The Scottish National Gallery will again welcome in the New Year with the opening of Turner in January: The Vaughan Bequest, the long-standing annual tradition which sees an outstanding collection of works by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) displayed for the duration of the month.
For over a century the Gallery has followed the stipulations set out by the art collector Henry Vaughan; that 38 fantastic works encapsulating the entire career of one of the great masters of British painting were to be exhibited to the public “all at one time, free of charge, during the month of January”.
The watercolours range from Turner’s early topographical wash drawings right through to his atmospheric sketches of continental Europe’s expansive vistas from the 1830s and ’40s. Thanks to their limited exposure to daylight, they have retained their luminous colours and pristine condition.
Clara Govier, Head of Charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, said: “We are absolutely delighted to welcome in the New Year along with the National Galleries of Scotland with Turner in January at the Scottish National Gallery. This is the fifth year that players of People’s Postcode Lottery have supported the tradition of showing Turner each January and it really is wonderful to see players’ support helping to provide thousands of visitors with the opportunity to play a part in this wonderful legacy”.
Born in London in 1775, Turner’s talent was evident from a remarkably young age – the gifted draughtsman was exhibiting works at the Royal Academy by the age of 15. He was a prolific, innovative and peripatetic artist who went on to exploit every possibility of the watercolour medium, travelling widely to capture creating stunning land- and seascapes. At first, Turner began his travels with sketching tours in England, Wales and Scotland, then later across Europe, where he gathered material for masterful watercolours and oil paintings.
The son of a wealthy industrialist, Henry Vaughan devoted a lifetime to collecting art and developed a connoisseur’s eye for quality. The distinguished collector probably first met Turner in the 1840s, at the peak of the artist’s career, and continued to amass his drawings and paintings after the artist died in 1851. The Scottish National Gallery would receive Vaughan’s bequest almost half a century later in 1900.
In addition to the Vaughan Turners, the highly atmospheric exhibition watercolour Mount Snowdon, Afterglow, painted around 1800, has been drawn from the Gallery’s permanent collection and will also be on display.
Mountains were a distinctive and especially dramatic strand in Turner’s work and he painted them throughout his career, from early watercolours of the mountains of north Wales, to the Highlands and islands of Scotland to the Swiss Alps. He regarded them as sources of awe and wonderment, but his interest extended beyond the visual and emotional; working at a time geologists were beginning to reveal new truths about the earth, Turner was aware that mountains potentially offered news ways of understanding the world around him.
Always an indefatigable traveller, Turner loved walking and hiking in search of spectacular and hard-to-access viewpoints. To paint the dramatic Brenva Glacier from the slopes of Le Chetif above Courmayeur, Val D’ Aosta (1836), shown under rosy early morning light, Turner would have had to climb a considerable distance from his lodgings at Courmayeur.
Turner toured Wales four times in the 1790s, visiting Snowdonia in 1798 and 1799, and his experiences there inspired a lifelong passion for mountain scenery. He made numerous sketches, which he worked up into exhibition watercolours such as Mount Snowdon, Afterglow and also used as the basis for engravings, such as Llanberis Lake and Snowdon, Caernarvon, Wales (about 1832) which he painted more than 30 years later as part of his most ambitious print series Picturesque Views in England and Wales.
The mountains of Scotland were also an extremely rich source of inspiration; Turner first visited the Highlands in 1801 and was to return several times, travelling to Skye and the Cuillins in 1831 to make sketches that he might work up as illustrations to Sir Walter Scott’s Poetical Works. The extraordinarily powerful Loch Coruisk, Skye (about 1831-4) was made to be engraved as the frontispiece to Scott’s The Lord of the Isles. Both Scott and Turner knew the Scottish geologist John MacCulloch (1773-1835), whose description of Loch Coruisk in his book Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland (1824) may have inspired Turner’s treatment of the scenery in this watercolour, “I felt like an insect amidst the gigantic scenery, and the whole magnitude of the place became at once sensible”.
Turner’s first encounter with the Swiss Alps came in 1802 and he was to return repeatedly, visiting Switzerland five times between 1836 and 1844. With majestic mountain peaks and rough, massive forms, the Swiss Alps encapsulated the concept of sublime landscape for Turner, whereby the onlooker experiences a profound emotional response – both of fear and astonishment – when confronted with the overwhelming power and grandeur of nature.
The Vaughan Bequest includes 11 superb views of Swiss mountain scenery and towns, of which a number probably date from his 1836 tour of the Alps with the Scottish landowner and collector Hugh Munro of Novar (1707-1864). Works such as From Chambave looking down the Valley D’Aosta towards Ussel (about 1836) superbly evoke the drama of changing light and weather set in the natural theatre of the mountain valley.
The Vaughan bequest also includes three watercolours of the spectacular Rhine waterfalls at Schaffhausen, Europe’s largest waterfall, taken from different viewpoints and at different times of day in 1841. In these Turner adopted a radical technique to evoke the blurring effect of flying spray – he would prepare his paper with grey wash, over which he depicted the subject, before rubbing and scraping the surface to suggest mist and spray.
Turner in January will run throughout the month, providing a welcome injection of light and colour during the darkest month of the year.