The Art of Progress - Inverness Museum and Gallery

April 2010


It would be easy to miss this quiet, apparently modest and small exhibition but for one thing – it includes a magnificent, accomplished watercolour by John Mallord William Turner, painted in 1833 when the fifty-eight-year-old artist was at the height of his powers. Although Turner’s townscape of Inverness is undoubtedly the centrepiece, the show aims to demonstrate how architects, photographers and artists have responded to developments in engineering and architecture in the Highlands. By no means comprehensive or wholly representative, the work, drawn mainly from the museum’s own collection, nevertheless, presents a fascinating picture of developments in and around the city of Inverness.
Two railway scenes, drawn by John Scott in 1869, show respectively the ‘Railway Iron Bridge of Craigellachie’ and the ‘Railway Bridge of Fiddoch River’. These are intensely stylised representations, and their purpose is unclear – perhaps they were commissioned by the Keith and Dufftown Railway and the Strathspey Railway. However, the optimistic celebration of the age of steam and the power of communications were undoubtedly at the fore of the artist’s mind.

The architect William Glashan (1903-81) had a passionate interest in the fragmented legacy of Victorian and earlier architecture of Inverness. Towards the later part of his career (which coincided with the demolition of many valuable and interesting buildings in the 1960s) Glashan began recording, with evident fondness and respect, many of the buildings he knew would soon vanish in a spree of ill-advised ‘town-planning’. Thus, he recorded Bridge Street from both its north and south elevations. Looking at these sensitive and compassionate works – much more than mere architectural drawings – one is struck by the ease with which Glashan could record detail; the harmonious architectural flow of the street is captured with empathy and grace adding to the sense of loss at its demise and current shabbiness.

Perhaps J.M.W. Turner, too, felt a sense of imminent loss as he looked on at the old stone bridge, built between 1681 and 1685, across the River Ness for the bridge was washed away some eighteen years later. Turner had travelled to Inverness in 1831 at the behest of Sir Walter Scott who wanted to use a version of Turner’s image in 'The Miscellaneous Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott, Bart.' published in 1836. The engraving by William Miller shows the bare bones of Turner’s composition and although competent is dull and prosaic by comparison. In this context it is worth noting Graham Reynold’s observation:

“…a good number of his [J.M.W. Turner’s] finished watercolours were made for engraving; in these he developed his practice of fine brush strokes and minutely divided lights, possibly because this was best adapted to the linear work and cross-hatching which he wished to perfect in the steel engraver’s craft.”1

Inverness engraving by William Miller after Turner (1836)

Turner’s scene shows a hive of human industry with boats navigating the shallow river and passengers embarking and disembarking on the near shore. The town steeple and the old high church steeple can be seen across the river to the south.

Typically, there are no hard lines in Turner’s painting and the attention to detail, given its size (approximately 6 inches by 3) is extraordinary. Although great attention has been given to its composition and topographical and architectural accuracy, one is also aware that the real subject is light and shadow, the sense of sky and the play of the muted sunlight on the water.

Gordon Harvey, 'Bridging the Gap', oil on board (1982) 

Two contemporary artists focus on large scale engineering projects – both Gordon Harvey and Bronwen Sleigh depict the oil industry in the Cromarty Firth. Sleigh also looks at the development of wind farms while Harvey concentrates on the building of the Kessock Bridge. These artists work in highly contrasting styles, reflecting their differing attitudes towards, and perspectives on, their subject matter. Harvey’s are large, bold oils – which are dramatic and lend a sense of proximity and even danger to his subject matter. 

Sleigh’s coloured etchings are subtle, elongated and delicate. They treat the oil platforms and wind turbines as elegant sculptural interventions in the seascape and landscape.

This show is an enticing fragment of the many other artistic treatments of the architectural and engineering landscape of the Highlands. It whets the appetite but leaves one wanting a lot more.


1. Reynolds, G., Watercolours: A Concise History, p. 87

The Art of Progress
Inverness Museum and Art Gallery
Until 24 April