Moonlight and its implications: Turner at Sisteron

On 5 November 2013 a Turner watercolour of Sisteron sold for $149,000 at Christie’s in New York. It was catalogued as Sisteron from the North-West, with a Low Sun. The viewpoint is perfectly identified and the low sun seems self-evident (follow the link below to Christie’s website for a fully zoomable image), but I want to suggest here that the light source in the sky is in fact the moon. I also want to argue that this kind of thing matters. It’s just the kind of detail that Sublime Sites is all about…

I have asked Christie’s for permission to embed here a version of their colour image. In the meantime, the link below will take you to the archived auction catalogue on Christie’s website:  Click your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.

I can provide a reproduction from a black and white photograph taken in the 1860s when the watercolour was in the collection of the artist Miles Birket Foster. The old image is worth reproducing in any case for its historic interest, and for the apparent differences between the watercolour then and now (see note 1, below).

J.M.W.Turner, Sisteron from the North-West, Private Collection. From a photograph taken in the 1860s.
J.M.W.Turner, Sisteron from the North-West, sold for $149,000 at Christie’s. New York, 5 November 2013, lot 149. From a photograph taken in the 1860s.

Turner’s viewpoint is from the north-west, just beyond the Pont du Buech, looking over the bridge with the Rocher de la Baume on the left and the citadel of Sisteron on the right. I have marked the exact viewpoint in Google Earth,  and Google’s ‘Street View’ can put you more-or less on the very spot:-

Google Earth view of Turner's viewpoint at Sisteron
Google Earth view of Turner’s viewpoint at Sisteron
Google 'Street View' from near by Turner's viewpoint at Sisteron
Google ‘Street View’ from near by Turner’s viewpoint at Sisteron

One question that particularly interests me is the extent to which Turner painted direct from nature. There seems to be very strong evidence in this case.

Turner made a considerable number of pencil sketches at Sisteron. All of these are in the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain. One group is in the Genoa to Grenoble sketchbook (Turner Bequest CCXCV) and another is on loose sheets of buff paper; Turner Bequest CCCXLII 7, 8, 15, 19, 26. These were discussed and plotted on the ground by Roland Courtot in a 2004 article ‘Turner a Sisteron’. [note 2]

In addition to the pencil sketches, Turner made several watercolour studies. The Christie’s  catalogue entry mentions five others. One is missing from that list [note 3] and another will be newly identified later in this article. The most striking thing for me about the watercolours is that none of them have any counterpart in the pencil sketches. In fact Turner made no pencil sketches at all of Sisteron from the north, which is the almost exclusive province of the watercolours.

So at the very least we can say that the watercolours must have been begun on site. The detail is so specific and the topography so consistent that they could not have been done from memory. It may be, of course, that the watercolours were simply begun on the spot in pencil. The general feeling amongst recent scholars has been that Turner began such studies in pencil and then applied colour later, possibly in his hotel room, or even in the studio after his return to England. In the case of the present watercolour, however, there is something sufficiently specific about the effect as to bring that into question; a phenomenon so exceptionally particular that it must have been recorded under the direct impress of experience.

Christie’s described the effect as ‘a low sun’. However, Turner’s visits to the Alps generally took place in summer. In this view we are looking south-east. For the sun to be this low it would have to be very late season. In fact it passed through south-east at an elevation of 15 degrees at 8.08 am, on this very day of writing, 7 November 2013.

We know nothing as yet about the year of this tour, except that it must have been made in the 1830s [note 4], but for Turner to have been abroad so late in the year as October or November would have been very unusual.  The reading of the effect as moonrise resolves that difficulty:  The nearly full moon passed through south-east at an elevation of 17 degrees at 8.13 p.m. (GMT) on 20 August 2013, about an hour after sunset, so there would have been some opportunity for Turner to have witnessed such a phenomenon at a much more likely time of year. With this is mind it is worth turning back to the watercolour itself. If this were daylight then the forms of the landscape would be much more distinct. As it is we are barely able to make out any specific forms of the landscape, apart from its silhouette, and a few details picked out in a dim and raking light. The light, furthermore, is being refracted by high cloud into a distinctly yellow corona surrounded by a distinctively silvery haze in the surrounding cirrus.

