J.M.W. Turner had an affinity with the Scottish landscape, inspired by his deep admiration for the work of Sir Walter Scott. In 1831 he was commissioned by the Edinburgh publisher Robert Cadell to produce illustrations for an edition of Scott’s “Poetical Works”. After a memorable stay at Abbotsford with the ailing writer, who was to die the following year, Turner traveled north to Tobermory, where he boarded a steamer bound for the remote island of Staffa. Described by Scott as “one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld,” Staffa was celebrated for its purplish-gray basaltic formations and enigmatic cavernous spaces; Fingal’s Cave, named for the Ossianic hero, was a particular object of pilgrimage for the Romantic tourist. According to Turner’s much later account, he was caught in a wild storm; upon his return to London, he commemorated his memorable voyage, choosing the moment when the sun “getting through the horizon, burst through the rain-cloud, angry” to create an extraordinarily compelling enactment of an encounter between man, symbolized by the steamship, and the unbridled forces of nature (Turner, “Correspondence”, p. 209).
In the spring of 1832 Turner exhibited “Staffa” to critical acclaim; by coincidence, Felix Mendelssohn’s “Isles of Fingal” (later retitled “Die Hebriden”) was first performed in London on 14 May of that year, though to a considerably cooler reception. Staffa remained in Turner’s studio until 1845, when it was purchased by C. R. Leslie for five hundred pounds, on behalf of the New York collector Colonel James Lenox and thus became the first painting by Turner to be sent to America. Lenox was initially displeased with his purchase, complaining that it looked “indistinct,” but Turner recommended wiping the surface of the painting, suspecting that the varnish had bloomed during its transit across the Atlantic (Butlin and Joll, 1984, p. 199). This simple solution seems to have satisfied Lenox, who went on to acquire Turner’s “Fort Vimieux” (private collection), though he was unsuccessful in persuading the recalcitrant artist to sell him the “Fighting Temeraire” (National Gallery, London), despite offering the then astronomic sum of five thousand pounds.