Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This post continues the essay begun on 19 October 2015. There, I followed in the footsteps of Turner’s comprehensive and systematic exploration of Heidelberg in 1833. Here, I look at a major finished watercolour that he developed in the early 1840s, and a return visit to Heidelberg at the same time.
After the visit of 1833, several years passed without presenting Turner with the opportunity to make anything of his Heidelberg material. That is until 1840 when he was approached by the young engraver Thomas Abel Prior to make a watercolour to be engraved on a large scale. As Prior himself related (W.G.Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W.Turner, 1909, Vol.2, no.663) he had himself visited Heidelberg and been impressed by the site, and made some sketches and his idea was to supply Turner with a drawing from which he could work. Turner did occasionally work from other people’s sketches with subjects that he had not himself explored, but it would have been an unusual (if not insulting) requirement when he had his own reference material, particularly in a case such as Heidelberg, where he had expended quite some effort in developing his own authority.
At any event Turner attempted to put Prior off. He pointed out that large plates from his work had not sold well in recent years, and he knew full well from a long career of working with engravers, that there would be an extraordinary labour and expense for the engraver in preparing the plate and printing – not to mention the 100 guineas that Prior had offered Turner for the watercolour, or the costs and complexities of marketing and distribution. The young man persisted, and eventually the artist agreed – and with his own rich memories of the site to draw upon, started work on what was to prove to be one of the most extraordinary productions of the peak of his career.
He began by making a large colour study in watercolour. Right from his early years, Turner had developed his ideas and effects through such ‘colour-beginnings’. This one is of especial interest for it is dated 10 March 1841. That is usually taken to indicate the date of the colour beginning, but in fact the full inscription reads ’10 23330 10 Mar 41’. This is the amount, number and date of a bank note, and might well be a record of a deposit that Prior had paid to secure the artist’s services.
The date cannot be taken too literally as the date of the study, but we can, I think, fairly assume that it suggests that Turner began to think about the composition at that time. Prior’s sketch (sadly untraced) must have been of some influence for the viewpoint of this study is not one of the viewpoints that Turner had actually sketched in 1833. The most comparable sketches that he made on that occasion were TB CCXCVIII 14, 14a (above), his prime sketches of the bridge castle and town from that visit, but taken from a viewpoint distinctly nearer the bridge. As we noted in part one, Turner was acutely sensitive to parallax; the way that visual alignments shift according to viewpoint. He knew that it identified one’s viewpoint precisely, and if Prior’s sketch was from this viewpoint, Turner would have been well aware that it was one that he had not himself verified. It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that Turner returned to the spot to make some sketches of his own.
The Berne, Heidelberg and Rhine sketchbook (TB CCCXXVI) begins with a sequence of sketches at Berne in Switzerland, and continues with sketches in southern Germany before continuing to Heidelberg and the Rhine. So he appears to have visited Heidelberg on his way home from a tour to the Alps, and although it was not his main subject of the tour, the Prior commission gave him a strong motive for revisiting the town. The sketchbook includes a sequence of seven sketches at Heidelberg recording a walk down the north bank of the Neckar from the bridge (39a) to almost as far as the Neuenheim shore. On the way he made one sketch from the viewpoint of the watercolour (40a) but seems to have kept an open mind about what might have been the best vantage point, sketching at intervals as he went, until he lost sight of the bridge behind the curve of the northern bank as he approached Neuenheim (44). The sketches are scrappy, but he had all the architectural detail that might ever require in the 1833 sketches, and his objective seems more to have been to weigh up the complete range of possibilities looking over the river to the bridge, castle and town, and to record the complete range of shifting permutations amongst the key elements. To prove the degree of Turner’s particularity with regard to those relationships there is one sketch (40) made at the key point of these parallax shifts, when the octagonal tower of the castle, the spire of the Heiliggeistkirche and the turret of the armoury, are all perfectly aligned.
