The Student
Turner in January
by Carlos Finlay, 19/01/18

Despite the excitement of returning to university, January so far has been a frosty affair – both in politics and in reality.. This week has seen the falling of snow, and the creation of a fantasy, winter landscape. But within the doors of the Scottish National Gallery, Turner in January offers a much warmer, more welcoming vista – habitable only until the month expires.

The works on display are an inherited bequest of the late collector Henry Vaughan. For the modest size of the exhibition – occupying only one far room of the National Gallery – this is an impressive display to have come from a single 19th century private collection. But for fear of the watercolours fading, Vaughan requested that his collection of JMW Turner works only be displayed in low-light January, and for over one-hundred years Edinburgh has complied with his request.

The exhibition is intimate; Turner’s array of watercolours and sketches escort us through his travels to such places as Venice, Lake Como, Switzerland, Durham and Edinburgh. His small yet vivid works give us a glimpse of nostalgia, viewing a past world of exploding and evolving skies, turbulent oceans and plush sprawling landscapes. Never explicitly intended for public display, Turner promotes an assembly of what are essentially vibrant postcards.

But continuing this line of thought, the National Gallery delineates a progression in his exploration and experimentation of media and techniques. Moving anticlockwise around the gallery space, we find a transition from vivid watercolour and chalk to monochrome inks and charcoals. The works fluctuate in and out of abstraction, from identifiable cityscapes, to wholly unrecognisable scenes. Landscapes undulate with excitement, and cruise with sedation. We’re presented with the importance of travel to Turner, offering him – as well as ourselves – inventive ways to observe the world.

Nonetheless, Joseph Mallord William Turner gained prominence for his hazily ambiguous rendition of landscapes; the hanging of this exhibition didn’t help these works to stand out as individual oeuvres. Clearly Vaughan’s collection is extensive, but not to the point of needing more than one room, making this exhibition seem somewhat overcrowded as each work jostles with its adjacent. A blurring of myriad warm rotating clouds and waves may be welcomed during this icy January, but its presence throughout the exhibition verges on the overwhelming.

Likewise, however, perhaps that’s the point; the gallery space boasts its ownership of such an eclectic and vast body of work, throbbing with uniformly expressive brushstrokes and sensuous, overstated colours.

The Scottish National Gallery has embraced Vaughan’s Turner collection for over a century, and for clear reasons. The exhibition may be modest in size, but it bursts with both the liveliness and composure that defined Turner’s career. Being a visual way to document the travel imperative to Turner’s work, this admission-free exhibition is certainly worth a glance – if not this year, then the next – on an equally glacial January day.

Until 31 January 2018 

Scottish National Gallery 

Photo credit: Carlos Finlay