Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
On 10 July 2014 Christie’s in London will sell a Turner watercolour of Binger Loch and Mausethurm (lot 214, estimate £200,000 – 300,000). This is one of a series of fifty-one* watercolours that Turner made in 1817 when he made a tour of the river Rhine between Cologne and Mainz. On Turner’s return the whole series was bought for 500 guineas by the artist’s Yorkshire patron Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, and celebrated thereafter as a direct and spontaneous encounter with one of the most Romantic areas of all Europe. This article considers the watercolour’s topographical content and the possibility that it might at least have been begun form nature.
The early accounts of the series considered the watercolours to be sketches painted directly from nature. Ruskin said ‘every one… is the almost instantaneous record of an effect of colour or atmosphere, taken strictly from nature, the drawing and the details…being comparatively subordinate’ (note 1). Modern scholarship particularly that of Cecilia Powell, who has treated the tour in detail in her books Turner’s Rivers of Europe (1991) and Turner in Germany (1995) has questioned this. Christie’s catalogue notes review the context and arguments thoroughly drawing on Powell’s work.
The most important objection to the Rhine drawings being sketches from nature is that the watercolours are based upon pencil sketches that Turner made in the bound sketchbooks that Turner had with him. Powell argues that Turner painted the watercolours from these pencil sketches in the autumn of 1817 after his return to England, when he had plenty of time whilst making a tour to County Durham before visiting Farnley Hall (note 2). Powell’s account is detailed and convincing, but begs questions as to why some examples have no relation to pencil sketches, others show significant deviation from their related pencil sketches, and more generally as to why the works have a much more extemporised appearance than his usual studio work – in short they look like sketches – and why in relation to the occasion of their making he would be working on them whilst engaged sketching a completely different landscape, for a completely different project.
Given my avowed primary interest in Turner’s work on site, I do confess to always feeling drawn to the idea of Turner sketching in colour direct from nature. This sometimes in spite of the evidence. Over the last decade or so, however, I have visited and photographed all of Turner’s sites on the Rhine. Most of this was accomplished, I can boast, on a bicycle. The Rhine is splendid cycling terrain, there being a more-or-less dedicated cycling provision along most of its length. A boat might seem more appropriate, but in fact Turner made most of his sketches from the riverside, and the bike, I discovered, had the great advantage (at my rate of propulsion) of going much slower than any boat, so allowed proper time to take things in, and stopped more readily than a boat to allow photographs to be taken. Standing as often as I could on Turner’s exact viewpoints it emerges that the evidence by no means eliminates colouring from the motif. In fact, as at Bingen it suggests a multiplicity of practice. Artists rarely stick to just one method. I remember hearing David Hockney say at the beginning of a recent film that he renounced photography and computing in order to paint direct from nature in Yorkshire. At the end of the film when asked to comment on the fact that he had used cameras, film, computer processing, print and a whole array of practices besides painting, he looked unabashed: ‘Never believe what an artist says; only what they do’ (note 3). In the case of Bingen Turner seems to have done a variety of things, including painting from nature.
Powell’s most developed treatment of this specific subject is in Turner’s Rivers of Europe (1991) where a pencil sketch of the subject (Tate, TB CLX 71v-72r, see repr. above) was exhibited and reproduced as no.2, and the watercolour as no.11, and Powell states that the watercolour was based directly on the sketch. Comparison of sketch and watercolour confirms an obvious relationship, but it is my purpose here to loosen the directness of that relationship, and create some room for the watercolour to at least have been begun from the motif.
Since there will be no disagreement that the pencil sketch was done from nature, let us consider that first. Powell establishes that it was made from a boat on 27 August 1817 as Turner sailed downstream from to Bingen from St Goar. The viewpoint is midstream immediately below Rudesheim, looking west downstream with (from left to right) Burg Klopp, the spire of Bingen Church, the riverside crane of Bingen, the Mausethurm in distant mid-river and Burg Ehrenfels closing the view to the right. Individual buildings have since been restored or rebuilt – Burg Klopp and the Mausethurm particularly, but the positioning of everything in the sketch is perfectly naturalistic and all of the elements are easily identifiable to this day.