Turner explored the effect of the rising moon in a second watercolour made at Sisteron. This is currently untraced. It was sold by Sotheby’s in London on 15 March 1967, lot 9, when it was entitled ‘Bellinzona’. It was correctly identified as Sisteron by E H Yardley in 1988, when it was then in a private collection in Mexico [note 5]. By courtesy of Ian Warrell (December 2016) this can now be reproduced in colour.

J.M.WTurner Sisteron from the North West c.1838 Watercolour, 133 x 190 mm Private Collection Image courtesy of Ian Warrell and by permission of the owner. The original watercolour was exhibited in ‘Turner et la Couleur’ Aix en Provence, 2016 and ‘J M W Turner: Adventures in Colour’, Turner Contemporary, Margate, 2016-7.

We can see that the watercolour records the view from a similar angle to the Christie’s watercolour, but from a little further back. It contains, however, an effect which is entirely consistent. The sun is just setting, and its light shines from the right. The moon, and there can be no doubt in this case that it is the moon, is just rising from behind the Rocher de la Baume. This watercolour is most remarkable, however, for recording a very specific and rather extraordinary occurrence. The setting sun is casting a shadow of the citadel onto the lower face of the Rocher de la Baume. This would require a specific coincidence of time of year and time of day, further limited by requiring the right phase in the lunar cycle. My calculations thus far are that this might occur around three-quarters or full moon in mid August or September, which is also the most likely time of year for Turner to have passed through Sisteron. It is quite possible that Turner could have painted these two studies on the same evening, an hour and a half or two hours apart.

To the known list of watercolours of Sisteron, we might now propose an addition. On 14 March 1985 Sotheby’s sold a watercolour, lot 96, under the title Entrance to Via Mala, called ‘Sion’.

Sisteron from the North West - formerly known as 'The entrance to the Via Mala', or 'Sion'. Private collection. Sold at Sotheby's, London, 14 March 1985, lot 96. Image scanned from Sotheby's 1985 catalogue, by courtesy Sotheby's.
Sisteron from the North-West – formerly known as ‘The entrance to the Via Mala’, or ‘Sion’. Private collection. Sold at Sotheby’s, London, 14 March 1985, lot 96. Image scanned from Sotheby’s 1985 catalogue, by courtesy Sotheby’s.

This may now be identified as a view of Sisteron. The citadel occupies the centre of the composition, with the Rocher de la Baume to the left. The angle of view is similar to that of both the Christie’s watercolour and that in the private collection in Mexico, except that the viewpoint is a little more distant than either. Turner has pulled back to a viewpoint that looks down the river Buech to a mill [note 6]. The time of day is evening, with the sun declining to the west. The light has already gone from the valley floor, but lays pink on the citadel and Rocher de la Baume. The moon has not yet come into view as in the other drawings, and the sky appears brighter, so is perhaps set slightly earlier, but Turner does record a similar effect to that in the private collection in Mexico, in the way in which the citadel mount casts its shadow into the valley to the left. In this case it appears that the effect is partly atmospheric. The right-hand part of the shadow hangs in space, a product of refraction caused by water vapour in the air [note 7].

There are a few inferences to be drawn from all this. The first is that Turner certainly intended to record extremely specific phenomena. The watercolours imply not just an exact time of day, but also of year. They also suggest very carefully attenuated effects of colour, particularity – forms revealed by specific angles and qualities of light – a purple dimness in the case of the Christies picture – and above all, witness. These are effects that Turner wants us to understand as personally observed and experienced, and highly specific to the event of witnessing. His claim is that they are the unique report of one whose effort is bent to discovering the extraordinary real, and to revealing through his work how dynamic human experience in the world can be.

