“Turner in January” is always one of the highlights of the exhibition calendar at The Scottish National Gallery, and one that I have enjoyed for many years. This unique exhibition features a collection that highlights over many years the changing styles, through many iconic watercolours, the work of Britain’s most celebrated artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851).
This very special collection has a long history stretching back over a century with National Galleries of Scotland, and the 38 watercolours (permanently framed) are the special bequest (1900) of one of the greatest connoisseurs of Turner’s work, Henry Vaughan (1809-1899). This gift carried with it special instructions – to preserve the fragile and easily damaged by strong light watercolours, the collection was only to be exhibited in the low light levels of the month of January. Other conditions attached to the bequest included the conditions that the works be exhibited only as a complete collection for the whole of the month of January and that exhibition be not only every January, but always be free for people to enjoy. Given that these works were all carefully acquired by Henry Vaughan not only for their subject matter, but for their fine condition, his requests seem to be very reasonable ones and NGS has honoured not only those requests over the years, but taken great care of the watercolours too. This combination of a rare gift and great care of that gift over the years means that we can all enjoy paintings spanning Turner’s entire career from the 1790s with views of Rye and Sussex included here to the later spectacular Venetian views of 1840s.
An extra addition to the exhibition this year, and not part of the Henry Vaughan bequest is Turner’s 1819 painting of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.
Joseph Mallord William Turner is an artist who intrigues me on so many levels. A quick online search gives some remarkable statistics. The output of William Turner as an artist was prolific - more than 550 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours, and 30,000 paper works. Clearly, this is a man who not only “painted and sketched” but was driven by some inner force to do so at a level far beyond what any simply “working artist” was required to do; and some other need to create was obviously driving Turner throughout his lifetime.
The range of works on view here show an artist not only developing his techniques but forever expanding his experimentation with paint and paper to get his required end result, and that experimentation takes us from early works that are in a very traditional representational style to works that look like they could be Japanese or Chinese in origin. Later works where Turner is clearly a master of the medium of watercolour painting take on so often an almost abstract view of what is before him, almost as if the artist is painting beyond what the eye can see. Sometimes when looking at these later works I take into account that here, in the 1840s, we are also at the birth of photography and I wonder at times if Turner the artist was painting (even if subconsciously) what the camera lens could never capture.
Coming from a background in print, one thing that always interests me about Turner the artist is that, like Rembrandt before him, he understood the commercial possibilities of expanding his buying audience by the use of engravings and commercial prints of his works. Correspondence on display here between artist and engraver clearly show not only this commercial side of his artwork, but an understanding of the different reproduction techniques available to engravers and printers of the period. Turner was very much a “print” artist of his generation.
Turner in January
Scottish National Gallery
Tue 1 Jan 2019 - Thu 31 Jan 2019
Open daily, 10am-5pm, Thursdays until 7pm
Review by Tom King