In keeping with a century-old tradition, New Years Day at the National Gallery
Complex in Edinburgh is marked by the opening of the annual exhibition of watercolours by J M W Turner (17751851). The thirty-eight works on display were bequeathed in 1900 by Henry Vaughan, a London art collector who amassed an outstanding group of watercolours by the British painter. A perennial favourite in the Gallerys exhibition calendar, the display runs throughout January, providing a thoughtful counterpoint to the more energetic celebrations of Edinburghs Hogmanay, and a welcome injection of light and colour during the darkest month of the year.
Recognised as perhaps the greatest of all British artists, Turner was a master of watercolour painting, using the medium to create stunning land and seascapes, topographical views and designs for book illustrations. Vaughan acquired examples from every period of the artists career, and chose each with a connoisseurs eye for quality. The exquisite works in his bequest range from early wash drawings of the 1790s, to colourful and atmospheric watercolour sketches of Continental Europe, executed in the 1830s and 1840s.
For Turner, as for many artists and writers at the end of the eighteenth century, the vastness and violence of nature inspired a sense of awe, or even a terror, which was described as an experience of the Sublime. It was the opportunity to express these emotions through landscape painting which attracted Turner repeatedly to the mountains of Britain and the Continent, and to paint the savage elemental forces seen in avalanches, storms and mountainous seas. These experiences can be seen in works such as Loch Coruisk, Skye which was painted after one of the artists trips to the Scottish Highlands, in 1831, and Sion, Capital of the Canton Valais, which was created following one of his many journeys to the Swiss Alps.
Turner also visited Venice on three occasions, in 1819, 1833 and 1840, and the Vaughan Bequest features six of the artists stunning views of the city. In The Piazzetta, Venice, one of Turners most spectacular Venetian studies, a bolt of lightning dramatically illuminates the Doges Palace and St. Marks Basilica. Turner created such effects by scratching away to reveal the paper once he had painted on it: he sometimes used his thumbnail, which he is reputed to have grown like an eagle-claw, for such a purpose.
Other works, such as The Grand Canal by the Salute, Venice, and The Sun of Venice, whichwere made in the city in 1840, demonstrate Turners consummate mastery of atmospheric lighting effects. In these watercolours, light itself seems to have become the main subject.
For much of his career, Turner was engaged in commissions to provide illustrations for books, and many of his trips were undertaken with a specific publishing project in mind. The artists prolific activities as an illustrator are represented here by a number of images, including scenes painted for Robert Cadells collected editions of the Poetical and Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott.
In his will Henry Vaughan stipulated that the Turner watercolours must not be subjected to permanent display, since continual exposure to light would result in their fading. He specified that the collection could only be shown in January, when daylight is at its weakest, and as a result the annual exhibition has become a much-loved tradition at the National Gallery of Scotland.