Visual Arts: Shedding a little light on landscape in the dark time of the year

A collection of Turner watercolours can be seen in Edinburgh, for one month only, at the start of every year. Something to do with topography, suspects Richard Ingleby.

The National Gallery of Scotland's January exhibition of Turner watercolours has long been an annual institution, as much a part of the new year in Edinburgh as is a hangover from Hogmanay. There are 38 of them, bequeathed to the Scottish nation in 1900 by the collector Henry Vaughan with the strict stipulation that they only be shown in the first month of the year "when the light is at its weakest and least destructive".

I'm not sure if Vaughan, a Londoner whose family fortune came from making hats, ever visited Scotland's capital, but I suspect that he didn't. Otherwise he would have known that his precious watercolours would have been perfectly safe for a lot longer than he specified - some days in Edinburgh it doesn't get light at all, save for a brief glimmer of dawn at around lunchtime. In recent times this has all become an irrelevance anyway since the pictures are shown in a dimly lit basement without any hint of natural light. The conditions would be much the same in July, but it is to the gallery's credit, in these days of disrespect for donor's wishes, that they have upheld the terms of Vaughan's bequest for over 90 years. Inevitably these circumstances have given this annual exhibition an air of importance that it wouldn't otherwise have. It's not that the pictures aren't any good - just that the sense of occasion which surrounds their showing has given them a treasured quality that has little to do with the work itself.

The watercolours given to Edinburgh were not the sum of Henry Vaughan's collection. He also owned drawings by Michelangelo and Raphael, as well as Constable's Haywain and numerous other Turners which are now in the National Gallery of Ireland. On the evidence here, however, he had rather conservative taste. Broadly speaking, these 38 watercolours span the whole of Turner's career and there are plenty of fine examples, but Vaughan's leaning was more towards the topographical sketches made for the publishing projects that were the bread and butter of Turner's life than to the late great works on which rest his place as the founding father of modern art.

The Edinburgh exhibition begins with a group of grey-blue views of English towns which look more like the work of Girtin than Turner, and may well be. These belong to the batch of works described as "the Monro school", a reference to Dr Monro's evening academy for promising young painters in watercolour; a class that included Cotman and De Wint alongside Girtin and Turner, and whose members' unsigned offerings all look pretty much the same. They are unremarkable pictures, but set a tentative topographical tone for what follows.

The best of the works on show here are those where Turner allowed himself to step outside the requirements of illustration and into the realms of the sublime, taking landscape to the edge of abstraction. One of the most effective of all is a tiny watercolour of Loch Coruisk painted on a trip to Skye in 1831. Two tiny figures (including Turner himself, perhaps, as one of them appears to be sketching) are perched on a rock above the loch; all around them a swirling vortex of hill and sky seems set to swallow them up. At a glance, it is a little hard to read but, for all his illustrative skills, Turner's genius was never in the detail. It is an image filled with power and presence: the scene seems enormous, but it is painted on a piece of paper no bigger than a postcard.

Looking at these watercolours, particularly at a view of Durham Cathedral, one could be forgiven for thinking that the man so often billed as our nation's greatest painter couldn't paint people. Actually he couldn't, or at least not very well, but in his more successful works (such as Loch Coruisk) it doesn't matter. The people aren't the point. If they are there at all, it is just to give a sense of scale or increase the drama - people, his pictures tell us, are small, nature is very, very big.

There's not enough of this sort of thing in the Vaughan Bequest for my liking, not enough of Turner the explorer and experimenter with colour and light, above all light. None the less, in his quest for a complete collection Vaughan gathered some marvellous things, including a representative group of pictures from Turner's three Venetian tours. The greatest of these is not one of his depictions of familiar architectural sights, grand though these may be, or the daringly empty Sun of Venice, in which the white of the page is left to do the work of both sea and sky, but a little sketch of Venice from the Laguna, dating from his last trip there in 1840. In this the artist looks the other way, not to the glories of Venice, but out to a green blue sea and a smudge of sooty smoke from a passing steamer. As ever, Turner was at his most masterful, most evocative, when he took himself to the edge. It's in works like this that the future of modern art lay.

`Turner Watercolours: The Vaughan Bequest' is at the National Gallery of Scotland, the Mound, Edinburgh (0131-624 6200) to 31 January.

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sustainability Manager

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

    Graduate Sustainability Professional

    Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

    Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

    £850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

    Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

    £100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn