Neither man mentioned the other by name, but the whole day crackled with the tension between them. One boasted of the wonderful legacy he was leaving for the new administration to build 'something spectacular' on. The other, older, wiser, focused on what lay ahead. The words he used spoke of healing, of coming together, ending this civil war between fellow Americans, of showing love and decency and respect, of assuming this task with soul. The contrast was palpable. We can but hope the idealism will carry conviction, as politicians' actions have a tendency, even with the best of intentions, to be derailed by reality or blocked by unexpected opposition. Something very unpleasant has been revealed about American society. 'We are good people,' Biden said. One hopes, one truly hopes, its better part will now prevail.
Over here we have enough to continue to preoccupy us. A longer and tighter lockdown. Delays over vaccine supply – a couple I know in their late 80s had their last week's appointment cancelled with still no rescheduling. Snow, rain and yet again terrible floods – 'We have to evacuate, but with all the restrictions where can we evacuate to?' asked one man caught on a news bulletin. How do people cope? Then lorries trapped in a bureaucratic mire between the EU and the UK, fish and meat rotting at Channel ports, the port of Holyhead empty of traffic and likely to close, businesses on the brink of collapse, vital PPE stuck in Poland. British musicians unable to tour in Europe without multiple visas. Truckers having their sarnies snatched – 'Welcome to Brexit'. What were the benefits of Brexit supposed to be again? Are there any? Maybe Nissan might stay put in Sunderland after all and focus on electric cars. Sovereignty, what was all that about?
I'll park those thoughts there for now.
For over a century, the Scottish National Gallery puts its collection of 38 J M W Turner watercolours and drawings on display during the month of January under the terms of the Henry Vaughan Bequest. Vaughan (1809-1899), the son of an immensely successful felt hat manufacturer, was a wealthy London collector and philanthropist who travelled widely in Europe gathering works by some of the finest artists from the 16th and 17th centuries up to his own time. With the encouragement of John Ruskin, he was particularly drawn to Turner's work and the terms of his bequest to the Scottish National Gallery stipulated that the works should be exhibited every year in their entirety, free of charge and during the month of January, because the weak winter light then does less damage to the quality of the paintings. Generous in his bequests, Vaughan was also discreet. Apparently no portrait of him exists.
This year, because of the Covid restrictions, the gallery is closed, but it's providing several online tours of its various collections and a specific selection of the Turners under the guidance of Dr Christopher Baker, Director of European and Scottish Art and Portraiture at the National Galleries of Scotland. A decade ago I joined a creative writing class at the gallery and was particularly inspired by a tour of the 2009 exhibition, Turner and Italy
, given by Dr Baker. His reflections on a tiny, possibly unfinished, enigmatic vignette of Turner's hotel room in Venice inspired a short story, the longest I have written so far. I mention this to highlight the quality of the inspiration, although there are some interesting details I wish I had known when I was writing it, such as the elongated clawlike thumbnail Turner grew to add detailed texture to some of his work. I missed a trick there, I fear.
Turner was born in 1775 in Covent Garden, London, the son of a barber and wig maker. His exceptional talent developed early. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1790 and became an academician at the age of 26. His early life coincided with that turbulent period of European history that included the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and in British literature with the romantic and Gothic imagination of the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Byron.
In the 1790s, he undertook sketchbook tours of England and Wales and, from 1797, visited Scotland, where he would develop a close friendship with Sir Walter Scott. In 1818, he was invited to contribute illustrations to a planned series of Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland
, with written descriptions by Scott.
In 1831, he visited Scott at Abbotsford and later illustrated editions of Scott's poetic and prose works. One of the paintings in the Vaughan Bequest, Melrose, shows a party of men picknicking late one afternoon looking out across the River Tweed towards the Eildon Hills. One of the figures bears a strong similarity to Scott and another in a tall black hat to Turner himself. Two other works in the collection reference Scott after his death. Chiefswood Cottage, Abbotsford
, was the summer house on the estate used by Scott's daughter, Charlotte Sophia and her husband, later Scott's biographer, John Gibson Lockhart. An empty chair under the trees and an unoccupied writer's desk and stool suggest the absent writer. The other, The Rhymer's Glen, Abbotsford
has an image of Scott's cane leaning against a bench a favourite location on which the writer used to sit and rest.
From 1802, interrupted only by the main period of the Napoleonic Wars, Turner travelled extensively in Europe, in Germany, France and Italy. Aside from Venice and Rome, he was drawn to mountain scenery, seascapes, dramatic effects of light and water, of extreme weather, thunderstorms, rainbows, the effect of dawnlight and moonlight, harbour scenes with fishermen setting out their catch and images of ships and boats, indicating the changes taking place in naval architecture from sail to steam, His later work moves closer to the more abstract techniques of the Impressionists, well ahead of his time. Even Ruskin, apparently, didn't fully appreciate them.
Turner's output was prodigious. He died at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, in 1851 and is buried in St Paul's Cathedral.
Dr Baker's guide can be viewed on YouTube (In Focus: The Vaughan Turners)
and further information about the Vaughan Bequest is available on the National Galleries of Scotland's website
, to both of which I am indebted.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh