A refreshing look at an Old Master

When I think about J.M.W. Turner works I think about expert use of light and skilful abstract paintings; Turner in January, an annual exhibit at the National Gallery in Edinburgh provided a new look at an artist I thought I had all figured out. I’ve always loved Turner’s oil paintings, but had never searched much beyond those famous works to his lesser-known but still highly regarded watercolours. That is until I made a stop in Edinburgh during my inter-semester break and couldn’t resist the beckoning advertisements for Turner in January that I saw everywhere. For 110 years the small collection of Turners, donated by art collector Henry Vaughn, have been wheeled out only during dark Scottish Januaries in order to avoid damage from light. Always willing to pounce on the opportunity to see art, especially without paying, I couldn’t resist seeing this other side of a great artist.

'The Slave Ship' or 'Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhoon coming on.' J.M.W. Turner

I was disappointed at first; I longed for the enormous, attention-demanding Turner pieces I had always known and not the comparably washed-out, nearly A4-sized watercolours in front of me. But this disappointment was only temporary. It took a little adjustment and I can’t deny that the mostly grey and blue waterscapes were lacklustre at first, but the exhibit did win me over, especially as I circled it for a second time, soaking in the details. I fell in love with the intimacy of the single exhibit room and the small watercolours with their abstract detail and sweeping brushwork. Though the exhibit was minute, especially in comparison to the enormous, high-ceiling, jam-packed rooms around it, by the end the watercolours had grown on me. I found myself enjoying the rich complexities of the watercolour blues and eventually found the elements of Turner that I have always favoured, just transformed to fit another medium. There are the same golden light and sweeping brushstrokes, though they are not as dramatic as they are in oil paintings.

I think what really ended up winning me over was the way that Turner’s simple, nearly abstract depictions of objects crossed over medium. I’ve always been amazed at how in a few simple brushstrokes he can reveal a full crowd of people or a city skyline. In his watercolours this same element is apparent to the close observer, especially in one painting called ‘Sion, Rhone’. It’s a landscape depicted in mostly sweeping strokes of dawn oranges and brown-greens, but in the midst of mountains and water Turner has simply but clearly shown a bridge crossing the entire painting. Not only is the technique he uses to create this bridge fascinating, but what it brings to the painting is important as well. The mountains shown are enormous and awe-inspiring; they take up most of the work. The tiny, almost invisible bridge just makes their magnitude all the more impressive.

The shades of the watercolours, whilst not the Romantic golds and reds I had been anticipating, were rich and beautiful. The longer I stared the more the classic elements of Turner painting popped out at me. The crowds of people demonstrated by just a few sweeping brush strokes, just the right hues to capture every landscape from Scotland to Germany to Venice. In the end it was nearly impossible for an art-lover like myself to leave without a contented smile.

I definitely recommend this exhibit to anyone from the most casual museum visitor to the art fanatic. It’s a refreshing, lovely look at an old artist and will definitely bring a little bit of light into even the darkest, coldest Scottish winter. If you missed it this year, don’t worry, it should be coming back next year and hopefully for many years to come.


Emily Grant

Image – Wikimedia Commons