Although the viewpoint of the colour study, sketches and watercolour has been referred to (cf. Turner and Germany, 1995, under nos. 126, 130) as the Neuenheim shore, that description is not strictly speaking correct. Neuenheim is on the north bank of the Neckar nearly a mile (0.78m to be precise, according to Google Earth) downriver of the old bridge at Heidelberg, across the modern Theodore Heuss Brucke, and Turner never in fact walked quite so far. His most distant sketch in the series is f.44, which is taken from the road upstream of the Theodore Heuss Brucke, and (42) which is taken from the riverside, with the embanked road (the Neuenheim Landstrasse) above to the left. Turner’s viewpoint in the colour beginning and the watercolour is instead, less than 300 yards (or a splendidly exact 281.38 yards, as measured by Google Earth) downstream of the bridge. There is more than a little pedantry at work here, I admit, but Turner is extremely particular in his chosen relation of elements, and finding the right spot is a core part of the rationale of Sublimesites.co. We can say as a result that the viewpoint of the colour study is the same as that of the finished watercolour, despite that being doubted by Turner and Germany, 1995, no.126.
We do not know when Turner finished his watercolour for Prior, only that the engraving was published in 1846. It seems a good stylistic surmise that the watercolour was painted c.1841-2, and the scholarly consensus agrees around that date. The watercolour has a freshness, luminosity, fineness of handling and attention to anecdotal detail that in many respects represents a culminating point in his technical mastery of the medium and a career-defining display of virtuosity. Turner knew that an engraving needed to hold the attention over time, and that the viewer would enjoy noticing new details and beauties with repeated scrutiny. He had learned that at the beginning of his career when making illustrations to be engraved for the Oxford Almanac and he had spent forty years since perfecting the intricacy of his detail to suit the engraver’s art.
If the watercolour was delivered in 1842, then it may seem surprising that Prior took four years to bring it to publication. The labour involved in hand engraving is, however, completely forgotten by modern consciousness. Suffice it to say that a plate one quarter of this size could take a skilled engraver up to a year to perfect, and Prior seems to have had the additional ambition of using this project to establish his reputation as one of the best in his craft. Even at first sight his rendition is a tour de force of light, tone, texture and every effect of which combination and pattern of fine line is capable. Examined closely it is simply astonishing. Every square inch is a bewildering interplay of cut upon cut, microscopic scratches all incised by hand onto the surface of the steel plate. Given that he also had to feed and house himself whilst working on the plate, it is easy to see how Prior could have taken three or four years.
Prior would have studied Turner’s detail more thoroughly even than the artist himself, and for far longer than anyone else ever has – probably even remotely. It would spoil the visual enjoyment of it to enter into any lengthy adumbration here, but suffice it to say that there is a splendid cross-section of Heidelberg society assembled here on the shores of its river to enjoy the spectacle of a fresh late summer’s afternoon, sparkling as the sun comes through after a shower of rain. It is as if the raison d’etre for the site is its daily spectacle. And so indeed it is. To this day every evening visitors and residents cross the bridge in late afternoon, and promenade on the Neckar shore, or simply sit to take it all in. When I was there, each evening as the castle and bridge lit up in intensifying light, people gathered on the riverbank. There is even something of a small grandstand provided. Some brought drinks and picnics in hampers; there were lovers and retirees, joggers and walkers and cyclists, students, tourists, locals after work, religious groups, scouts, guides, saris, sportswear, headscarves, tee-shits hijabs and tattoos. It was an astonishing convergence for such simple purpose. And it has been going on, by Turner’s witness, for centuries.
The watercolour stands at the end of Turner’s mature career. It is full of human sympathy and picturesque interest. He was sixty-five when it was commissioned, and sixty-seven when it was delivered, and it is his last picturesque treatment of the human condition. Thereafter the artist turned to face his own mortality, and his mood, as well as his subject, became exclusively sublime.
Perhaps this is a good reason to post this as an instalment. In the next I will consider some superb sketches that Turner made on the spot of this view, and two later sublime treatments of the subject, and after that his last visit to Heidelberg in 1844, a whole clutch of superb on the spot sketches, and finally the late painting. As Ruskin often said of his promises and intentions.. D.V.
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