The National Gallery of Scotland hopes to disperse the winter gloom with its annual display of Turner watercolors—a tall order, considering the nature of Scottish weather. But if there is one artist equal to the task, it is the master colorist J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851). Every January for over a hundred years, the Scottish capital’s National Gallery has rolled out a selection of Turner’s finest drawings and watercolors. The perennial exhibition, “Turner in January,” comes from the collection of Henry Vaughan (1809–99). Vaughan was a London businessman who had a great love—and a great eye—for art, especially British art of his era. He left these Turners to the Royal Scottish Academy with a handful of conditions: first, he demanded that the collection only be displayed in January, when the light is low and the fragile pigments are best protected; and second, he wanted the exhibition to be free to the viewing public. These two stipulations are still honored to this day.

Best remembered for his monumental and fiery landscapes, Turner was one of the most prolific and innovative artists of his time. What the Edinburgh exhibition offers is a look at a different side of the artist: these works on paper display his light touch and love for travel. Turner made regular trips to the Continent, and two places, the Alps and Venice, left a special impression on him.

J. M. W. Turner, Heidelberg, After 1846, Watercolor, gouache, pen & ink, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The nearly forty works gathered here show an extraordinary range in both subject and style. Some are light and airy; the many depictions of Alpine valleys have a misty, almost dreamlike quality. Others are bold and alive with color. The watercolor Heidelberg (ca. 1846) is dashing and vibrant, the falling sun setting the river and hills ablaze in a wash of orange and gold. The composition is oddly reminiscent of his much more colossal canvas The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835). But whereas the red flow of The Burning is frightful and grave, the strong illumination and gleaming river of Heidelberg celebrates the city about which Turner said, “Of all the grandly romantic spots, by nature, art and interesting circumstances Heidelberg is the first.”

Another location that seized Turner’s eye was Venice. Just like his great admirer Ruskin, Turner was enchanted by La Serenissima. He spent only four weeks there across three visits, but he frequently displayed Venetian landscapes at Royal Academy exhibitions.

The Piazzetta, Venice (1840) is the most striking—a bolt of lightning streaks across an angry sky as Venetians scramble for cover. The Palazzo Ducale is illuminated for an instant, while the ghostly outline of San Marco’s white marble emerges from the dark air.

J. M. W. Turner, The Piazzeta, Venice, 1840, Watercolor, gouache, pen & ink, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The Piazzetta is the most immediately impactful of the Venetian watercolors, but the others certainly possess a unique character and an equal, albeit more subtle, aesthetic value. The Sun of Venice (1840)—made on the same trip as The Piazzetta, Turner’s last to the city—is a simpler sketch of Venice’s bragozzi (small fishing boats). It is still identifiably Turner; the fishing boats are the only clearly defined points in the composition, rendered in sharp reds and oranges. The rest—the water, the sky, and the grandeur of The Floating City—is only suggested in the all-enveloping haze. Little is lost for this, though, as the soft intimations of Venetian landmarks in the background add to the romance of the composition, the beauty of what’s only suggested. He captures the effects of the summer heat evaporating the water, making a bridge from lake to sky. According to the British critic Martin Gayford, “No one, not Canaletto, not Guardi, not even Titian, had previously conveyed the vaporous delicacy of Venetian light as these watercolours do.” It is an assessment with which one struggles to disagree.

Other pieces, grounded in the soil of Turner’s homeland, are earthy and detailed. Turner visited Durham, England, several times and seems to have been fascinated by its Norman cathedral. Durham (1801) is a somber and shadowy piece, worked up in rich and airy greens and grays. It depicts an England that has long since vanished. The magnificence of the cathedral rises up against the quiet of the countryside. Another Durham (ca. 1835), however, is more polished. Gone are the washes of gray that Turner used so well in the 1801 composition to render his atmospheric effects and the northern sky; these are replaced instead by a brilliant setting sun, which bathes everything in an ethereal golden glow.

J. M. W. Turner, Durham, 1801, Watercolor over pencil, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

With all the fanfare and crowds that typically accompany Turner shows, it is a pleasure—at least for once—to enjoy the artist in a smaller space and on a smaller scale. These pieces have an irresistible intimacy to them. From the canals of Venice to the lofty peaks of the Alps and the cathedrals of his native England, Turner remains a master of effect, color, and composition: these works move and glow. And they make us forget, if only for a minute, the cold, gray northern sky outside.

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