Every January since 1900 the Scottish National Gallery has displayed a group of watercolours by Turner from the bequest of Henry Vaughan, providing a feast of colour to lift the spirits of locals and visitors alike during the short dark days of a Scottish winter. This annual tradition follows the strict instructions of the bequest. Alert to the dangers of exposing watercolours to excessive daylight, Henry Vaughan specified that the thirty-eight works that he left to the Gallery should only be displayed in January when the light is weakest and least destructive.
The son of a hat manufacturer in south London, Henry Vaughan inherited great wealth which he used throughout his life for charitable ends and to amass a substantial art collection, dominated by British art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He eventually gifted or bequeathed most of his collection to museums across Britain, including most famously Constable’s The Hay Wain to the National Gallery in London and an important group of old master drawings to the British Museum. He divided his remarkable collection of works by Turner across several museums including the National Galleries of Ireland and Scotland.
This dramatic watercolour is one of six views of Venice in Vaughan’s bequest to Scotland. It was made during a trip to Venice in the late summer of 1840, Turner’s third and final visit to the city. His stay lasted only two weeks but the level of his industry was remarkable; he filled over 200 sketchbook pages and made well over 100 watercolours. No other city seems to have captured Turner’s imagination so fully, and in many respects his images of Venice have become synonymous with his late style.
The view here is easily recognisable as the Doge’s Palace seen from the Biblioteca Marciana (visible at the left) looking past the two columns that dominate the seaward end of the famous Piazzetta, the ceremonial heart of Venice. The dramatic flash of lightning picks out one of the domes of San Marco and lights up the façade of the Doge’s Palace which is set against an angry blue sky. The crowds scatter for the shelter of the nearby arcades and, between the columns, two tiny figures are caught exposed as they grab their stools and run for cover. Originally this sheet formed part of the so-called ‘storm’ sketchbook and is one of several studies that record the unpredictable and frequently inclement weather of Venice in the late summer. Some of these are the most rapid of annotations made directly from nature, perhaps from the safety of his nearby hotel room. This image is more substantial and is worked up in pen and ink over the watercolour so it is probably a recollection rather than a work made on the spot. The bolt of lightning was created by scraping away the paint to expose the white paper underneath, an effect that was perhaps achieved with the end of a brush or even with the claw-like thumbnail which Turner reputedly grew for this very purpose.
Published online 2016/17
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.