Turner in Edinburgh

Walking around Edinburgh at any time of the year, but especially at summertime on the Royal Mile, I’m a sucker for groups of people gathered around street performers. Over I’ll trot, sheep-like, blindly going with the flow and I’ll stand, watch and wait.  I linger waiting for the interminable preamble of performer/crowd banter before we the actual act begins. Every so often I might see something wonderful but, more often than not, it’s average: all bluster and not much substance.

There are certain shows, performances or exhibitions though, that will never let you down. Once a year, in January, when the sunlight is said to be at its weakest (and I can attest to that) we get to see Turner’s most delicate of watercolours in the Scottish National Gallery. This is a tradition in two cities – Dublin and Edinburgh – and if you live in or near either you should make it your business to go every year. Take 15 minutes, take an hour, take two; however much time you want to give J.M.W. and gaze upon his 200 year-old works, your time will not be time wasted. Edinburgh’s collection totals 38 and Dublin has 31. In both cases they were bequeathed in 1899 following the death of collector and patron of the arts, Henry Vaughan, along with a stipulation that they should be free for the public to view. Despite Dublin being home to some of these important paintings, Turner, the avid traveller, never visited Ireland. The rest of Europe is well represented in his art, as is Scotland and England. Oddly, Dublin holds his best picture of Edinburgh: a view of the Castle from below Salisbury Crags, all theatrically placed under a threatening sky – a sight I’ve witnessed more than a few times. In this watercolour there is a body of water in the foreground surrounded by cattle. The loch he has painted isn’t there anymore.  I wonder if it has been filled in, or if the landscape has changed since he painted it in 1801?

Having lived in Durham for a short while, I was interested to see his watercolour of Durham Cathedral – part of the Edinburgh collection. As with all of the others, it is luminous – not with the pinks, purples and oranges that make me think about the dying and subsequent dawning of the day – but with shades of camel, bronze and gold. I can see Framwellgate Bridge in the distance and Castle College perched on a height – but something is just not right. I read the description on the wall beside it. It that tells me Turner has rotated Durham Cathedral around by 45 degrees. Ha! What surprising artistic licence from one who so loved to seek authenticity in his work. So maybe the loch below Salisbury Crags was a flight of imagination?

About five years ago the film ‘Turner’ came out, about the life of the artist. He was portrayed as a man of few words, of many grunts and of irrepressible talent. The film included the infamous story of Turner demanding to be lashed to a mast of a ship during a tempest so as he could better depict the stormy sea in his paintings – a perfect marriage of bluster and substance. It seems a little far to go for the love of one’s craft but we should, as far as possible, live like a painter even if we do not paint: observing closely, listening keenly, using all of our senses to drink in life. Then, if it helps, make your own adjustments: flip, turn, try something new, add a dash of imagination, and make your own magic.

And so, as I bemoan the lack of light, the persistent grey, and the curtain of driech* under which we sometimes find ourselves in this city, I must admit that there is beauty lurking in the shadows and wonder in winter’s gloaming.  Most of all, there is beauty in a dimly lit room in an Edinburgh gallery harbouring Turner’s jewels, which take their annual bow alongside January’s snowdrops.

*Scots: ‘dreich‘ = dull and miserable weather

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