Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
Regular readers (!?) may be thinking that this site is becoming overly sublunary. This is the third article to follow Turner’s footsteps into the night. I ought to confess that I do have at least one other article to write on the theme, but that may wait a little. This one, however, follows hard on the heels of my recent discussion of Turner’s Lucerne by Moonlight at the British Museum (note 1), to fulfil the promise made there to offer a topographic consideration of a watercolour at the Art Institute of Chicago. This has been known during recent decades as Lucerne, but does in fact show Zurich.
The identification of this remarkably vigorous late colour study has never been quite settled. When Ruskin was asked to authenticate it in 1880 he wrote on the bottom ‘I don’t know the place./ J Ruskin 1880/ JMWT Late Time/ and very bad f(for him)’. Twenty years later, it was exhibited by B B Macgeorge in the Glasgow International exhibition in 1901 (no.819) identified as ‘Sketch – Zurich’. The following year it was catalogued by Walter Armstrong in his monumental study of Turner with a query: “Zurich (?)”. Sketch. [B Macgeorge, Esq. (Glasgow, 1901), ex Ruskin Collection]’ quoting an inscription on the mount by Ruskin in which he observed that it was “More like Lucerne.” The Zurich identification remained in place, however, down to its sale at Morrison McLeary in Glasgow on16 May 1958 no.85, as ‘Zurich’, and in 1960 it was given as Zurich by Margaret Mower to the Art Institute of Chicago in memory of her mother, Elsa Durand Mower.
At the 1966 exhibition of Imagination and Reality at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Lawrence Gowing retitled it as ‘Lucerne, c.1835’ (note 2), without offering any argument or rationale for the change. This was followed by Joe Goldyne in his catalogue for the Turner exhibition at Berkeley in 1975 (note 3) and by Andrew Wilton in his 1976 book, Turner and Switzerland p.97, but when Wilton came to catalogue Turner’s watercolours in 1979 (no.1471) he cast doubt on the Lucerne title: ‘The identification of the view was given by Gowing (1966, p.62) and followed by me in Turner in Switzerland (1976, p.97) but Ruskin’s uncertainty seems justified. This is clearly not the same scene as that recorded in TB CCCLXIV 324 and worked up in 1843.. (note 2) The distant towers on the left suggest Bellinzona, but in other respects this seems to be a view in a town on the Rhine’.
Wilton did not consider that the original identification might in fact have been correct, but the subject can here be positively confirmed as Zurich. The sketch records the view up the river Limmat towards the lake of Zurich from somewhere near the present Rudolf Brun Brucke. In the middle distance is the Rathausbrucke, and in the left background the twin towers of the Grossmunster and in the right background the spire of the Fraumunster.
The background elements are readily identifiable, but it has to be admitted that Turner’s approach is so free that it is difficult to read the exact form of the Rathausbrucke in the centre distance. Most commentators have read this as a covered bridge like the Kapellbrucke at Lucerne. The Rathausbrucke, however, was (and is) a flat deck wide enough to serve as a market-place. In the sketch here, it appears that the middle of the three tiers represents the shade at water level, and the lower tier the reflection of the upper.
Today there is no sign on the river Limmat of the weirs that we can see to the left here, but until well into the twentieth century this stretch of the Limmat was the industrial heart of Zurich. One particularly striking feature of the outflows of Swiss Lakes, here as at Geneva (Rhone) or Lucerne (Reuss) or Constance (Rhine) is the constantly prodigious flow. Millions of tons of clear water slide by every hour, and at Zurich in Turner’s day the Limmat was crowded with mills. Weirs had been built to create a head of water, and two lines of mill buildings had been built out across the river.
