On 27 February 2015 I announced that the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation had commissioned a SublimeSites exploration of Turner’s associations with Heidelberg. I promised to visit the site in May but then remembered that Cecilia Powell had discovered in Turner and Germany (1995, p.74) the actual dates on which Turner stayed in Heidelberg in 1844; 24-27 August. It seemed a better plan to visit on the same days in the hope of seeing things in the same light and conditions as had Turner.
Turner came to know the topography of Heidelberg thoroughly. The city is about 90 km south of Frankfurt just where the river Neckar breaks out of the hills into the wide plains of the Rhine valley. The Neckar was an important transit route and the city controlled passage upstream, and its bridge facilitated an important north south road route. It was an important site in Roman times but by the medieval period had become a prosperous city with a large castle. This housed the Palace of the Elector Palatine, a key constituent of the Holy Roman Empire, and reached its apogee in the later Renaissance c.1550-1620 when extensive new apartments and gardens were built. The town and castle were subsequently fairly comprehensively destroyed by the French at the end of the seventeenth century but prosperity returned in the eighteenth century. It had been an important University town since the middle ages, and by Turner’s time was famous throughout Europe.
Turner’s first visit to the city was in 1833. He was fifty-eight, and discovering the city fairly late in his career. He already knew Mosel and the Rhine well, but somehow his routes up and down the Rhine had never before provided the opportunity to stop by. He was, however, at the peak of his powers, and was the probably most practiced and profound assimilator of place in all Europe. It was his routine practice to compass his subject, sketching from every angle so as to be able to build a three-dimensional model of a site in his mind. Even so, Heidelberg prompted extraordinary attention and he took a new sketchbook and stocked it with over fifty individual sketches. A few are extremely painstaking, but most are quite rapid, and he probably spent little more time at each vantage point than I did in photographing the subjects; a few minutes at each, and perhaps an hour at a few, soaking in the details at leisure. On the first evening I took in the views of the bridge, town and castle from across the river, on the second day I explored the castle inside and out, and from the hillsides above and behind, on the third day I made a systematic study of the bridge town and castle from across the river, and on the fourth day I revisited a few of the best sites to try and improve on what I already had, or take in a view under varying conditions. As it Turner out this seems to have more-or-less followed the plan of Turner’s campaign in 1833.
Turner returned to Heidelberg on several occasions. There is evidence of visits in 1840, 1841 and 1844, resulting in two more clutches of pencil sketches and well as several very fine colour studies, and from this material he developed three superb studio watercolours. The original occasion of this article was to explore the topography of an important late painting at the Tate called ‘Heidelberg in the Olden Time’. The topography of this proved to be rather more problematic that I originally suspected. The first part of this article reports my exploration in his 1833 footsteps, when he made a comprehensive circumperambulation of the city, The second part (hopefully, not so far behind) will deal with the finished works, and Turner’s sketches in pencil and watercolour from the 1840s, as well as the Tate painting.
In Turner’s Footsteps at Heidelberg
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Turner made fifty-two sketches in 1833. Most are just rapid jottings but he punctuated his sequences with drawings that carefully captured specific detail, so as to have the material to develop almost any view that he decided upon. All contain enough detail for them for the visitor today to be able to recognise the subjects and Heidelberg (apart from the trees behind the castle!) is sufficiently unchanged for it to be possible to plot the exact viewpoint of every one. It might be worthwhile to create a comprehensive Turner trail around Heidelberg should the opportunity arise.
For now, however, it is time to move on to consider the later work. Suffice it to say that in 1833 Turner comprehensively quartered the city; stocked up views of the main landmarks from every angle, and certainly – considering the main sequences of sketches – laid up material for potential views of the castle from the east. The view from the garden terrace was already popular and well-known, and he looked for something slightly different by exploring the higher slopes. He also marched the whole length of the Neckar shore on the right bank, looking to the old bridge, castle and town from both upstream and down, near and far, and finished off by attempting to find a view that few artists had attempted from the left bank near the Karlstor. One observation that ought to be made at this stage is that the 1833 drawings contain little evidence of atmosphere or effect. He would have learned, however, that the best effects are in the morning and evening. From the Neckar shore the town and castle are contre-jour during most of the day, but in the morning the light slants in attractively from upstream and in the evening the castle gleams brilliantly pink and red. Up at the castle the view from the east is likewise at its best in the morning or at sunset. During the day there might be some possibility of good effects from the slopes above the castle to the south. We might presume that Turner had taken all this in, even if it is not specifically recorded.
TO BE CONTINUED:
Part 2 will consider Turner’s three finished watercolours of Heidelberg, two groups of pencil sketches from the 1840s, and two groups of superb colour studies, as well as the painting at the Tate known as ‘Heidelberg in the Olden Time.’ I thought I had better post what I’ve done thus far, however, and hope it’s not too long before I complete the remainder!