That’s why such things matter. Turner’s whole artistic effort in works such as this is to say that he was actually there. That he lived in the most vivid experience of the world. And we can do so too..



[Updated 31 December 2016 to reproduce Sisteron from teh North-West in colour]

  1. The photographs of Birket Foster’s Turners were placed in an album which has descended in the family. Edward Yardley published a full account of them in ‘The Turner Collection: the Birket Foster Collection of Turner Watercolours’ in Turner Studies, Vol.8, no.1, summer 1988, pp.41-45. The watercolour of Sisteron appears as Ill.4. Yardley noted of the photograph: ‘The drawing would appear to have suffered some discolouring in the sky and indeed, it was noted in a copy of the Christie’s catalogue [of the Birket Foster sale, 28 April 1894] ‘sky cleaned’. Yardley is presumably referring to the way in which the yellow corona has come out dark in the photograph. In fact there are radical tonal differences everywhere between the old photograph and the new. The differences are probably not as alarming as they might at first appear. The most likely explanation is that in the early days of photography, the chromatic response of film emulsions was rather distorted. Anyone experienced in black and white photography will know how altered a subject can appear under different coloured lights and filters.
  2. This is available as a pdf online at:-
  3. The five others cited by Christie’s 2013 are Sisteron from La Cazette (Manchester City Art Gallery), Sisteron from the North with the Rocher de la Baume (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), Sisteron from the North (Private Collection), Watermill at Sisteron (Private Collection) and a watercolour called ‘Pont de Buzet’ (Rhode Island School of Design, Providence) which can now be identified as a view of the Pont de Buech at Sisteron from the East, with the citadel of Sisteron above to the left. The watercolour of Sisteron from the North in a private collection must be identifiable with that of Sisteron from the North-West in a private collection in Mexico, which is discussed and reproduced above. This was mentioned but not reproduced in an article by Yardley [give details] . There is, however, another  watercolour in a private collection that is not mentioned in Christie’s list, showing the Port de Dauphine , Sisteron, looking south across the Pont de la Baume (Private Collection, sold at Sotheby’s 3 April 1996 lot 185 as ‘View at Sisteron, France, 1836’. This is a more close up version of the composition at the V&A. A further addition to this list is proposed in the essay above. It is striking that none of the coloured sketches found their way into the Turner Bequest. Turner appears to have kept them apart from the pencil sketches, and they may have been sold as a group, or perhaps retained as ‘matrimonial property’ by Turner’s late-life partner Sophia Booth, and sold to collectors after Turner’s death.
  4. Christie’s 2013 catalogue entry repeats a suggestion that the Sisteron sketches might have been made on Turner’s visit to the Alps in 1836. I rejected that suggestion in Turner Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta, p.295, under no. 81 on the grounds that it is clear that Turner’s itinerary took him home from Turin over Mont Cenis via Chambery, i.e. well to the north of Sisteron. There, I speculate a date of 1838, and an itinerary connecting the eastern Alps, possibly Venice, the French Riviera and the Alpes Maritime via Sisteron to Grenoble. Stylistically, the Sisteron studies do have some similarities to those of 1836, but are smaller and perhaps less uninhibited, although that, I should say is by Turner’s standards, alone. I am beginning to suspect a date close to, but perhaps before 1836. ?1835. Watch this space..
  5. Yardley, 1988, op cit, p.42
  6. I must confess that I have not yet managed to identify the mill in question. The level of the river Buech at this point today is controlled, and as its stony and braided bed upstream testifies, is prone to frequent flooding. For there to have been a mill at this point the water supply must have been taken off some way upstream to protect the mill from inundation. Turner must therefore show a view down a mill pool, rather than the river Buech itself.
  7. Turner had long understood this effect. It is a key part of his c.1818 Yorkshire subject,  St Agatha’s Abbey, Easby. Cf. my comments in Turner in the North, 1996, p.42

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