The new year is the best time to start thinking of this year’s summer escape. The joyful Christmas period has passed leaving behind a grey, sludgy January in its wake with promises of gales and drizzle. With divine timing, or a promise made over a hundred years ago, JMW Turner (1775 – 1851) brings light, colour and the warm thoughts of travel and adventure to Edinburgh afresh, reminding visitors of the light at the end of the tunnel.
Henry Vaughan (1809 – 1899), a wealthy man of leisure, collected a vast amount of important art during his lifetime and bequeathed his collection of Turner’s works to the National Galleries of Scotland when he died. This was under the condition that the works would be shown each year in January in a dark room, ensuring minimal exposure to sunlight to protect the paintings.
This selection of works indicates very little of the artist’s fascination with the fast pace of 19th century life and the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution. Instead, the group of pictures appears to shed light on Turner’s talent in creating picturesque illustrations of woods, cottages and handsome trees with all their leaves while simultaneously executing some ethereal and dream-like scenes or other sublime paintings that please us and terrify us equally.
“Venice From the Laguna” is the only painting from the group made in Venice that depicts a method of transport, an underrepresentation of Turner’s advocacy for it. A small dark steam ship is placed near the centre of the composition, indicating the way the artist travelled whilst also placing the painting on a timeline. Since chronology is not the primary focus of this exhibition visitors are only given clues such as Turner’s first trip abroad and the three different years that he travelled to Venice. Alternatively, it is the geography that organises the paintings, assembling those made in the same location together.
This delicate collection, ranging from sketches to exhibition pieces, is a successful insight into Turner’s mind. The artist’s documentation of his environment exposes his interests in colour, light and atmosphere in the execution of his pieces. It is the use of passionate violets and oranges, like those in “Sea View and Harbour View”, that enable the viewer to connect profoundly with Turner’s infatuation with the landscape. Through these paintings the audience is encouraged to see the world as Turner did and the effect is calming despite the intensity of his exquisite detailing in some areas and tactical scraping of the surface in others.
As an introduction to the artist this collection of work might risk appearing repetitive and unadventurous but to develop one’s understanding of JMW Turner and his work this exhibition is a useful tool. Either way it is not difficult to extract light and positivity from this small but perfectly formed group of paintings.
On at The National Gallery until 31st January