Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This article is the third to explore Turner’s Sisteron subjects in the light of my recent visit to the site. Here I focus on a watercolour in the collection of the Museum of Rhode Island School of Design that records the view of the Pont du Buech from the west. The bridge spans the river Buech to the north of the citadel at Sisteron, and carries the historic route north from Aix and Provence towards Gap and Grenoble. It is celebrated as part of the Route Napoleon, by which, following the Emperor’s return from Elba in 1814, he made his way north from Cannes to Grenoble and onwards to Paris.
The subject remained unidentified until 2006 when I related it to a group of Turner studies of Sisteron. Before that the subject was described as ‘Pont de Buset’, ‘Busel’ and ‘Buzet’ in various misreadings of the inscription. I wrote up my preliminary findings in a letter for the museum’s files and the identification has since found its way into at least one publication; Ian Warrell’s notes to the watercolour of Sisteron from the North-West sold at Christie’s on 5 November 2013 (lot 149). That watercolour was the subject of one of the first articles in SublimeSites; ‘The Implications of Moonlight: Turner at Sisteron’ posted on 8 November 2013. Finally, nearly a decade on from my initial interest in the subject, the opportunity finally came around for me to make a site visit, make a photograph, and write up some notes grounded in observation of the subject.
The view is best seen today from the road to St Geniez in the village of La Baume on the left bank of the Durance about half-way between the Pont de la Baume and the Dominican Convent. The spectacularity of many of Turner’s sites has prompted development that now obscures the view except for the few. Here it is rather the opposite. A small park has been built to take permanent public advantage of the site and equipped with a fountain, benches and ornamental shrubs. The local authority should possibly even make some feature of Turner’s treatment of the view. With the Montagne de l’Ubac lined up over the left abutment of the Pont du Buech, however, the bridge is currently obscured by riverbank trees, so the photograph above is taken from a little further to the right where the bridge fully opens into view. The panorama below gives a broader idea of the site.
Standing at the site with an image of Turner’s watercolour in hand proves that Turner’s actual viewpoint was on the right bank of the Buech, near the modern EcoMusee. Tree growth frustrates exact comparison today, but such a position brings the bridge into greater proximity as the watercolour shows, puts the Montagne de l’Ubac directly over the left end of the bridge, and brings the spur of the citadel above left into precipitous relation as in the watercolour. The Google Earth image below marks the exact viewpoints of my photograph and of Turner’s sketch.
Exploring the site raised significant considerations of difference and similarity. One obvious difference is that the Pont de Buech is now backed by a railway viaduct built in 1874. It is also clear that in the watercolour individual elements present themselves to attention more directly than in the photograph; the Montagne de l’Ubec for example, occupies a much greater proportion of the field of view, and other mountains are supressed or elided altogether.
A consideration of details of the Montagne de l’Ubec suggests that Turner was not at all mindful of its exact form. On the other hand the light effect is consistent and evidently observed from nature. My photographs were taken a few minutes before noon local time (GMT +2hrs) and Turner has registered consistent particularities of the way in which the later morning light picks out relief across the landscape. In addition Turner has registered the particularity of the bridge in that the right arch is wider than the -other two. Had you noticed? I suspect not, and Turner’s attentiveness might be emphasised to the reader by a question: did you register how many arches of the railway bridge are visible in the photograph? The answer is five, with three more of a total of eleven hidden to the right by trees.
Click on either image to enlarge and toggle between:
This is somewhat contradictory. The bridge and the specificity of effect suggest immediate reference to the motif, but the mountain and the sketchy buildings to the right suggest that he was working from an imperfectly stocked memory. This contradiction characterises many of Turner’s coloured sketches. Whilst their size and sketchiness makes it obvious to think of them as being made on the spot, some details seem to relate to direct reference and others suggest some degree of remove. It seems as if he must be working on the spot, but for much of the time not actually looking at his subject. This may not be such an outlandish idea as it might as first seem.
As anyone who has tried it will know, working direct from nature is a lot harder than might be assumed. The most obvious problem is that you cannot look at the subject and draw or paint it at the same time. In order to control the pencil or brush one has to concentrate on the paper. In fact (and certainly in my experience) if one is to make anything at all credible, one has to concentrate much more on the paper than on the subject. Looking away to the subject becomes more of a hindrance than a help. There are only certain things in any case that one can pay attention to. The number and form of arches in a bridge might be one thing – especially where it is the central motif – but the number of stone courses of which it is composed, still less the number of trees on that slope. So working from the motif is of necessity a selective process. I have watched artists at work in the landscape who will quite deliberately turn their back on a scene in order to concentrate on the work whilst nevertheless remaining focused on the specifics exclusive to being there.
