Technique and condition
This work is made from two pieces of paper, essentially worked separately. Peter Bower1 (1990) suggests that the lower part of the image was first painted on a lightweight wove white writing paper made by the Hollingworth & Balston partnership at Turkey Mill, Maidstone, Kent, along with a sky which Turner decided had to be discarded. His decision might have been an artistic one without precedent in the large number of works in the Turner Bequest, but Bower also suggests that the heavy, gum-rich washes employed in the foreground, which must have washed out much of the original glue size on the paper, and the thinner washes of a typical Turner sky, which would leave all the sizing intact and the paper very responsive to wetting, combined to make the lightweight paper cockle and wrinkle to an extent that made it impossible to continue. Thus Turner cut out the more finished lower half, retaining the crag of Calton Hill, the three arches of North Bridge carrying the road from Leith (outside the image and to the right) to the Old Town of Edinburgh, and the lower buildings of the Old Town. He laid it onto a sheet of heavier white paper of similar type, and then painted the rest of the Old Town rising towards the Castle, with the silhouette of Castle Rock seen through a misty atmosphere, and another sky.
The very golden yellow tonality is the result of extreme darkening of the paper due to light exposure, and complete loss of blue from the sky, for the same reason. The extreme edges of the paper were protected by a window mount. On the right edge, it is possible to see that the sky was a brighter blue over Calton Hill, and increasingly pale and cloudy towards the top of the paper. The left edge seems to suggest more cloudy greyness on the town side than on the right. The sun was glancing through to the right of Castle Rock, while the more pink-brown buildings at the lower end of the Old Town, and the very slightly red appearance of the left half of the sky, hint at quite dramatic lighting effects. The foreground and the vegetation on the crag of Calton Hill were presumably painted in mixed greens made from the same lost blue and a range of brown ochres. Only the ochres survive, against a much browner background than was intended. Indigo is the most likely candidate for the lost blue: Turner used in very frequently for skies and mixed greens at this date. Tiny highlights in white gouache, applied over much of North Bridge but placed in all areas of the image except the sky, could well have had more impact originally.
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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