An exhibition? In January? Are you mad? No I’m not, and never fear, it’s free! I know you are all poor, tired, fed up, and wondering whether humans could hibernate, but this is exactly why you should pile some clothes on top of your jammies and drag yourself to the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh for a blissful hour or two.
Henry Vaughan (1809-1899) was the minted-playboy-philanthropist-art-collecting-world-travelling son of a wealthy hat maker. The quintessential trust fund kid. He sounds like a right laugh, and was clearly a very generous man. He donated much of his vast collection of art to galleries and museums across Britain, in what was known as the Vaughan Bequest. The Sottish National Gallery was gifted with a collection of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) watercolours which had been collected over the years by Vaughan. He was clearly aware of just how important the collection was, and made several very modern and sensible stipulations as to how and when theses delicate works of art were displayed. He stated that the watercolours and sketches were to be ‘exhibited to the public all at one time free of charge during the month of January’. January was selected as this is when winter light is weak and less damaging, and for over 100 years the National Gallery has been doing just that. I think that’s terribly romantic, I think that the stories behind collections and bequests are just as compelling as the objects themselves, and they offer us an insight into the lives of individual collectors as well as the societies and periods which they lived in.
The exhibition itself is held in a suitably dimly lit small oval room in the Gallery. It was busy, but there was a sense of a shared experience which made everyone smile at each other and shuffle around clockwise in a very polite and cheerful manner. I do love a bit of Turner, he created fabulously dreamlike and atmospheric images, portals to other worlds. Some of the watercolours perfectly captured the crackle in the air during a lightning storm, or the smell and sound of the spray on a sunny day at the beach. What I didn’t expect to see though, were burnt orange landscapes with purple skies that look like Martian scenes, or like a vision from a nightmare, very sci-fi, and very very intriguing.
The exhibition runs till the end of January, and if you miss it, don’t worry, it’ll be back next year.