Turner in Switzerland #1: The Lungernsee and Brunig Pass

Sotheby’s London sale of Impressionist and Modern Art on 6 February 2014 included as lot 140 a Turner watercolour identified as ‘Swiss lake scene, possibly Brienz, c.1848’ (1).  This article can now offer an exact identification of the subject as the Lungernsee (2) and also propose a more precise date, relating it to Turner’s last tour to Switzerland in 1844, and to provide a context that gives it a key role in Turner’s last testimony to his explorations of Switzerland.

tdb1659 #600
The Lungernsee, on the way up to the Brunig pass, from the right bank near the foot of the lake looking north-north-east, in the direction of Lake Lucerne. Called ‘Swiss lake scene, possibly Brienz’, 1844
Watercolour, pen and red watercolour, 9 3/4 x 14 3/8 ins, 248 x 366 mm
Sold Sotheby’s, London, Impressionist and Modern Art, 6 February 2014, lot 140, est 300-500,000 GBP
Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s. To read Sotheby’s catalogue entry online, please click on the following link and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.

This article is the first of what will hopefully grow to be a series exploring Switzerland more widely.  The article itself will probably also grow in parts. The focus here is on the watercolour at Sotheby’s in 2014, and a related studio version of the composition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Future parts will the immediately related depictions of the Lungernsee and the Brunig Pass, and, later, further subjects sketched by Turner in 1844 on his route from Lucerne to Thun.

The view is taken from the right (eastern) bank of the Lungernsee, near its northern end, and looks north-north-east over the lake foot to the low limestone ridge that dams the lake at this point. The Lungernsee lies on the Brunig Pass route that connects Lucerne with the Haslithal, Brienz, Interlaken and Thun. This watercolour records the view down the valley towards Lucerne. The ridge in the far distance is an intermediate ridge that descends towards the Lake of Sarnen, but its interest from this particular point of view is that it reveals, towards its right-hand end, a glimpse of the peak of Mont Pilatus above Lucerne.

Google Earth image of general location of Lungernsee, Switzerland
Google Earth image of general location of Lungernsee, Switzerland
Google Earth aerial view of Lungernsee, looking south-east, marking sites of Turner sketches and watercolours. Snowy peaks of Bernese Oberland in diastance, and Lake of Brienz in mid-distance to right.
Google Earth aerial view of Lungernsee, looking south-east, marking sites of Turner sketches and watercolours. Snowy peaks of Bernese Oberland in centre distance, and Lake of Brienz in mid-distance to right.

I am hoping to make a site visit in May to take photographs of the site for this article. In the meantime ‘Christos91’ has a photograph taken from almost the exact spot on Panoramio: http://www.panoramio.com/photo_explorer#user=4345089&with_photo_id=42744935&order=date_desc

So far as can be documented at present, Turner made the crossing of the Brunig only once in 1844. He filled the Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook (Tate Britain, Turner Bequest, CCCXXIX) with drawings on the passage including one (f.24) taken from almost exactly the same viewpoint as this, but looking in the opposite direction south towards the Brunig Pass and the Bernese Alps.

J.M.W.Turner The Lungernsee from its northern end, looking towards the Brunig Pass, with the high peaks of the Bernese Oberland just visible in the distance, 1844 From the Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, Tate Britain, Turner Bequest TB CCCXXIX 24, Tate D33178, Pencil on paper 82 x 138 mm Photo courtesy Tate
The Lungernsee from its northern end, looking towards the Brunig Pass, with the high peaks of the Bernese Oberland just visible in the distance, 1844
From the Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, Tate Britain, Turner Bequest TB CCCXXIX 24, Tate D33178, Pencil on paper 82 x 138 mm
Photo courtesy Tate

To view this work on the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest click on the following link, and then click on your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.


The Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook contains no other sketches of the Lungernsee, and it does look as if Turner was making quick pencil notes in the sketchbook, and working in colour on larger sheets. A few very slight sketches and inscriptions in the Grindelwald sketchbook, e.g. TB CCCXLVIII 3, also put him in the area, but none of the sketches in that sketchbook appear to record this view.