There are numerous differences, however, between the sketch and the watercolour. The most obvious and perhaps significant deviation is that the watercolour appears to be taken from a different viewpoint, rather nearer to Burg Ehrenfels. For the castle towers to appear against the sky as in the watercolour, one needs to be nearer the mouth of the river Nahe as in the photograph above. For it to still appear on the shoulder of the curve of that bank, however, one cannot be any further downstream. Even by the time one arrives at the downstream end of Bingen quay, where it meets the Nahe, the castle drops below the horizon of its bank. In fact the view of Ehrenfels shown in the watercolour is exclusive to a line of sight running from Bingen quay a hundred meters or so upstream of the confluence with the Nahe.
It has to be admitted that the comparison also presents difficulties for the plein-air argument. The pencil sketch accurately records Bingen Klopp, Bingen Church and Bingen Crane from its mid-river viewpoint. They are far less accurately depicted in the watercolour, and most problematically of all, the fact that they are included at all is incompatible with the apparent viewpoint on Burg Ehrenfels, since on that line of sight, Bingen and Burg Klopp are out of scope to the left.
The main point of painting from nature would be to record an effect, so it is perhaps worth giving some consideration to that aspect. The watercolour puts the sun to the left, shining brightly on Burg Ehrenfels and its slopes, and illuminating the spire and roof of Bingen Church to the left and the Mausethurm in mid-river. As a perusal of the many photographs of this view on the internet will reveal, the way in which the sun strikes Burg Ehrenfels and its steep vine-clad slopes is one of the site’s distinguishing visual characteristics. Its lack rendered dull my photograph taken in the later afternoon, but brings to life a second photo taken in the morning. The same effect forms the raison d’etre of the watercolour, and Turner has gone to quite some lengths to give the effect of the vines in working up the texture of those sunlight slopes. The most specific phenomenon of all in the watercolour, moreover, is the peculiarly-shaped shadow on the slopes below the castle. This suggests the passing of a cloud, but at the same time does more. Its peculiarity is the product of the two bars at its top right. Comparison with the photographs quite readily suggests their significance; they represent the terraced roadways that cross the slopes, and which characterise the site to this day. There is no sign whatsoever of these in the pencil sketch.
Again some objection to this might be admitted. Turner’s viewpoint here is due west, so the light is to the south. Although the effect is generally consistent with the orientation, the sharpness of the contrast suggests a low angle of incidence more typical of early morning or evening than the middle of the day. It is probably worth noting here that when the watercolour was listed in a manuscript catalogue of the Farnley Hall collection compiled in 1850, it was described as ‘Sketches on the Rhine (in a case) no.9, Bingen Loch & Mausethurm N. 12 3/8 x 8’ (note 4). The list was compiled by the son of Turner’s patron, Francis Hawksworth Fawkes, working presumably from old notes and inscriptions, and was shown to Turner for his approval (note 5). It is perhaps significant that the description assumes that the view was looking to the north. This has a certain logic – the Rhine flows generally to the north, but it twists and turns in this stretch so much that it is easy to confuse one’s bearings. If the mistake originated with Turner, then it would explain him thinking that a low light was appropriate for his highlights.
So whilst there seems to be sufficient observed particularity in the watercolour to suggest that it records some things quite independently of the pencil sketch, there are equally things in it, particularly the whole of the left middle distance comprising of Bingen Klopp and Bingen church, that cannot have been observed from the viewpoint of the watercolour, and must have been brought in from the sketch. Although this is complicated, and perhaps untidily equivocal, it is perhaps inherently more likely than a simple either/or scenario. My surmise from this is that Turner began the watercolour from nature, independently of the sketch, but worked it up later to give it a degree of finish so that it might be made presentable. When this working-up was done is impossible to say. Some work might have been done in his rooms as he progressed along the tour, some back in London, some in County Durham and some even (and perhaps most likely of all) after Fawkes had indicated an interest in the group whilst Turner was staying at Farnley Hall in the Autumn of 1817.
