘in particular to increase the accessibility of the fine arts to the public’. This is exactly what Henry Vaughan intended, but more. He also wanted the arts to be seen and appreciated not just in London, but other cities too. He realised the importance of reaching people throughout the United Kingdom (Ireland was then united, and part of the United Kingdom). But there are also other things which need to be addressed.

The last stipulation, that they be exhibited ‘during the month of January’ was important. As an expert and friend of the artist, Vaughan knew that the precious watercolours were best viewed in the weak light of January, and that they would deteriorate if exposed to natural light at any other time of the year.

Vaughan’s legacy is not just his 38 paintings but the message that his bequest gave: the necessity of democratising the arts and wrestling it from the elite by opening it to the many. He realised the importance of the need for art to be inclusive and accessible to all, not just financially but geographically as well.

Such accessibility and inclusivity is as important now as it was in Vaughan’s day. With arts funding having been cut by £1bn in the last decade, Vaughan’s message of inclusivity must be heeded by all those engaged in the arts.

Let’s hope that there are more Henry Vaughan’s around to use their ability and philanthropic spirit to distribute arts of all types to all levels across the country, to increase appreciation of the arts and encourage artists with creative skills to flourish.

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