The Lungernsee itself was of particular, and topical, interest at this time. In 1836 after fifty years of planning and experiment, its level had been lowered by a hair-raising mining operation to dig a tunnel from lower down the valley up to (and underneath) the lake bed to break through at the desired new level. As might be imagined this was an extremely high risk operation, and became ever more so as the tunnel worked its way up to within a few feet of the lake bed, not knowing – except for the judgement of the surveyor – quite how much (or little) rock remained to prevent the water breaking through. John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland published in 1838 gives a detailed and entertainingly graphic account of the operation (3). The project was designed to claim new land from the lake for grazing and cultivation, and succeeded to a degree, but as Murray pointed out, much of the ground revealed was steep, all of it muddy and rank, much of it prone to slump and collapse, and it took quite a few years for anything much to be made of it. The effects were still fresh for Turner to see in his sketches, and in some respects – Murray bemoans the fact that the lake in former days had extremely beautifully wooded shores – it is quite a surprise that he recorded it at all. Such human endeavour did, however, routinely interest him, but it may be significant that in 1844 Turner may have been travelling in the company of William Brockedon (4). He was responsible for about half of Murray’s Handbook to Switzerland, so would have known the stories told in the book very well. Turner and he would no doubt have reflected deeply on the lengths, risks, privations and labours that the inhabitants of these mountains were prepared to endure for the sake of improvement. As it turns out the endeavour was nullified. In 1921 the lake was newly dammed for hydro electricity generation, and the water level set significantly higher than it had been originally. In total the water level in Turner’s day was something like 28metres (92 feet!) lower than it is today (5).

This study provided the basis of a larger studio watercolour at the Victoria and Albert Museum (6). This was begun in 1848 as one of a series of larger watercolours of Swiss subjects, but in the event (as with a number of others) was left unfinished, possibly due to his waning strength.

J.M.W.Turner The Lungernsee, going up to the Brunig Pass, looking north-north-east. Called 'Lake with hills (?Brienz)', c.1848 Watercolour, 353 x 527 mm, 14 x 20 3/4 ins London, Victoria and Albert Museum (124-1894) Photo courtesy of V&A
The Lungernsee, going up to the Brunig Pass, looking north-north-east. Called ‘Lake with hills (?Brienz)’, c.1848
Watercolour, 353 x 527 mm, 14 x 20 3/4 ins
London, Victoria and Albert Museum (124-1894)
Photo courtesy of V&A

The same trip yielded at least two other Lungernsee watercolour studies of similar size and style. The first is a study at the South African National Gallery (7). that records the view from the north end of the lake looking north to the Brunig Pass and Bernese Oberland. This likewise formed the basis of a large late watercolour in a private collection that was begun about 1848 and also left unfinished (8). These were known as ‘Lake Nemi’ until recent times when identified by the present author before their exhibition together at Essen in 2001 (9). The third study in this series, which has not been exhibited since its appearance at Leger Galleries in London in 1968 (10) records the view of the Brunig Pass itself from the head of the lake at Lungern. This also provided the basis of a large late watercolour begun in 1848, but in this instance carried to completion in one of the most celebrated of Turner’s last watercolours, The Brunig Pass (11).

The figures looking over the wall in the right foreground seem to suggest direct observation or fresh memory, and one of them has heaved themselves up onto the boundary wall to gaze down on the remains of the lake below. It must have seemed quite a shock to anyone journeying up into the upper reaches of the valley expecting to find sequestered peace and a land that time forgot. All of a sudden the traveller was plunged into one of the most dramatic civil engineering projects in Europe. The age-softened shores were now a slew of naked rock and mud, and the shrunken lake appears not quite able yet to assimilate itself to its new condition. The modern equivalent might be to set off for a walk across some flower-filled Alpine meadow, turn the corner and find some huge motorway or High-Speed train construction project in full swing. Turner often took cognisance of contemporary developments in the world, but whilst such interest might explain his recording of the subject in a sketch, the completion of two colour studies, and the commencement of two finished watercolours does suggest that the subject struck a poetic chord.

Turner was sixty-five in 1840 and spent the next five summers exploring the length and breadth of the Alps. In the process he made thousands of sketches and watercolour studies. The project was obviously urgent; to cram into remaining time as much experience as possible of the world at its most vital and sublime. In 1844 he was applying himself to the task with as much, if not more, vigour than at the outset. He went away at the end of July and returned at the beginning of October. There is an oft-quoted letter to F H Fawkes of 28 December 1844 (12): ‘Now for myself.. I went.. to Lucerne and Switzerland, little thinking such a cauldron of squabbling, political or religious, I was walking over.(13) The rains came on early so I could not cross the Alps, twice I tried, was set back with a wet jacket and worn-out boots and after getting them heel-tapped I marched up some of the small valleys of the Rhine and found them more interesting than I expected.’ From this we can infer that he did most of his exploration on foot, and covered enough distance to wear out his boots. He seems to have been unaware until after his return of the political turbulence around Lucerne while he was there, but must have read about it in the papers after his return. Despite his efforts, however he does seem eventually to have been beaten by bad weather. For a man in his sixty-ninth year this was by any measure an impressive performance, he must have walked several hundred miles in the course of the tour. The effort took its toll, and in the same letter he confesses: ‘the rigours of winter begin to tell upon me, rough and cold and more acted upon by changes of weather than when we used to trot about at Farnley, (14) but it must be borne with all the thanks due for such a lengthened period.’ As it turned out, this was the last occasion on which he was able to visit the Alps.