It seems clear that by the time of this drawing – he was sixty-three in 1838 – Turner felt quite able to operate freely in this space between motif and making, and to synthesise more particularities into the work, especially spatially, than any other artist. This sketch is a very good example. Standing on the terrace of the EcoMuseum at Sisteron it is hard quite to fathom how Turner has managed to call so much into play from his field of view. The growth of trees makes it impossible to see all the elements at once, but in any case it would be impossible to photograph. One cannot have both apparent distance to the road, and the proximity of the bridge in the same perspectival frame. But nonetheless the steeply falling perspective of the citadel puts us on that spot, and Turner is actively synthesising his sense of where is into the one small frame that has to hold all this.
The truth is that artists do whatever they like, or need, to make the work as they see fit. What matters most of all is the aesthetic effect; what it seems to be. And here it most certainly seems to be a sketch from nature. It is painted quickly on a small, torn-edged piece of coloured paper. The handling is as deft as might be expected from an artist with fifty years practice in the most advanced technical and bravura handling of the medium. Nonetheless this is memorandum-making rather than fine crafting; it is a work that eschews ‘finish’. It seems extemporal in direct relation to specifics of time and place; a field note from a journey of exploration. It is inscribed with a note of its site of observation. More unusually of field notes, it is also made to be viewed. There is a bravura of mark-making – and a sense of filling the sheet, that makes it seem outward-facing. It might be process, but process made visible. Turner’s sketches had always had an interested audience in friends and patrons, but from mid-career he sketched in colour more overtly with a sense of their having a public.
There is not time here to do give any more than a very preliminary sketch of this trajectory, but it is the theme that underpins the Turner material in Sublimesites, and will hopefully be drawn together one day in a book. The first major campaign appears to be the sketches that he made on the Thames in 1805. These are the subject of my book Turner on the Thames published in 1993. Later comes a series of fifty watercolour sketches of subjects on the Rhine that he made in 1817 for his Yorkshire patron Walter Fawkes. After that is the large number of colour studies that he made in Italy in 1819. Later in the 1820s he deliberately developed two series of small coloured sketches to represent tours to the Seine and Loire. After that come large groups of coloured sketches recording tours to Venice in 1833 and the Mont Blanc and Val d’Aosta area in 1836. In the last, especially, Turner is developing a distinct trend to the synthetic alongside the analytic, and that trend is evident in the present sketch and its group. This includes subjects at Genoa and the French Riviera as well as several of Sisteron and Grenoble, which I am now suggesting might date to 1838. This trend is even more developed and the colour used more freely in a tour to the Meuse and Mosel of 1839, and this culminated in large numbers of sketches in Venice and the Alps in the 1840s. Besides these are significant groups of British subjects. Turner’s sketches at Petworth in Sussex are famous, but there are many others on the south coast, particularly around Margate. A few of the late Alpine subjects have already been considered here, but as time permits I hope to add material relating to all areas of Turner’s sketching from nature.
The watercolour was owned by John Ruskin, although it is not clear how and when it acquired it. He exhibited it at the Fine Art Society in 1878 as no.52 ‘Pont de Busel’. The most scholarly catalogue entry for it to date is by Malcolm Cormack in his ‘Catalogue of the British Watercolours and Drawings from the Museum’s Collection’ published in the Bulletin of Rhode Island School of Design: Museum Notes in April 1972. There it is also no.52 as ‘Pont de Burzet(?) in the Ardeche’. The watercolour is listed in the ‘Turner Worldwide’ section of the Tate online catalogue of Turner’s Work (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-pont-de-buzet-tw1275) as ‘Pont de Buzet ?1835-40’, but there is no image and the watercolour is unaccountably given as ‘Collection: no information given’ [at least as accessed 1 May 2014].
The study belongs to a group of Sisteron subjects, all on buff paper of a similar size. The series wants properly researching but Andrew Wilton’s nos. 1011, 1012, and 1013 belong to the group, and are correctly identified – his 1010, however, is now known to show Luxembourg. Another of the group was sold at Christie’s, London, on 17 November 2005 no.97, and although inconclusively identified there, in fact shows the Pont de la Baume at Sisteron. There are several other examples certainly belong to the same tour, but these mostly record other sites and need further research.
The tour itself is recorded in a sketchbook in the Turner Bequest at the Tate, TB CCXCV, Genoa to Grenoble sketchbook. This records an itinerary that takes him by ship from Genoa to Nice and Antibes, and then north through the Alps via Sisteron and Gap to Grenoble. There are several sketches of Sisteron starting at p.94a. None record the same view as the present watercolour – in fact I would argue that all the watercolours were sketched direct from nature, since they all appear to be views distinct from the pencil sketches. One pencil sketch (p. 96a) is taken from the citadel ridge to the west, and looks down on the Pont du Buech at the left – albeit from the opposite direction to the present watercolour and from a much higher viewpoint.
Turner’s pencil sketches at Sisteron were comprehensively covered by Roland Courtot in his 2004 article ‘Turner a Sisteron’ (available online at http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/medit_0025-8296_2004_num_102_1_3351)
My own site exploration found a little room to be more specific about some of the viewpoints, so I will review those in a future article. Courtot only discusses two watercolours, and several more have been identified since, so at the same time I will pull together a review of all the watercolour subjects (and reproduce them subject to permissions), and show photographs of the sites.