Turner in January: some thoughts on the Vaughan Bequest exhibition, Edinburgh

Odd things happen artwise in Edinburgh (and I suppose in Dublin and London) in January.

Some years it’s difficult to decide whether the Vaughan bequest of 38 of Turner’s watercolours and sketches is a blessing or a curse for the National Galleries.  On the one hand, surely this is perfect, conservationist ‘Cream Egg Syndrome’: once a year, strictly exclusive to January, and for the rest of the time we’re supposedly left wanting.  On the other hand, despite its mandatory brevity, this exhibition has a perennial tendency to be repetitive and incentive to do anything interesting with it is potentially lacking.

2011’s Turner is in the exhibition space downstairs by the Scottish collection.  This soporific bunker doesn’t lend itself favourably to the appreciation of art at the best of times and the Turners are exhibited in vaguely chronological order without significant curatorial invention.  However, one of the twists of the bequest itself is that Vaughan collected the works with the intention of representing all the main periods of Turner’s artistic development, and he passed these pieces on to Edinburgh with the same thought.  What results is a coherent collection of sketches and paintings which makes sense as a set, so we may forgive the National Galleries’ staff for keeping their interpretation largely in the background.

Best known among the collection are probably the energetic, lightening-emblazoned watercolour The Piazzetta, Venice (pictured) and the endlessly absorbing, ethereal Heidelberg.  But other highlights include the study of colour relationships in Harbour View and the breathtaking little watercolour Loch Coruisk, and among his blue and grey wash sketches, Lake Albano.

You can’t help but feel for the curators having to roll these works out year upon year in January, and a certain fatigue seems evident.  But this doesn’t stop Turner in January from being one of the quirkily fabulous treats of the Edinburgh calendar.

You have until 31st January (or you’ll have to wait 11 months!)

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