Turner adopted a rather novel way of producing work from these tours. At home in the winter of 1841-2 he made a selection from the coloured sketches that he had to hand and worked these up as a series. These were shown to collectors by his agent Thomas Griffith, and finished versions of their compositions offered at 80gns each.(15) The results of this process, such as the famous Blue Rigi at Tate Britain (16)  include some of the most beautiful and profound work of Turner’s career. Not that his clients seemed to have been altogether aware that they were the beneficiaries of a major artistic crescendo. Quite the reverse, they complained about the price, bickered over the subjects that they wanted, felt uneasy about Turner’s developing style, and affected reluctance, truculence and resistance. In the end the series was only completed by Griffith having to take one of the pictures in lieu of his commission. With friends and supporters like these, Turner must have felt distinctly under-encouraged.

John Ruskin was one of the regular buyers, and although sales became even more sluggish as new series emerged, Turner persevered with his subjects up until 1845. Then there was something of a lull but in 1847 Turner offered to make a new series. It was at that point that he turned to his sketches of the Lungernsee to provide a focal point among the subjects. It is not at all clear what the full set of sketches consisted of, but Ruskin recalled that he asked Turner for ten subjects at 100 guineas each (17), but in the event only two, The Brunig Pass (Private Collection, see note 11) and The Descent of the St. Gotthard (18) were finished. The present sketch provided the basis for one of the others, a watercolour known as ‘Lake with hills (?Brienz)’  (Victoria and Albert Museum, see note 6) but in fact developing the same view as here of The Lungernsee, going up to the Brunig Pass, looking north-north-east. The beginning was never carried to completion. Turner’s health seems to have been on the wane. He seems to have taken six months to bring the two finished examples to completion and an exchange with John James Ruskin (John Ruskin’s father) over delivery of the watercolours in July 1848 indicates that Turner had injured himself in a fall: ‘Dear Sir/ I have received a Letter from Mr J Ruskin – Dover for a few days and stating that you intended being in Town on the 26th or 27th for Switzerland on Paper and I would be happy to meet your expecting them – the first two Drawings – but having been laid up with a broken Knee-pan I must require your indulgence a few days more – say on or before the 1st of July’. (19) He does not seem to have got about very much after this, up to his death three years later in 1851.

It is perhaps not surprising that Ruskin should have selected this as a subject. He had crossed the Brunig Pass via the Lungernsee on 22 August 1835 when a young man of sixteen and travelling on the continent with his parents. His Diary contains a delighted description of the journey: ‘Morning very fine. Passed by the valley and lake of Sarnen, the valley luxuriant, lake with little variety. Then climbed a long hill with magnificent limestone cliffs on the right. It is amazing what beautiful forms the Alpine limestone assumes, in the Jungfrau rising twelve thousand eight hundred feet above the sea, and even in lower mountains breaking into a variety of peaks, which render limestone scenery the finest, with the exception of granite, among the Alps. Here the peak on the right is of a beautiful form, and finely wooded with dark pines. From the top of this hill [the Kaiserstuhl, leading up to the Lungernsee] the Wetterhorns are seen rising, with their triple crest and precipice side, above the beautiful woods of the Brunig, and beneath, the small lake of Lungren [sic], blue, or green, or of a very beautiful between colour shadowed by the steep hills which hang over it, but with a verdant shadow, and emerald reflection, set like a transparent jewel among raised work of mountains chased with forest.’ (20)

It seems obvious that Ruskin saw his 1835 memories reflected in Turner’s sketches, and he would certainly have been appalled by the Lungernsee’s re-engineering of 1836. One wonders whether Turner was playing some game with Ruskin. There is a well-known incident in one of the Swiss commissions – a watercolour called Storm in a Swiss Pass (‘First Bridge above Altdorf’) (21) – which Ruskin commissioned in 1845. Somewhat ruefully Ruskin commented that he had admired the trees in the original sketch, but ‘he cut all the pines down by way of jest, and left only the bared red ground under them.’ (22) Turner appears to have been trying to teach Ruskin not to follow his preferences and tastes quite so self-indulgently. The experience of the world required a wider receptiveness than that. He might well have heard Ruskin wax lyrical about the Lungernsee in ignorance of the real strife and extraordinary measures that were being adopted there. As it transpired Ruskin did not pass this way again until 16 June 1866, by which time the lake shores would have reclothed themselves sufficiently for the work to be no longer obvious.