The mills in the early nineteenth century can be seen in an engraving by Franz Hegi after the artist Heinrich Maurer (1774-1822) at the British Museum, and in their fully developed form in a remarkable engraved panorama dating from 1863 by the Paris-based artist Michel Charles Ficot (1817-1903). An aerial photograph shows the mills still in position in 1910, but all trace of them has now been removed. Turner’s exact viewpoint appears to have been on the left bank of the Limmat towards the upper left of the 1910 photograph opposite the western end of the ‘Uber Mule Steg’, or the upper line of mills, where there was a weir that answers to Turner’s and from where he would have has a clear line of sight up the river to the Rathausbrucke and churches.
Turner visited Zurich more than once in the 1840s. It is not yet possible to be entirely certain about the chronology, but we can infer a visit in 1841, another in 1842 and perhaps another in 1844. There are several sketches of Zurich subjects already identified in the Turner Bequest (click on the following link and enter ‘Zurich’, and then press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:) http://www.tate.org.uk/art
A definitive list of Zurich subjects awaits a systematic trawl through the large number of late sketches in the Turner Bequest. It is significant enough, however to note that as things stand, no comparative pencil sketch by Turner has been found that records the same material. So this does appear to be a distinctive record and given its phenomenal specificity possibly at least begun from the motif.
Most commentators have observed that this sketch is related to a colour study in the Turner Bequest, TB CCCLXIV 324.
This is usually described as a sample study made c.1842-3 for a watercolour of Lucerne by Moonlight at the British Museum. As my article on that watercolour observes the watercolour is more closely related topographically speaking to a pencil sketch (Tate TB CCCXXIX 7r), and the colour beginning is sufficiently unlike either the watercolour or Lucerne itself as to admit the possibility that it might show somewhere altogether different. This remains unresolved, but it is worth observing that the colour study and this watercolour sketch are very close in stylistic terms. The treatment of the boatman setting fishing baskets into the river is almost exactly the same; and certainly close enough to suggest that they might date from the same campaign. The comparison shows that the Turner Bequest subject is more highly wrought with its suffused layers of colour and fine stippling, entirely in keeping with the idea that it was developed as a sample study to form part of a demonstrative series designed to attract commissions for finished subjects. The comparison does little to dispel my suspicion, however, that the Turner Bequest subject may not show Lucerne at all.
However that may be, the present sketch certainly does show Zurich, and has all the properties that one might expect of a work begun, and perhaps largely executed from the motif. It is worth giving some consideration as to whether he had some supplementary light such as a lamp, to work by. From the vigour of the workmanship one suspects not, and to judge from the brightness of the effect there might easily have been sufficient natural light to work by. This still begs some consideration of the circumstances. Consulting Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, which had been published in 1838, and which Turner certainly used on his later Alpine tours, we may read that the recommended hotel in Zurich was the ‘Schwerdt (or Epee) – overlooking the Limmat, close to the broad wooden bridge which serves as a market-place’.
Murray’s Handbook does caution that it was ‘neither very good nor clean’, it does add that it was something of a Hobson’s choice, commenting that: ‘The inns at Zurich are notoriously dirty, high priced and ill-attended’ (note 5). Turner had travelled sufficiently to be phlegmatic in his expectations, but the attraction of a hotel with rooms that gave directly out onto the principal sublime assets of a place would have been a powerful inducement. It seems altogether plausible to imagine him enjoying the moonlight on the river outside his room, and thinking it worth the effort of going out to record it from a viewpoint close by.
1 See ‘Turner and Switzerland #2: Lucerne by Moonlight’, Sublimesites.co, 18 February 2014
2 L Gowing, Turner: Imagination and Reality, catalogue of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art New York, 1966, p.62, where repr.
3 Joe Goldyne, J.M.W.Turner: Works on Paper in American Collections, catalogue of the exhibition at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, California, 1975, no.45, repr. colour as pl.VIII.
4 TB CCCLXIV 324 is traditionally called Lucerne and dated 1842-3 but see my discussion in the SublimeSites article ‘Turner and Switzerland #2 (op cit), where both identification and date are queried.
5 John Murray, Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, 1838, p.24. To be fair I ought to say that whilst Zurich might still have a similar reputation for expense, the quality of the best is quite superlative (reportedly).