THE 38 watercolours of Joseph William Mallord Turner, safely ensconced for 11 months of the year under cover in the Print Room of the Scottish National Gallery (although I prefer to imagine their deepest, darkest vaults), are currently having their annual January airing, brightening up the dull early days of the New Year.

As Edinburgh residents familiar with this annual tradition will know, the works were bequeathed by the philanthropically-minded Henry Vaughan in 1900, whose stipulation that they should be displayed “exhibited to the public all at one time free of charge in the month of January”, when the light which could fade the watercolours was at its lowest, was cunning thinking in terms of preservation. It also ensured that after more than 100 years of repeated display, these paintings are still fresh, in every way.

Turner was one of Britain’s most innovative artists, his subjects ranging from vast mountains to modern technology – the steam engine, not least – and all glowing under his evanescent treatment of light and weather. The wonderful thing about the Vaughan bequest is that the watercolours and sketches – often made as studies for final works – range across Turner’s career, from early topographical views to sketches made whilst on the hoof around Europe, worked up from the pen and sketchbook of an artist who, even in his seventies, never stopped ‘looking out for storms and shipwrecks.’ Absolutely essential January viewing, for those in striking distance.

Turner in January, Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, Edinburgh, 0131 624 6200,, Until 31st January, Daily, 10am – 5pm; Thurs until 7pm

Sarah Urwin Jones