Turner’s Lost Ossian work [2013]

Found at Last: Turner’s Lost Ossian work


By Murdo Macdonald, Professor of History of Scottish Art, University of Dundee.


In January 2013 the painter and art historian Eric Shanes was lecturing on Turner at the National Galleries of Scotland. Eric is an old teacher of mine so we try to see each other when he visits Edinburgh. Sharing a meal after his lecture I asked him if he knew anything about Turner’s lost Ossian work from 1802, ‘Ben Lomond Mountains, Scotland: The Traveller — Vide Ossian’s War of Caros’. Eric is currently writing a major biography of Turner for Yale University Press, so if anyone knew, he would. I was asking both from the perspective of my own interest in Ossian and art, and my longstanding interest in Turner which Eric was largely responsible for engendering in the mid-1970s. Eric immediately mentioned an oil painting in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge as the most likely candidate, based on a suggestion made by his friend John Gage, although Gage’s speculation had been dismissed as unlikely by a number of other commentators. Eric, however, was convinced that it had merit and even the low resolution reproduction of the painting – currently called ‘Welsh Mountain Landscape’ – on the Fitzwilliam website led me to think that he might be right, for the topography shown in the painting had a great deal in common with the Central Highlands of Scotland, with which, as a hillwalker, I am familiar.


In due course we established the exact location shown in the Cambridge picture. It was indeed, ‘Ben Lomond Mountains’ as Turner states, with Ben Lomond itself prominent in the background. The conclusive evidence was a drawing I found in Turner’s ‘Scottish Pencils’ series while I was exploring the Tate Gallery’s wonderful digital archive. Listed in the Tate catalogue as ‘A Wooded Bay with Mountains Beyond; Perhaps Loch Lomond at Inveruglas’ this drawing is the clear basis of the painting. However, with a combination of Eric reading maps in London and me driving around Loch Lomond we established that the location of the drawing suggested in the Tate catalogue was too far north and that the actual location of Turner’s drawing was the Rubha Mor promontory some six miles to the south of Inveruglas. Turner’s viewpoint is just north of Inverbeg, looking over Rubha Mor and Loch Lomond to the Ben Lomond massif.


The importance of the ‘Scottish Pencils’ drawings is widely accepted, for example in his biography of Turner, James Hamilton notes that ‘with their wealth of topographical, incidental and tonal detail [they] are what might be called “foundation” drawings, considered ruminations on the way land or rock masses behave in particular light and weather effects for Turner’s own use in the future’.[1] So in the Ossian oil painting we had identified a work closely linked to a group of drawings that are of key importance to the development of Turner’s approach to landscape. That link is consistent with the significance with which Turner regarded the painting for it was included in the group of works which he chose to contribute to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1802. Hamilton again: ‘It was of the utmost importance to Turner that he should get these paintings right, as this would be his first apprearance at the Royal Academy as a full Academician.’[2] Hamilton gives an illuminating discussion of the psychological balance Turner was trying to achieve between the oil paintings, but like other commentors he assumes that ‘Ben Lomond Mountains, Scotland: The Traveller — Vide Ossian’s War of Caros’, is not only lost but is also a watercolour, so he doesn’t discuss it. When we look at the group of oil paintings as whole but add its fifth member, the Ben Lomond work becomes a pivot between Turner’s seascapes and his imaginary landscapes. It shares the reality of its place with ‘Fishermen on a Lee-Shore in Squally Weather’ and ‘Ships Bearing up for Anchorage’, it shares the poetical drama of its subject with ‘Jason’ and ‘The Tenth Plague of Egypt’. So for the first time since the title and painting became detached from one another, it is possible to appreciate fully the psychological balance of Turner’s first exhibits in oils at the Royal Academy after his election as a full member of that body. The painting is significant in another sense too, for it seems to be Turner’s first response in oil paint to poetry based on a landscape that he had himself seen, and that is, of course, one of the defining themes of his career as a whole.

An account including comments on the Ossianic figures Turner includes in his work is given in Murdo Macdonald and Eric Shanes, Turner and Ossian’s ‘The Traveller’ published in the October 2013 issue of Turner Society News, edited by Cecilia Powell.

[1] James Hamilton, 1997, Turner: A Life, London: Hodder and Stoughton; p. 66.

[2] James Hamilton, 1997, Turner: A Life, London: Hodder and Stoughton; p. 69.