When I was 17, I wanted nothing more than to be an artist. All the decisions I made at school were in line with realising this goal, culminating in a sixth year dedicated to building my portfolio in order that I could apply for a coveted place at one of Scotland’s art colleges.
Fatefully, when I was 17, I also wholeheartedly embraced the pleasures of nicotine and alcohol. If I was being kind to myself, I could say I was already living the hedonistic life of a successful artist. In reality, I smoked and drank my way through the months until I realised my portfolio was – at best – a hyper-minimalist study of the emptiness of the human condition. In other words, it came as no surprise when it was swiftly delivered back to my home with a polite series of rejection slips from the four Scottish art colleges I’d applied for.
My artistic dreams thus evaporated, I turned my rather shamed teenage self to more mundane ambitions, ending up in a sensible job with a sensible salary and sensible career aspirations. My sense of creativity however refused to give up, and my love of art continued to burn, unable to be snuffed out by even the most soul-sapping morass of corporate machinery.
Today, through my writing, that creative sense burns brighter than it ever has, and I am grateful for that. Back then, I still drew and painted, unfettered by the pressure of trying to make a career of it. That was short-lived though – primarily due to practical reasons of time and energy.
But one thread from that previous artistic life has remained. An annual pilgrimage; a meditative journey where I contemplate on what might have been, and more importantly, what I’m still capable of.
And I have J M W Turner (and the Scottish National Gallery) to thank for that.
Every January, the Gallery brings it unrivalled collection of Turner watercolours out of storage. Originally, this was done in observation of the bequeather’s request that the works only be exhibited at this time of year, due to the weak January light being kindest to the delicacy of the 19th century paintings. Now, with advances in lighting and ambience, such precautions are no longer needed, but – rather wonderfully – the National Gallery has reverently upheld the benefactor’s original wishes.
Now I’m sure I’m not the only person whose January is artistically marked by a viewing of the watercolours. And I’m certain I’m not the only one who finds Turner’s masterly depictions of land, sea and sky as vibrantly inspirational today as they must surely have been when they were first exhibited.
Perhaps however I am the only one who visits with a sense of poignant reflection on a life that might have been; the sole viewer who associates Turner’s evocative portrayal of lightning hitting Venice with the sudden realisation that my dreamt-of future had vanished in an instant. And I’m fairly certain I’m in a small minority of people who recalls exactly what they were feeling, thinking and dreaming of every January since 1985.
Looking back today, some of those dreams have realised, but most have been as transient as Turner’s scudding clouds and ephemeral light.
And now, perhaps more so than ever, the poignancy is lessened, replaced by the midlife determination borne from an acceptance of the relentless march of time.
So I make you a promise, Mr Turner. 2017 will be a creative year, perhaps my most creative yet.
And in twelve months, I will stand here once again in front of your paintings, reflect on what I achieved, and give thanks for that. I will smile at your clouds; give thanks to your seas. I will mouth something silent and private to your lightning bolt in St Mark’s Square.
And I will create until I am capable of creating no more.