Sublime Sites

Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill

In Turner’s Footsteps at Heidelberg: Part 3

This post continues the essay begun on 19 October 2015 and continued on 18 November 2015. In part #1, I followed in the footsteps of Turner’s comprehensive exploration of Heidelberg in 1833. In part #2, I looked at a major finished watercolour that he developed in the early 1840s, and a return visit to Heidelberg at the same time. Here, I begin to look at the deepening sublimity of his later treatments of the site.

Heidelberg Bridge, Castle and Church Photograph by David Hill taken 25 August 2015, 17 58 GMT

Heidelberg Bridge, Castle and Church
Photograph by David Hill taken 25 August 2015, 17 58 GMT

If we left Turner at the end of the part #2 picturing a crowd gathering at the approach of sunset at Heidelberg, his next step was to bear witness himself. Three watercolours survive, scattered in different collections, that have been discussed by scholars individually, and with some reference to each other, but never fully considered as a group, let alone reproduced or exhibited together. Side by side we can see that they are all taken from exactly the same spot but, more importantly that they form a continuous sequence recording two successive stages of the sun setting, and finally night falling and the moon rising.

Google Earth: Heidelberg Aerial View Showing viewpoint of three on-the-spot sketches, plus that of the 1841-2 watercolour. The identification of these subjects as Heidelberg has proved less than straightforward, but I feel convinced that Turner’s new viewpoint is a little further downstream, and slightly higher up, since the relation between the castle and church is consistent with a downstream viewpoint and the lantern of the spire of the Heiliggeistkirche is on a level with the top of the castle, suggesting a level forty or fifty feet above the river. This exact viewpoint is no longer accessible, being behind the houses on the Neuenheim Landstrasse, but it is not so very much higher than the road, and nowhere as high as the famous strolling route the Philosophenweg, which cuts across the slope here high above the river.  This image is best viewed at full-size. Click on the image to enlarge and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.

Google Earth: Heidelberg Aerial View
Showing viewpoint of three on-the-spot sketches, plus that of the 1841-2 watercolour. The identification of these subjects as Heidelberg has proved less than straightforward, but I feel convinced that Turner’s new viewpoint is a little further downstream, and slightly higher up, since the relation between the castle and church is consistent with a downstream viewpoint and the lantern of the spire of the Heiliggeistkirche is on a level with the top of the castle, suggesting a level forty or fifty feet above the river. This exact viewpoint is no longer accessible, being behind the houses on the Neuenheim Landstrasse, but it is not so very much higher than the road, and nowhere as high as the famous strolling route the Philosophenweg, which cuts across the slope here high above the river.
This image is best viewed at full-size. Click on the image to enlarge and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.

J M W Turner Heidelberg Sunset Study #1, c.1841 Watercolour and pen and ink, on white paper, 233 x 290 mm, 8 3/4 x 11 1/2 ins Private Collection Image scanned from Andrew Wilton, ‘William Turner: Licht und Fabre’, catalogue of the exhibition at Essen and Zurich, 2001, where exhibited as no.171. This is the only time that it has been reproduced in colour.

J M W Turner
Heidelberg Sunset Study #1, c.1841
Watercolour and pen and ink, on white paper, 233 x 290 mm, 8 3/4 x 11 1/2 ins
Private Collection
Image scanned from Andrew Wilton, ‘William Turner: Licht und Fabre’, catalogue of the exhibition at Essen and Zurich, 2001, where exhibited as no.171. This is the only time that it has been reproduced in colour.

J M W Turner Heidelberg Sunset Study #2, c.1841  Watercolour and pen and ink on white paper, 236 x 295 mm, 9 1/4 x 11 5/8 ins  Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum.  (2284; Cormack 51) as ‘Heidelberg from the opposite bank of the Neckar'  Photograph courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum To view this image in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own website, click on the following link, and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page. http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/friends/exhibits/turner_heidelberg.htm

J M W Turner
Heidelberg Sunset Study #2, c.1841
Watercolour and pen and ink on white paper, 236 x 295 mm, 9 1/4 x 11 5/8 ins
Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum. (2284; Cormack 51) as ‘Heidelberg from the opposite bank of the Neckar’
Photograph courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum To view this image in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own website, click on the following link, and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.
http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/friends/exhibits/turner_heidelberg.htm

