1st – 31st January
A venerable institution in itself, the Turner in January exhibition needs little introduction to Edinburgh gallery-goers, arriving annually and reliably unchanged, in the same hushed and light-starved octagonal room of the National Galleries of Scotland. For them this might be one of the more cheerful markers of the relentless passage of the years, and a regular new-year stand-by, but for first-timers, the month-long annual bloom of dozens of pieces by one of England’s greatest painters, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851), might be thought a major occasion.
The National Galleries pull off this trick through having received the gift, from London art-collector Henry Vaughan, of a raft of exquisite watercolour works by the most eminent watercolourist of his age. Vaughan, who inherited his father’s fortune in hat-manufacture, is thought to have met Turner in the 1840’s, and 38 of his works were bequeathed to the Galleries on Vaughan’s death, in 1899. They are still exhibited in their original frames.
By doing this he helped strengthen an already-established link between the English artist and Scotland. This association is recalled in some of the works too, depicting scenes from this country, for instance from his visits to the Borders home of celebrated writer and historian Walter Scott.
The small pieces on show here, painted at Rhymer’s Glen, near Scott’s Abbotsford home, are a reminder of his skill depicting natural detail; or bucolic landscapes of nearby Melrose, with other of the writer’s guests in the foreground. These gentle works form a counterbalance to the revolutionary, vigorously-impressionistic oils Turner became famed for: no thunderous, speeding steam-engines here, nor ships dramatically overwhelmed by wind and wave – instead this is his quieter, more contemplative side, observing closely and inking careful, detailed marks on paper (Turner sketched and painted all the time and left a studio of some 30,000 works to London’s National Gallery).
He also travelled much further than Scotland of course, with annual trips to continental Europe: one of the works on display in ink and wash depicts of the Albano hills north of Rome, which he had not yet visited, and is a verso of a depiction attributed to John Robert Cozens.
Repeated travel to the continent came later, notably to Rome, first visited in 1819, and Venice, which naturally enchanted the young artist, inspiring the Rialto Bridge views seen here, and to Switzerland, largely seen at the time as an inhospitable wilderness on the route to the Mediterranean and Aegean.
Close examination of the paper’s surface can show us traces of technique: in Venice from the Laguna, the trail of steam has been visibly softened by his fingertips, their prints still evident on the surface.
One key strength of the exhibition is the extent of the information provided by the labelling, occasionally serving up interesting biographical details of the man. The gouache and watercolour of Harbour View are on blue paper, which was one of the experiments he conducted in heightening intensity in colours and shades. Having been exhibited only in low light for one month of the year – a stipulation of Vaughan’s gift – the condition of these works is as-new, with the colours’ intensity preserved.
His fascination with the mechanics of contemporary transport is evident in several pieces, for instance Man of War, one of four sketches made visiting the Cowes Regatta in 1827. It’s thought that the prominent signature on this drawing is due to its having been an intended gift to another spectator.
Like a seasonal hamper from a fond aunt, these delicately-rendered land- and sea-scapes arrive reliably, every year – a gift to look forward to, a tradition untampered-with.
Edinburgh EH2 2EL
Image: J M W Turner – Harbour View, watercolour and gouache on blue paper.
Unless otherwise stated, all images under licence – National Galleries of Scotland, Henry Vaughan Bequest 1900, photography Antonia Reeve. www.nationalgalleries.org