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
people And here is why...
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
Arts and Entertainment
Mystery man: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in '‘Gone Girl'
films... by the director David Fincher
Life and Style
stoptober... when the patch, gum and cold turkey had all failed
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
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

    LSA Level 3 required in Caerphilly

    £50 - £60 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job: O...

    Welsh Year 6 Teacher required in Barry

    £100 - £110 per day + Plus travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Welsh Teacher Year 2 required in Caerphilly

    £100 - £105 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?