Joseph Mallord William Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner was perhaps the most prolific and innovative of all British artists to take inspiration from the landscape. He was a brilliant watercolourist and excelled at oil painting, and he also made a number of works which were intended to be reproduced as prints. Turner’s output was vast. He was drawn as much to scenes of modern life, for example he painted steam boats and feats of modern engineering, as he was to the work of the Old Masters who excelled at landscape, particularly Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorraine

Joseph Mallord William Turner Venice from the Laguna about 1835
Joseph Mallord William Turner Heidelberg about 1846

Turner’s approach to the rendering of landscape was fresh and original. He repeatedly sought out scenes of awesome topography such as vast and imposing mountain ranges, and his approach to the weather was similarly dramatic. He was drawn to examples of striking and often extreme natural feats: storms, tumultuous seas, lightning, rainbows, and the breaking dawn all feature prominently in his work. His subject matter was not limited to landscape, but also incorporated contemporary, historical, literary, religious and mythological themes.

In this feature we explore the pictures by Turner in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland, including how a large number of them were bequeathed to the galleries by the generosity of Henry Vaughan in 1900.

Turner & Scotland

Turner was one of the most prolific and innovative British artists of all time. He was born in Covent Garden, London in 1775, the son of a barber and wig-maker, and soon proved himself as an accomplished topographical draughtsman. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790, and at the age of twenty-six was elected an academician. The collection of oil paintings and works on paper by Turner in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery reflect the breadth of Turner’s interests, and reveal the various stages of his development as an artist.

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Falls of Clyde 1801
Joseph Mallord William Turner The Sun of Venice about 1840

Travel provided a key stimulus for Turner. From the 1790s he undertook sketching tours in England, Wales and Scotland, gathering material for watercolours and oil paintings, and gradually discovering the attractions of awe-inspiring mountainous landscapes, which became a major pre-occupation in his work. In 1802 he made his first journey to Continental Europe. He was to return in 1817, after the end of the Napoleonic wars, and from then on made annual visits across the Channel for much of the rest of his life. These journeys were usually undertaken in the summer, and included travels along the great rivers of northern Europe, visits to the Alps, as well as excursions into Italy, most notably to Venice and Rome. Venice, as a maritime city, had an irresistible appeal for Turner, who from his earliest days was attracted to the power and serenity of the sea.

Early in his career Turner had recognised the benefit of working with printmakers, creating watercolours that could be engraved, and so spreading and enhancing his reputation. In 1818 Turner was invited to contribute illustrations to Sir Walter Scott’s new publishing venture, the ‘Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland’. This was planned as a twelve-part serial, containing high quality engravings of sites of historical and picturesque interest, accompanied by descriptions written by Scott. This collaboration saw Scotland’s greatest romantic writer working together with England’s greatest romantic artist. Turner travelled to Scotland in the autumn of 1818 to make sketches for the commission. He produced ten watercolours to be engraved for the project, including ‘Edinburgh from Calton Hill’ and ‘Heriot’s Hospital, Edinburgh’. 

Joseph Mallord William Turner Edinburgh from Calton Hill about 1819
Joseph Mallord William Turner Heriot's Hospital, Edinburgh about 1819

Turner’s Edinburgh views show a lively interest in the contemporary life of the city, as well as depicting some of its most famous buildings and vistas. The ‘Provincial Antiquities’ was published in ten parts between 1819 and 1826, but it was not a commercial success and the series was eventually cut short.

Turner’s association with Scott continued and he was later employed to illustrate editions of Scott’s poetical and prose works. He visited Scott at his country house, Abbotsford, in 1831. Several of Turner’s illustrations for Scott’s works are among the watercolours in the collection. 

Between 1830 and 1839, Turner produced around 150 vignette illustrations for the work of authors who included Scott, Lord Byron, Samuel Rogers, and Thomas Campbell. Turner was an enthusiastic reader and responded with great sensitivity to the works he illustrated. He excelled at designing vignettes, often condensing a vast range of incidents and landscapes into a miniature space.

