January 3, 2015

Turner in January

2014 was certainly a good year to be a Turner fan. The highlight of this was the release in October of Mike Leigh’s critically acclaimed biopic, which took an intimate and critically acclaimed look at the final twenty-five years of his life. There were also some wonderful exhibitions of his work, the two most prominent being Tate Britain's “Late Turner: Painting Set Free” and the National Maritime Museum’s exploration of Turner’s seascapes. Both of these showcased his abilities and vision on a grand scale.

Moving into the New Year another, more intimate Turner show has just opened its doors at the Scottish National Gallery. A long-standing Edinburgh tradition, the Turner in January exhibition draws the crowds every New Years Day and throughout the month. An escape from the dreich skylines and darkness of a Scottish winter, it takes you into a world of colour and beauty; captured through the brushstrokes of one of the worlds greatest painters. This is the place where I first discovered Turner and every year without fail I have returned to gaze upon these works once again.

Exhibition Banner outside the Scottish National Gallery. This year it features a detail from Turner's watercolor of Loch Coruisk, painted in 1831

The display consists of 38 watercolours that range across Turner’s career, from his early twenties to the dramatic, vigorous works of his late period. A particularly wonderful early example is a view of Old Dover Harbour made between 1794-1797. Worked up in a pale grey and blue wash, the light casting the boats reflections in the water, along with the detail in the rigging makes for a wonderful maritime picture; a precursor for a subject matter that he would become famed for (although on a far less sedate note than this particular work).

Scottish Scenes

It is the colour that people come here to see though and you are not left wanting of it. There are many beautiful Scottish images, a highlight being the series of pictures of Abbotsford. The home of Sir Walter Scott, Turner stayed with the author in August 1831, having been commissioned to illustrate a volume of his works. The resulting vignettes, painted in 1832 act as windows into the landscape of the estate, their edges fading into the paper on which they are painted. The addition of items such as an empty writing desk or an abandoned walking stick to the composition act as a tribute to Scott 1 , placing hints of the author into the works.

Turner also ventured further north on this visit, travelling alone to the Highlands. A particularly expressive and turbulent scene, a watercolour of Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye melts the ground and the sky together, emphasising its awe inspiring majesty, especially before the two minuscule figures in the foreground.

England and Italy

My two favourite works in the display though are stark contrasts to each other. These are a view of Durham from the Prebends bridge and a view of Venice’s Piazzetta during a summer storm.

Durham, J.M.W Turner (About 1830 - 1835). Watercolour on paper

The former is a neatly framed and highly finished piece, depicting the cathedral and castle at sunset. The colouring gives the image a feeling of warmth and peace, whilst the details of the cathedral towers stand out gently in the distance. The Venetian work, is a complete opposite. A flurry of drama, a lighting flash illuminates the square, the Doge’s palace standing out in a rich amber tone.St Marks is also  outlined in the background for a split second; Turner capturing an ephermal moment of natural violence.

The Piazzetta, Venice, J M W Turner (1840). Watercolor, gouache, pen and ink on paper with scraping out.

The lightning bolt is a particularly wonderful example of ‘scraping out’, a technique where the surface of the work is scratched away to reveal the paper beneath. This technique was used often by Turner and he was even reputed to have grown one of his fingernails into an ‘eagle claw’ specifically for this purpose.

Colour Preserved: The Vaughan Bequest

The particular beauty of the Turner pieces in the gallery’s collection lie in their pristine condition; a consequence of the care taken of them with respect to their display. Bequeathed by the Victorian collector Henry Vaughan in 1900, he stipulated that the works should be exhibited “all at one time, free of charge during the month of January”. In Vaughan’s time there was a wide ranging debate about the effects of light exposure to watercolour; his opinion on the side that limitation of display was the key to long term preservation. This foresight has resulted in the collection maintaining their vibrance and luminosity to be enjoyed by people now and for many years to come. The flip side of this is that your chance to view them is an incredibly narrow window; an opportunity not to be missed.

Turner in January is on at the Scottish National Gallery until January 31st. Admission is free.

  1. Walter Scott died in September 1832, so the works were adapted to take the form of a posthumous tribute.