J M W Turner Heidelberg, Moonlight: Sample Study, c.1841 Watercolour on paper, 241 x 300 mm Tate, London, D36183, Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 325 This has hitherto be called a ‘sample study’ and described as ‘an intermediate stage between a sketch drawn from nature and a watercolour painted in the studio’.  Photograph courtesy of Tate To view this image in Tate’s own catalogue of the Turner bequest, click on the following link, and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-heidelberg-moonlight-sample-study-d36183

J M W Turner
Heidelberg, Moonlight: Sample Study, c.1841
Watercolour on paper, 241 x 300 mm
Tate, London, D36183, Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 325
This has hitherto be called a ‘sample study’ and described as ‘an intermediate stage between a sketch drawn from nature and a watercolour painted in the studio’.
Photograph courtesy of Tate
To view this image in Tate’s own catalogue of the Turner bequest, click on the following link, and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-heidelberg-moonlight-sample-study-d36183

It has to be admitted that there are significant issues with the topography of these watercolours. The identification of the Fitzwilliam Museum study has long been controversial and Malcolm Cormack began his account of the watercolour in his 1975 catalogue of the Cambridge Turners [no.51] with the sentence: ‘The subject has been much disputed.’ Nor is the cause of certainty helped by the tower in the watercolour being identified there as that of the Jesuitkirche, since that tower was not built until 1868-72. Ian Warrell (Through Switzerland with Turner, Tate, 1995, p.151) describes the topography of in the group as ‘vague’ and Cecilia Powell in exhibiting the moonlight study in Turner and Germany, Tate, 1995, no.130, acknowledges that: ‘The topography here is far less easy to understand than in Turner’s other watercolour depictions of Heidelberg’ . Nonetheless she does establish a viewpoint on the Neuenheim shore, by making out the bridge amongst the indications to the left of the castle.

If these drawings do show Heidelberg, then the block to the left must be the castle and the tower to the right the Heiliggeistkirche, and the Neckar must occupy the lower middle distance. We can say for certain that all three watercolours show the same place, for the principal landmarks are the same, but the castle has none of the specific features of Heidelberg (it lacks the distinguishing feature of the octagonal tower, let alone the Renaissance gables of the Friedrich Building) and the church tower resembles the Heiliggeistkirche only in the respect that it has stages and a lantern on top. Nor are the distinctive bridge towers obvious in any of the watercolours, or, indeed, except by hints, the river.

So there is a case for caution, but what convinces me that they are indeed of Heidelberg is how faithful they are to the phenomenal character of the site. The really distinctive feature of Heidelberg from this aspect is the way in which the sun sets on the castle. As the light lifts from the river so it intensifies to a brilliant gold, and then red, playing over the purple-red sandstone of the buildings. Turner gives this in perfect succession: First in the private collection watercolour, with the light cool over the river, and slanting onto the tower of the church, castle and wooded slopes beyond; second, in the Fitzwilliam watercolour a few minutes later, with the light still more intense on the church and castle, but the light below sufficiently faded to allow the lights on the riverside to put forth; finally, in night falling. I had not anticipated this when planning my trip in August, but as it turned out there was one spectacular benefit in being there at the same time at Turner. With my camera on its tripod through the three-quarters of an hour that it took for the sun to set and grow dark, the moon suddenly popped out from behind the hill at the back of the town and stood directly above the Heiliggeistkirche, exactly as Turner shows in his final watercolour. I might well be admitting to terminal geekiness but this was genuinely thrilling, and convinced me that I was on the right spot!

Heidelberg Moonrise Photograph by David Hill taken 27 August 2015, 17.20 GMT

Heidelberg Moonrise
Photograph by David Hill taken 27 August 2015, 17.20 GMT

 

J M W Turner Heidelberg, Moonlight: Sample Study, c.1841 Watercolour on paper, 241 x 300 mm Tate, London, D36183, Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 325 It seems to me to that this must be a study from nature. The moon stood exactly in the same position when I was there on 27 August 2015 Photograph courtesy of Tate To view this image in Tate’s own catalogue of the Turner bequest, click on the following link, and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-heidelberg-moonlight-sample-study-d36183

J M W Turner
Heidelberg, Moonlight: Sample Study, c.1841
Watercolour on paper, 241 x 300 mm
Tate, London, D36183, Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 325
It seems to me to that this must be a study from nature. The moon stood exactly in the same position when I was there on 27 August 2015
Photograph courtesy of Tate
To view this image in Tate’s own catalogue of the Turner bequest, click on the following link, and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-heidelberg-moonlight-sample-study-d36183

It also convinced me that the watercolours were painted from immediate observation. I want to say on the spot, and whilst that may be so, it is not strictly necessary, his hotel was close by. In fact no matter where he was actually sitting to paint, it is clear that as much as he was painting from observation, he was not painting from immediate reference. If he was painting on the spot he was remarkably unconcerned about architectural particulars, so he does not seem to have been looking from paper to fact and back again.

