There is something rather poignant about a work of art so sensitive to natural light that to put it on display will inevitably diminish its colours. Watercolours are famously sensitive to sunlight, with strong rays irrevocably damaging the subtle pigments. These rare Turner watercolours are deemed so sensitive to light that they are only put on display for a month each year in order to protect them from the damaging effects of the sun. Where could be more safe from sunlight than Edinburgh in January? It is during this month only, when the sun is at its weakest, that Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery brings out these precious paintings.
The tradition of a January-only exhibition of these Turner watercolours – an event which also happens in Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland – dates back to 1900. The works were bequeathed by wealthy English collector Henry Vaughan, who over his lifetime amassed a sterling collection of the artist’s work. When he died in 1899 he gifted 38 Turners to the Scottish National Gallery and 31 to the National Gallery of Ireland, but on the promise that his beloved paintings only be put on public display during the month of January. He even gave the National Gallery of Ireland a specially made cabinet to keep the paintings in when not on display, another tradition that the gallery upholds to this day.
The collection includes both the seascapes for which Turner is most famous, but also many sketches made during his travels in Europe, where his daring sense of colour and light in the landscape is most powerfully revealed (you can read more about Turner’s adventurous and even scandalous use of colour here). When the collection was received after Vaughan’s death, the then-Director of the Dublin gallery, Walter Armstrong, wrote “In making his collection, he took the greatest care to confine himself to drawings in which he could see no fading. Once his, they were religiously protected from the sun. It’s thanks to Vaughan’s tender loving care that these priceless watercolours still shine so brightly. A century hence, Turner as a colourist will only survive in things which once formed part of the Vaughan collection,” he said, “unless those drawings which are still uninjured are put out of reach while there is still time.”
Thanks to this great bequest, and the faithful following of its terms by these two illustrious galleries, Turner’s colours remain true to the day they were painted. For your chance to see them in 2017 you’d better be quick. Both galleries will take down their displays on 31 January for another year.