Jest with Ruskin or not, we can be sure that Turner selected the subject for poetic reasons of his own. The time of day is morning. The sun illuminates the little hillock in the middle distance, the distant ridge beyond, and the tiny church of Burglen on the far shore to the left. The lake itself, and the whole of the valley in which it sits, is still in shade, the sun not yet having risen high enough to shine over the hills to the right. We can imagine an early start, a healthy pull up the hill to the lake, and now a brief dip into the chill of the valley. In the studio version Turner obviously remembers the rain suffused skies under which he travelled and the blinking in and out of the fitful sun. He also remembered the drained lake, with its ‘verdant shadow, and emerald reflection’ like some reservoir of elixir. But he also recalls being surprised to look over into its basin, shocked to find, as the figures in this sketch, that its stock had incontrovertibly shrunk, and its possibility of replenishment, despite the pending rain, rendered null.

1                     The watercolour was first discovered to modern scholarship at Agnew’s in 1978 when it was offered as no.70 as ‘A Swiss Lake, c.1845, priced at £24,000. It was bought by the Swiss art dealer and collector Jan Krugier (d.2008) and appeared with the rest of his astonishing collection of drawings at Sotheby’s, 6 February 2014, lot 140 as a ‘A SWISS LAKE SCENE, POSSIBLY BRIENZ, c.1848’, repr. colour, est. 300,000-500,000 GBP. There is a link to the catalogue entry on their website under the image. It was catalogued by Andrew Wilton in his 1979 catalogue of Turner’s drawings and watercolours as no.1564  ‘Swiss lake scene, 272 x 388 mm, c.1848’, repr. b/w. His dimensions are mistaken.

2                     The identification of the subject at the Lungernsee was first proposed by the present writer in correspondence with Andrew Wilton in 2001, but has remained unpublished until being offered for the first time here.

3                     John Murray, Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, 1838, pp. 59-61.

4                     A sketch in the Grindelwald sketchbook, Turner Bequest CCCXLVIII 17 a, Tate D35102, is inscribed ‘No matter what bef[ell] Hannibel – WB and JMWT […] passed the alps Setr 3 1844’. The ‘WB’ is usually taken to be William Brockedon. To see this sketch on the Tate online catalogue of the Turner Bequest click on the following link, and then click the back button on your web browser to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-mountains-d35102

5                     According to the Dictionnaire Historique de la Suisse, the original level was 675m, lowered in 1836 to 657m. The current, post-1921 level fluctuates between 692 m (max) and 667.5m (min). Given a normal level today of about 685m, the water level in Turner’s watercolour was some 28m (92 feet) lower than at present, and the lake must have been considerably smaller. 170 hectares were recovered in the 1836 operation. [cf.: http://www.hls-dhs-dss.ch/textes/f/F8676.php].

6                     The Lungernsee, going up to the Brunig Pass, looking north-north-east. Called ‘Lake with hills (?Brienz)’, c.1848. London, Victoria and Albert Museum (124-1894). Watercolour, 353 x 527 mm, 14 x 20 3/4 ins. Wilton 1979, no.1563 as ‘Lake with hills (?Brienz), c.1848-50’, repr. b/w.

7                     The Lungernsee, Switzerland, looking south-south-west towards the Brunig Pass, evening. Called ‘A Lake in a Swiss Pass’ and ‘Lake Nemi’, 1844? Watercolour, 229 x 320 mm, 9 x 12 1/2 ins, South Africa,  South African National Gallery, Cape Town (1517); Wilton 1979,  No.1561 as ‘A Swiss subject (Lake Nemi)’, 1844?, repro b/w.

