January not only marks the first month of the Alexander Thomson Bicentenary, but it also plays host to the Scottish National Gallery’s annual ‘Turner in January’ exhibition. The National Gallery boasts a fantastic collection of Turner watercolours that were bequeathed by Victorian collector Henry Vaughan on the agreement that they would be exhibited to the public for free each January, a practice which the National Gallery has maintained for over 100 years.

Turner, alongside John Martin and John Flaxman, were the three artists whose work had the most significant influence on Thomson and his creative output. As an architect who did not travel beyond Britain, and rarely beyond Scotland, Thomson instead relied heavily on the imagery contained in books and artworks for his inspiration.


“What, however, gave Thomson’s architectural creations the emotive power was the combination of the literary research and careful measured drawings of cognoscenti and architects with the visual imagery of the painter. It is known that Thomson admired the work of Turner … and that of John Martin in particular.” James Macaulay


Thomson admired both the picturesque compositions that Turner produced in his earlier career, praising his “magnificent architectural compositions”, as well as his later works that embodied Thomson’s anti-Ruskinian view of the definition of great art “mere feats of dexterity [in the replication of nature] may astonish or amuse us; they do not elevate our minds.”


The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire by JMW Turner.
On display at Tate Britain, London. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00499


Whilst displaying a great deal of respect for Ruskin, Thomson lectured against his teachings, believing that fine art emerged from the subjective rather than objective. He noted the benefits of the objective (in this case replication or imitation) at the outset of an artist’s training in bestowing them with a usefulness, but stated that fine art could only be achieved by the subjective (what we see in our imaginations or feel in our hearts). Thomson directly utilises Turner’s work to reinforce his argument against Ruskin’s teachings by pointing out the contradiction between his view that replication of nature is the highest form of art, and his great admiration for Turner’s ability to paint “not pictures but souls of pictures.”


Monte Rosa by JMW Turner – Scottish National Gallery
“Pictures representing the mere effects of air and distance, the brightness of noon, the gloom of night, the twilight of morning and evening … Turner is distinguished above all other for producing pictures of this kind” Thomson


Thomson saw the work of Turner, Martin and Flaxman as exemplifying subjective fine art; Martin in his architectural compositions, Flaxman in his use of delineation stripped backed to the purest essentials, and Turner in his later abandonment of delineation and use of colour and form.


Plate from ‘Illustrations to the Bible’: Belshazzar’s Feast by John Martin http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T04896


Both shared a passion for the picturesque, for the power of horizontality and for the philosophy of Edmund Burke, whose statement that landscape painting “should focus on what is infinite, over-whelming, heroic, on unconquered, alien nature, before which man stands in fear and amazement – in short, on the Sublime” could equally be applied to Thomson’s approach to tenement design or his proposals for the South Kensington museum.


“Thomson captures this pictorial splendour in romantic compositions such as his St Vincent Street Church, which is close to the tradition of topographical paintings by Turner” Watkin


As Sam McKinstry puts it when discussing Thomson’s first Haldane Lecture, “He lays bare the Sublime artistic vision with which he so closely identified: his admiration for Turner can now be fully understood.”


Queen’s Park Terrace by Thomson


Thomson himself eloquently described his passion for horizontality with reference to Turner:


“The element of length is developed or suggested, and it will be readily perceived that there is no single building or combination of buildings, however great in extent, to which this element does not apply and which, with proper treatment, would not be enhanced in dignity and proportion as it is prolonged. … All who have studied works of art must have been struck by the mysterious power of the horizontal element in carrying the mind away into space, and into speculations on infinity. The pictures of Turner … afford frequent examples of this. The expanding effect which is thus produced upon the mind cannot be overrated.”


Thomson displayed an evident interest in pieces from across Turner’s whole career, and the impact that the works produced by Turner and others had on the imagination and thinking of Thomson should not be underestimated. The ‘Turner in January’ exhibition displays some of Turner’s smaller scale watercolour works, but let that not discourage you any from making the effort to go and visit it. As Thomson himself said:


“Turner the painter could express immeasurable space on a leaf of his pocket book. It is relative proportion, not actual magnitude, that produces greatness.”


The exhibition runs until January 31st and more information about the exhibition can be found here.

Meanwhile the National Gallery’s collection of Turner artworks can be viewed online here.

by Scott Abercrombie