I first discussed this in my Sublimesites.co article ‘Turner at Sisteron: The Pont du Buech’, posted on 9 May 2014. I ruminated there that painting ‘from nature’ is by no means so straightforward an activity as we might assume, even when it is being done from direct reference. One has to get on with the painting, and the subject in front of you can frequently seem to be more of a distraction than a source. I think we can be quite sure that Turner never allowed his source to become a constraint, and was certainly not interested in the commonplace stuff of ordinary vision. Most of the latter could be recorded in a line drawing, and quite rapidly. The only real justification for painting was to record the phenomena that line could not. Nuances of light, colour, effect, and the poetry of event and situation. It is as when painting he looked at a site – and after a lifetime’s practice and intensification of perceptual power, he assimilated his subjects as deeply and penetratingly as any artist that ever lived – more to understand the nature and features of its phenomena – and once assimilated he had no need to look again.

And that is exactly what we see here. The understanding of the phenomena is unerring. The rest is for satisfying more superficial concerns, and can be taken from the line drawings in the sketchbooks should it be required. That said, it is remarkable how much anecdotal detail is taking shape in these watercolours. There are figures coming up the path towards us in the Fitzwilliam watercolour, boys playing under the moonlight, and perhaps vines in the foreground of the private collection watercolour. In all the detail is in a process of being formed, as if the very substance of the site is animated and dynamic.

He had been experimenting with such active pictorial matrices since the earlier 1830s one early example is Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (USA, Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven) exhibited in 1832, and other examples e.g. Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Thunderstorm (USA, Art Institute of Chicago) exhibited 1837 followed at intervals, culminating in 1842 with Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (Tate N00530). Scholars have argued about Turner’s indistinctness and finish, but in the context of the Snow Storm, these sketches take their place in the mainstream indistinctness of Turner’s aesthetic development at this time.

In comparison with the Prior watercolour, we can certainly say that ‘finish’ such as he delivered consummately there, began to be supplanted by unfinish. By potential, as opposed to determination; animation as opposed to definition. It is significant that the first owner of the Prior watercolour was the great Turner collector Benjamin Godfrey Windus. He preferred exceptionally high-wrought things, and felt that Turner’s powers began to break up after 1842. He bought nothing that Turner produced after this, and would have hated these sketches. Ruskin, on the other hand thought that work of this kind was amongst the most magisterial that Turner ever produced.

Heidelberg Bridge, Castle and Church Photograph by David Hill, 25 August 2015, 17.56 GMT

Heidelberg Bridge, Castle and Church
Photograph by David Hill, 25 August 2015, 17.56 GMT

J M W Turner Heidelberg: Sunset, c.1842 Watercolour, 380 x 552 mm, 14 1/2 x 21 1/8 ins Manchester, City Art Gallery (1917.106) This watercolour seems to have been painted as a pair to that made for Thomas Abel Prior. Photo courtesy of Manchester City Art Gallery To view this image on Manchester City Art Gallery’s website click on the following link and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page. http://manchesterartgallery.org/collections/search/collection/?id=1917.106

J M W Turner
Heidelberg: Sunset, c.1842
Watercolour, 380 x 552 mm, 14 1/2 x 21 1/8 ins
Manchester, City Art Gallery (1917.106)
This watercolour seems to have been painted as a pair to that made for Thomas Abel Prior.
Photo courtesy of Manchester City Art Gallery
To view this image on Manchester City Art Gallery’s website click on the following link and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.
http://manchesterartgallery.org/collections/search/collection/?id=1917.106

About this time Turner made a second large watercolour, Heidelberg: Sunset (Manchester City Art Gallery) from the same viewpoint as the Prior watercolour. It is every bit as highly wrought as that made for Prior, but the tone is altogether more profound. Eric Shanes in his notes to the catalogue of the exhibition Turner: The Great Watercolours, RA 2000, nos. 102, 103, argues that the Manchester watercolour might have been painted as a pendant to Prior’s. He is wrong to see them as contrasting morning and evening, for Prior’s watercolour shows afternoon, but obviously right in general principal, in that one sets the scene in full fresh daylight, and the other on the border between day and night.

