‘Amidst the gigantic scenery’
Turner left the Borders on his 1831 tour of Scotland and then embarked on a journey to the Highlands, travelling alone. He discussed with the publisher Cadell a list of suitable subjects he might work up to illustrate Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake and The Lord of the Isles, and decided to travel as far as Fingal’s Cave on Staffa and the remote Loch Coriskin (Coruisk) amid the Cuillins on the Isle of Skye.
On reaching the loch, Turner made a number of brief pencil sketches from the precipitous slopes surrounding it, but none of them precisely relates to this spectacular watercolour, which must have been composed slightly later. It was engraved in 1834 by Henry Le Keux, as the frontispiece to volume ten of Robert Cadell’s edition of Scott’s Poetical Works, which contained the author’s The Lord of the Isles.
Turner conceived the scene as two vortices in which the rocks and turbulent weather appear to fuse; similar compositional ideas can be seen, although less fully developed, in the artist’s 1819 depiction of Ben Arthur which formed part of his Liber Studiorum series of prints (fig.32). It has been suggested that Turner may also have drawn at least part of his inspiration for Loch Coruisk from the work of the Scottish descriptive geologist John MacCulloch (1773–1835). Turner could have met MacCulloch as early as 1814, and acquired from him volumes of The Transactions of The Geological Society. MacCulloch, who was reported to be ‘delighted with [Turner’s] acute mind’, published his Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland in four volumes in 1824. It took the form of a series of letters to Sir Walter Scott, whom he had known since the 1790s, and included very powerful, evocative descriptions of sites that Turner was to visit. According to MacCulloch, when he saw the loch:
I felt as if transported by some magician into the enchanted wilds of an Arabian tale, carried to the habitation of the Genii… I felt like an insect amidst the gigantic scenery, and the whole magnitude of the place became at once sensible.
Turner has placed tiny insect-like figures, perhaps including himself, in the foreground, so establishing a sense of scale and awe.