Beyond this point the river narrows to the dangerous passage called the Binger Loch between the Mausethurm and Ehrenfels. This stretch of river was beset by swift currents, jutting rocks and submerged reefs and was one of the most notoriously dangerous stretches of the whole Rhine. The castles of Bingen and Ehrenfels and the Mausethurm had grown up to control the passage, and to provide pilotage and extract tolls. The river was largely unimproved in 1817, remained so until two narrow channels were cleared in the 1830’s, and the main channels not finally cleared until as recently as the 1970s. Powell 1991 (repeated in Christie’s catalogue notes) very well describes how Turner develops this theme by contrasting the light, width and peace of the foreground, with the cold confines of the Loch, presaged by protruding rocks at the left and presided over by the haloed tower of Ehrenfels. The ripples around this rock are brilliantly repeated in the light glittering from the disturbed waters in the distance. It is typical of Turner’s practice that there is such specific and imaginative topographical and phenomenal content in this picture, and indeed in each one of the Rhine series watercolours. We may indeed question some of the details of the story told of the Rhine drawings by Walter Thornbury, but he was was certainly right when he called them ‘miracles of skill, genius and industry’. Further, he added: ‘These Rhenish drawings are most exquisite for sad tenderness, purity, twilight, poetry, truth, and perfection of harmony. They are to the eye what the finest verse of Tennyson are to the ear; and they do what so few things on earth do: they completely satisfy the mind’ (note 6).
I am grateful to Harriet Drummond and Rosy Temple at Christie’s, London for an image of the watercolour and permission to reproduce.
*The number is slightly controversial, Cecilia Powell (Turner in Germany, 1995, p.26 and Cat. no.17) prefers fifty. Despite the arguments the principal source must be the Farnley Hall catalogue of the collection in 1850 (see note 4), which Turner approved (see note 5), and which lists the Rhine drawings as a group of fifty-one.
1 In his pamphlet ‘Pre-Raphaelitism’, published in 1851, and written around the Turner works that he had seen at Farnley Hall; in E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin, Library Edition, 1903-12, Volume 12, p. 376-7. The reference is worth reading in its original context. Ruskin’s core idea is that Turner’s study of exceptional phenomena on this tour to the Rhine liberated him into the colour and effect of his later career.
2 See C. Powell, Turner’s Rivers of Europe, Tate, 1991, especially ‘Waterloo and the Rhineland 1817’ p.20-36, and Turner in Germany, Tate, 1995, especially ‘The First Visit to the Rhine, 1817’, pp. 20-29.
3 Bruno Wollheim, David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, Coluga Pictures, 2007.
4 ‘A Catalogue of the Oil Paintings and Watercolour drawings and Sketches in Watercolours by J M W Turner RA in the possession of F H Fawkes Esqre of Farnley Hall, Otley, Yorkshire, A.D. 1850’, National Art Library, V&A Museum; a later copy is at Bradford Central Libraries. No transcript of this catalogue has been published.
5 See John Gage, Collected Correspondence of J M W Turner, 1980, no.318: ‘Your catalogue is capital yet I could wish to see the Total number even in writing even at the end.’
6 Walter Thornbury, The Life and Correspondence of J M W Turner, (1862) 1877 edition, p. 238.
And finally I ought to mention my fellow cyclists in 2006; Robert Waterhouse, Eric Howell and Ken Guest, together with the pedestrian Philip Morris, who put up with the constant stoppages for ‘Turnering’, occasionally feigned some interest and behaved with commendable but uncharacteristic decorum at the ‘Rhinelust’ in Boppard.