View these images in a gallery. Click on any image to enlarge, read captions and scroll forwards or backwards. Click the close button to return to the main page.

Nothing is known about the circumstances of Turner making the Manchester watercolour, but in stylistic terms it is full of exquisitely made out and well-resolved detail – though perhaps less crowded than is Prior’s – and might well have been made pretty much at the same time. Between them the two watercolours have the character of watercolours known to have been made in 1842 as the first batch of commissions elicited through a series of ‘sample studies’ that Turner left with his dealer Thomas Griffith of Norwood. Compare, for example the Lucerne Town and Walls (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Merseyside) with Prior’s watercolour and The Dark Rigi (Private Collection) with the Manchester watercolour. It might be that the Manchester watercolour was offered through Griffith as an example of what the sample studies might become. The story of the sample studies and their commissions is told by Ian Warrell in Through Switzerland with Turner, (Tate 1995). In the context of Heidelberg it is worth mentioning that Warrell sees similarities between the three colour sketches discussed above and those known to have been produced to show through Griffith early in 1842, and that the series, although referred to as Swiss, is not exclusively so. There was at least one German subject amongst them, Coblenz (Cincinnati Art Museum).

So if the Manchester watercolour may be seen to sit between the Prior watercolour and the first finished productions of the sample studies commissions, then it might also be seen as the direct product of the colour studies treated above. And indeed it may be seen to synthesise all three in terms of phenomenon. The sun lifting from the river draws on the Private Collection and Fitzwilliam studies, and the idea of moonlight rising above the hillside from the Tate study, albeit shifted somewhat to the left.

It is not altogether clear that the moon can ever in fact put in an appearance quite as shown in the watercolour. It is placed here almost due east, and might rise in this position in September or October, but I have not been able to verify that. Perhaps one of the regular joggers or walkers along the Neuenheim Landstrasse could let us know?? One effect that Turner did make great play of in the watercolour can, however be verified. The very definite line of shadow that sweeps up from the bridge diagonally across the castle slopes, cast by the sun dipping below the shoulder of the hill behind us (the Michaelsberg) is exactly as recorded in the Private collection sketch, and exactly as witnessed on 25 August 2015.

View these images in a gallery. Click on any image to enlarge, read captions and scroll forwards or backwards. Click the close button to return to the main page.

The two watercolours to work in tandem as successive stages of the same event. The similarity of the figures invites us to make that connection. And Turner is quite specific about the times of day: If we take the tower of the Heiliggeistkirche to mark west, it is apparent in the Prior watercolour – still more so in the colour-beginning– that the sun is still to the south of west, setting the time as late afternoon. In the Manchester watercolour it is clearly setting to the north of west, as it does in summer. It moves through due west, more-or-less, at the autumn equinox, 21 September.

View these images in a gallery. Click on any image to enlarge, read captions and scroll forwards or backwards. Click the close button to return to the main page.

So the major theme is advancing time, and of advancing night. After 1842 Turner’s whole outlook darkened, and the shift is marked precisely in the transition between these two treatments of Heidelberg. There are telling details in the contrast. There are trees to the left of the Prior watercolour, and the hillsides are clothed in green. The trees are gone in the Manchester picture and there is no hint of green. The architecture is becoming attenuated, the bridge lighter than any German river bridge can be, the church tower taller and thinner, the castle towers and walls loftier, than any structure that will withstand. This is altogether a more serious mood, any frivolity that the Prior watercolour possesses is extracted here. Perhaps the whole difference might be summed up in one detail; At the bottom left hand corner of the Manchester watercolour a woman ushers two small children away. The daylight world of Prior’s picture might have been an appropriate playground for them but the oncoming sublime will be altogether too terrible.

 

Manchester detail

 

And this presents another good place for a break. In the next I will discuss Turner’s last visit to Heidelberg in 1844 and the superb colour studies made on that occasion. And after that his very last treatments in oil and watercolour. Anon. D.V.

Moonight reflection

Supported by the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation
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