8                     The Lungernsee, Switzerland, looking south-south-west towards the Brunig Pass, evening. Sometimes called Lake Nemi, c.1848, Watercolour over pencil on white wove paper WM ‘J Whatman 1846’, 369 x 540 mm,  14 x 21 ins, Sotheby’s 4 July 2007 no.4 as ‘A Swiss Lake, Lungernsee’, repr. colour, est. £2-3m, sold for £3,604,000 to US private collector; Wilton 1979,  No.1560 as ‘Lake Nemi, c.1848-50’, repr. b/w.

9                     Andrew Wilton, William Turner: Licht und Farbe, catalogue of the exhibition at Essen, Germany, 2001, nos.186-187

10                 The Brunig Pass from Lungern, looking south west to the Brunig pass with the Bernese Oberland Mountains in the distance, 1844? Called ‘The Brunig Pass, from Meiringen’, watercolour, 252 x 362 mm, 10 x 14 1/4 ins, exh. Leger Galleries, London, 1968 no.37 as ‘Brunig Pass, Switzerland, c.1830, 9 3/4 x 13 3/4 ins’, repr. in advert in the Burlington Magazine, Dec 1968 as ‘Brunig Pass from Meiringen. Wilton 1979, no. 1551 as ‘Brunig Pass (from Meiringen), ?1844, ?Private collection, USA’, repr. b/w.

11                 The Brunig Pass from Lungern, Switzerland, looking south west. Called The Brunig Pass, from Meiringen, 1848. Pen and red ink [or watercolour] on lightweight white wove writing paper, 318 x 527 mm, 12 1/2 x 20 3/4 ins. Private Collection; Christie’s, New York, 28 January 2009 no. 37 as ‘The Brunig Pass from Meiringen, Switzerland’, repr. colour, est. $1,500,000-2,500,000, sold for $1,082,500. Wilton 1979,  no.1550 as ‘The Brunig Pass, from Meiringen, 1847-8’, repr. Colour

12                 John Gage, Collected Correspondence of J.M.W.Turner, Oxford U.P., 1980, no.275.

13                 In the 1840s the area around Lucerne was mired in age-old disputes between factions of Catholics, Protestants and Liberals. In 1844 the Conservatives formed a government in Lucerne and appointed Jesuits to train the priesthood. Things got progressively worse and descended three years later in to open civil war. The liberals prevailed and in 1848 a New Constitution for Switzerland was agreed.

14                 Farnley Hall. The Yorkshire home of his early patron Walter Fawkes (d.1825). I have written about this relationship in Turner in Yorkshire (1980), In Turner’s Footsteps (1984) and Turner and Leeds (2009). Francis Hawksworth Fawkes was the eldest son, and remained in contact with Turner until the artist’s death,

15                 A number of scholars have written about Turner’s Alpine series of the 1840s, but the most comprehensive treatment is Ian Warrell’s Through Switzerland with Turner, catalogue of the exhibition at the Tate, London, 1995

16                 The Blue Rigi:  Lake of Lucerne, sunrise, ie Mont Rigi from Lucerne, 1842, Watercolour on white wove paper WM ‘J Whatman/ Turkey Mill’, 297 x 450 mm, 11 3/4 x 17 3/4 ins, Tate T12336. Sold at Christie’s 5 June 2006 no.53, as ‘The Blue Rigi:  Lake of Lucerne, sunrise’, repr colour, est £2m+, sold to Private collector for £5,832,000 and subsequently bt by the Tate Gallery following a public appeal.

17                 Cf. Warrell, 1995, p.155.

18                 The Descent of the St. Gotthard, above Airolo, looking down the Ticino towards the Dazio Grande and Faido. Called ‘The Pass of St Gothard and Splugen Pass, 1848. Japan, Koriyama Museum of Art. Watercolour, 318 x 527 mm, 12 1/2 x 20 5/8 ins. Wilton 1979,  No.1552  as ‘The Descent of the St. Gothard (Valley of the Ticino), 1847-8’, repr. b/w.

19                 Gage 1980 no.310 National Library of Scotland MS 590 fo.1631 of Midsummer day 1848. The watercolours are first mentioned in letter dated 13 January 1848; -Gage 1980, no.308.

20                 Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse (eds), The Diaries of John Ruskin, Oxford U.P., 1956, Vol.1, pp. 45-46

21                 Storm in a Swiss Pass (‘First Bridge above Altdorf’, 1845. Watercolour, 290 x 470   11 1/2 x 18 1/2 ins. Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery (D.23.1937); Wilton 1979,  No.1546 as ‘Storm in a Swiss pass  (‘First bridge above Altdorf’), 1845′, repr. b/w.

22                 Cf. Warrell 1995, under no.39


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