Joseph Mallord William Turner Chiefswood Cottage at Abbotsford 1831/2

The Scottish National Gallery has the only set of Turner’s literary vignettes that remain together in one collection, his twenty illustrations for ‘The Poetical Works of Thomas Campbell’. Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) was a Scottish poet, highly regarded by his contemporaries. 

 Turner’s vignettes for Campbell’s poems encompass a wide variety of subject matter, from military engagements to idyllic landscapes and scenes of Scottish romance. Although his watercolours were destined to be published as black and white engravings, Turner uses brilliant ultramarines and reds in his designs, intended to indicate light, tone and texture to the engraver. Turner’s literary vignettes are now considered to be some of the most beautiful of all his watercolour illustrations.

Turner died at Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. The Scottish National Gallery’s holdings of works by Turner have entered the collection through a variety of purchases, gifts and bequests, including the significant bequest made by Henry Vaughan in 1899.

J.M.W Turner and Scotland


Charlotte Topsfield, Senior Curator of British Drawings and Prints at the Scottish National Gallery, discusses the work of JMW Turner and his connections to Scotland.

The Vaughan Bequest

Henry Vaughan (1809-1899) was one of the most distinguished and generous of Victorian collectors.  He lived in London, and when he just twenty-one he inherited a fortune from his father, who had been a wealthy hat maker. Vaughan was one of the most discerning and public-spirited of Victorian connoisseur-collectors. He enjoyed the life of a gentleman of leisure and used his wealth to travel across Europe and acquire works of art, but was also a philanthropist who supported a number of charitable projects.

His rich and diverse collection ranged from medieval stained glass to paintings and drawings by his contemporaries. The most important early works he acquired were drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens and Rembrandt, which are now in the British Museum. However, it was above all eighteenth and nineteenth-century British art that came to dominate his interests. The most famous oil painting Vaughan bought was John Constable’s ‘The Hay-Wain’, which he presented to the National Gallery in London.

Vaughan probably met Turner in the 1840s and built a remarkable collection of his drawings and watercolours which spanned the artist’s entire career, and only included works in fine condition. Throughout his life, Turner made many thousands of pencil drawings – often slight studies that would establish the structure of a view or composition. These were then used indoors, either in his London studio, or, for example, in a hotel room in Venice, as the basis for more fully developed watercolours and oil paintings. Many of the thirty-eight watercolours in the Vaughan bequest reveal Turner quickly trying to capture a structure or effect, while others concentrate on colour relationships rather than actual scenery.

Joseph Mallord William Turner Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen, Moonlight 1841

Vaughan was probably inspired to bequeath his Turners to public collections by the great critic John Ruskin (1809-1899), who had donated works by the artist to museums. A number of museums and galleries across Britain and Ireland were beneficiaries of Vaughan’s generosity, including the National Galleries of Scotland. Like Ruskin, Vaughan was aware of the importance of conserving watercolours, which easily fade if over-exposed to light. He stipulated that measures should be taken to preserve his bequest in its fresh and brilliant condition. In his will he stipulated that the watercolours be ‘exhibited to the public all at one time free of charge during the month of January’. At all other times they were to be kept in a special cabinet in the Print Room.

Installation of the Turner in January exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery

He specified January as it is one of the darkest months therefore the natural light levels are very weak and less likely to cause damage. His wishes have been respected, and for over a century the annual display of the Vaughan Turners has become a much-loved Edinburgh tradition. They can also be seen by visitors throughout the year by appointment at the Prints and Drawings Study Room.

The Vaughan Bequest of works by Turner inspired important subsequent acquisitions. These include Turner’s only complete set of literary vignettes – the illustrations he created for Thomas Campbell’s poems – which entered the collection in 1988. Other major purchases, such as the artist’s spectacular watercolour of ‘Bell Rock Lighthouse’, and two illustrations he made for Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Provincial Antiquities’, mean that that Scottish National Gallery can provide visitors with a remarkably rich overview of the achievement of one of the most accessible and admired of all romantic artists.

Explore the Vaughan Bequest

The Vaughan bequest consists of 38 watercolours painted by Turner throughout his career. Only displayed to the public during the month of January, you can explore these works in detail all year round through this collection