Watercolors Preserved From Light's Ravages

A wise collector of Turner paintings kept them literally in the dark

The Scots seem convinced they invented New Year's Eve. They do it in a big way. The latest hogmanay celebrations attracted thousands to Princes Street in Edinburgh, and their collective excitement was beamed across Britain and Europe by BBC-TV.

Once the litter was cleared away it was time for another - quieter - Edinburgh New Year's tradition to begin. At the National Gallery of Scotland the annual display of the J.M.W. Turner watercolors opened to the public, as it has each January for more than 90 years.

These watercolors, by the 19th-century landscape painter sometimes described as Britain's greatest artist, are traditionally displayed during the month when daylight is weakest; too much strong light is notoriously destructive to watercolor paintings. The man who left them to the museum insisted they be kept protectively in the dark the remaining 11 months. The result is a group of watercolors in particularly fine condition.

The basis of this Turner collection (since added to by further acquisitions, including a unique set of 20 watercolors illustrating the poetry of Thomas Campbell) consists of 38 paintings bequeathed in 1900 by a wealthy art collector, Henry Vaughan.

Vaughan's strict requirements echoed John Ruskin's earlier stipulations when he gave Turner watercolors to both Oxford and Cambridge - only in these cases the Turners are never displayed.

Mungo Campbell, the gallery's assistant keeper and curator of prints and drawings, describes what happens to watercolors that are not consistently protected from light exposure.

"The colors that have always been the most fugitive are the pigments artists have used for things like skies. Blues and greens are very often the first to suffer," he says. The result can be a "pinky-sky'd, almost sunset-like watercolor that ... may or may not have once shown a sunset but certainly now appears to. It's a combination of the blue having fled - and then the other thing that happens if you leave an ordinary newspaper lying in the sunshine. It goes brown.

"So you get the rather hot-looking, reddy-brown appearance of the paper combined with the fading of whatever wash was in the sky itself. And other colors will be affected."

Vaughan and Ruskin were somewhat ahead of the times in their concern to protect Turner watercolors from light. In fact, Mr. Campbell says, it has probably only happened in the last 20 or so years that, because of a growing body of evidence as to the vulnerability of works on paper, truly rigorous strictures have been introduced by museums and galleries.

At the National Gallery of Scotland, the drawings galleries today have no natural light at all. The Vaughan requirement of "January only" has thus been overridden. Nevertheless, the habit of showing them in January is now so ingrained that it continues as ever. "It would be fairly unthinkable," Campbell says, "that we should stop doing it."

The fragility of watercolors is today not in question. "Remarkably few years of exposure" produce a measurably deleterious effect, Campbell says. "Your average watercolor painted, say, in the mid-19th century - even if it has been reasonably well looked after - has probably used up about half of its life already. Curators think of it as like nuclear half-life. The next half that it loses will really be very much to its detriment."

At one time collectors used to talk of "resting" their watercolors. They put them away and then expected them to somehow revive - like an almost dead battery. But Campbell points out that this was really a myth.

With an oil painting, the layer of pigment can be removed from the old canvas if it goes rotten and then put down on a new support. But this is impossible with a watercolor, Campbell says, "because by its very nature the pigment actually sinks into the paper. Fundamentally there is nothing you can do to replace the support. You are left with the object as it stands. There is no second chance."

What you can do, though, is "a lot to slow the process [of deterioration] down. What you cannot do is reverse the process." To slow it down, watercolors can be remounted, the paper de-acidified, and much greater care taken about the conditions in which they are kept, "making sure they are more stable than they have been."

However, he says, the "best solution" to deterioration "is not to let it happen in the first place."

The Vaughan bequest spans the whole range of Turner's work, but as Campbell explains, "very few of our Turner watercolors were produced to be shown as permanent pictures." (It is often his large "finished" watercolors, made to be displayed in houses, that have been most damaged by light.) The National Gallery of Scotland's Turner watercolors were not intended by Turner to be framed and hung on walls.

"They were either sketches, notes, or done as preparatory watercolors for illustrations and so forth. Turner had a very pragmatic approach to his watercolors."

Campbell agrees that the dim light levels in which drawings and watercolors are generally exhibited in public galleries today have certain disadvantages. Reading the labels is one.

"But there are sort of theatrical advantages," he argues, "in dimming the light levels. It does make the whole experience somewhat more special."

When I suggested that it was impossible in such conditions to see the works in anything like the light conditions they had been painted in, he concurred, but added: "The simple answer is that if you ask to come to see our Turners in our Print Room during the rest of the year, you can see them, for the few seconds that you have them out, in levels of light which are more than adequate."

* The Turner watercolors are on view through Jan. 31.

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