Technique and condition
This large watercolour was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1804. Turner based it on a pencil drawing (on the London art market in 1975)1 probably originally from the Smaller Fonthill sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest XLVIII), dating from 1801 when he visited Scotland for the first time. From Calton Hill, to the east of Edinburgh’s city centre, the view takes in the Old Town, Castle and North Bridge while most of the New Town is hidden by the hill on the right. The narrative and figures, including milkmaids, washerwomen and Scottish dancers performing a reel are reminiscent of the studies of figures and costume in the Scotch Figures sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest LIX) also used in 1801. Turner’s watercolour was exhibited in the same year as David Wilkie painted Pitlessie Fair (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), his first essay in the Scottish vernacular that made him famous after he moved to London in 1805. Significant as the figures are in Turner’s watercolour, it is broadly classical in its symmetry and golden, Claudean atmosphere.
A View from the Top of Calton Hill, Edinburgh had been the subject of the first-ever panorama, painted by Robert Barker in 1788. The full-size version, 25 feet (8 metres) in diameter, was exhibited in London at 28 Haymarket, and then repainted in oil for the Upper Circle of the Panorama, Leicester Square, where it was shown from 8 January 1804 until 5 June 1807. Turner’s choice of subject for the Royal Academy in 1804 cannot have been a coincidence and his sophisticated treatment, more evocative than topographical, might have been calculated to draw attention to the limitations of Barker’s more literal methods; or to challenge that painter’s hubristic claim to have invented an ‘IMPROVEMENT ON PAINTING, which relieves that sublime Art from a restraint it has ever laboured under’.2
In their early catalogue of Turner’s work, John Burnet and Peter Cunningham described this watercolour as
In Turner’s early manner – probably during the latter years of the French war.– the outer rock of the Calton Hill being uncrowned by the goal. The water cart with spokeless wheels tells a tale of the non-existence of efficient water-companies at that early period of the century. The selection of the point of view is very fine; in the distance the elongated profile of the Castle is finely relieved by the disposition of masses of black rock in shadow, and a boldly pronounced foreground.3
Christie’s sale, London, 4 November 1975, lot 13.
Edinburgh Evening Courant, 29 December 1787; see Scott B. Wilcox, ‘Unlimiting the Bounds of Painting’, in Ralph Hyde, Panoramania, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1988, p.21.
Burnet and Cunningham 1859, p.117.
Ruskin on Pictures; Cook 1902, p.227.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.366.
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