Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This post continues the series begun on 19 October 2015 and continued on 18, 20 and 23 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. In part #3 I looked at the deepening sublimity of his treatment of the site in three colour studies and a second major watercolour of c.1842. In part #4 I followed in the footsteps of Turner’s last visit to Heidelberg in 1844 when he made some new pencil sketches and a wonderful series of colour studies. In this part I consider a watercolour at the National Gallery of Scotland on the occasion of its annual exhibition in January.
This was called ‘Heidelberg’ when given to the gallery by Henry Vaughan in 1900, but nothing appears to be known about its history prior to that. It is a version of the view from the banks of the Neckar up to the bridge, castle and town that he developed in the two watercolours discussed in part #2 and part #3 made c.1842 (USA, Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona, Minnesota, and Manchester City Art Gallery).
To be precise it echoes the general composition of the Minnesota and Manchester watercolours. That is, it has a long bridge, an illuminated hillside and a church tower in the same relationship, but whilst there are obvious and specific correlations between the others and Heidelberg, the Edinburgh watercolour has fewer.
To take the bridge to start with:
Heidelberg Bridge has five central arches flanked by two arches descending at either end. It has huge statues on the second pier from either end. It has two great onion-domed gate towers at its right end. It is massively built from red sandstone. The Minnesota watercolour takes liberties with the colour, but renders the form pretty well. The Manchester Bridge has the general form, but reduces the mass. The bridge in the Edinburgh watercolour has few of those particularities: The arches answer only in number, and perhaps there is a hint of some diminutive gate towers towards the right.
And then there is the town and church:
The Heiliggeistkirche has an elaborate, staged tower crowned with a lantern and cupola and stands in near relation to the bridge towers. The tower is at the right end of a large, steeply pitched nave roof. The Minnesota and Manchester watercolour both take some trouble over this, and although the Manchester version is attenuated and slightly bleached of detail, it remains in some recognisable relation to the reality. The Edinburgh version is merely generic, much further away from the bridge, such a cipher that it might better stand for a plain medieval watch tower than a complicated baroque confection.
As for the castle…
Turner had recorded the castle from every angle, near and far, and it was his special skill to build up a rotational understanding of the form and geography of his subjects. Readers who have followed this series will know (and perhaps regret) that his exploration was exhaustive. Readers may also remember that Turner wherever possible based his artistic imperatives on the basis of sure geographical understanding. The treatment of the castle in the Minnesota watercolour is diligently recognisable. The detail is evacuated a little in the Manchester version, but in the Edinburgh version it is hard to say even where, let alone of what form, the castle might be. There are suggestions of form exploded all over the hillside, mostly scattered along the crest. As all the other depictions show, the castle is well below the skyline. The treatment here is so uncharacteristic as to make one wonder whether it can be meant for Heidelberg at all.
Comparison with the Manchester version, however, does settle that question convincingly, for the key repetition is that of the shadow running diagonally across the hillside above the bridge. As I explored in part #3 that is the shadow of the Michaelsberg (behind and to our left) that is characteristically cast by the setting sun.
That being the case, we ought to give some thought to the phenomenal effect, for knowledge of such things, as we have observed here at some length (and Ruskin devoted a lifetime to adumbrating) were Turner’s unrivalled strength.
When the watercolour was first catalogued by Sir Walter Armstrong in 1902 it was listed as ‘Heidelberg – Morning’. The presence of the shadow and the highlights on the tower to the right (its shaded side is to the left), the hillside where the castle should be, and the bits of buildings highlighted such as they are, set the time of day as towards sunset.
To be consistent then, the light down the valley, would have to be intended for the moon, but it is plainly far brighter than any moonrise could ever be. For the moon to have such relative luminosity, it would have to be some considerable while after sunset and the sky be fully dark in the east. This event, however, is positively blinding. Much, more, as Armstrong rightly inferred, like the sunrise. Nor, indeed is there anything inherently implausible in casting the scene as a sunrise, for the sun does pass through this part of the sky right through the summer, and at the time of Turner’s visit 24-27 August 1844 would have been in this position just before 6 o clock in the morning (GMT).
So the problem is that whilst there are elements of sunset that echo with those of the Manchester watercolour, the principal phenomenal effect appears to be that of sunrise. It really doesn’t seem at all satisfactory to say that Turner got himself confused, or didn’t care, or indeed that it doesn’t matter.
Just as an aside it is worth quoting just a couple of recent commentaries. Both read it as a sunset;
The first is from an online review of the annual exhibition of the Vaughan Bequest Turners at the National Gallery of Scotland:
‘Turner never travelled beyond Europe and he didn’t need to. There was already enough inspiration in the places he managed to visit. ‘Heidelberg’ (below) is one of the largest ‘Vaughan Turners’ in Edinburgh and it is also one of the best. Depicting the ancient town and castle, Turner produces something stunning and mystical; the powerful setting sun makes it a picture of sheer beauty.’
The second, from Christopher Baker’s authoritative catalogue, J.M.W.Turner: The Vaughan Bequest (NGS 2008) contends that the topography is deliberately and positively vague. This is even more oppositional to my trend. It implies that topographical content is a relative immaturity; and that Turner was transcending such matters in this picture:
‘This watercolour, which probably dates from about 1846, is one of the finest of all the artist’s late works. Here he has moved far beyond a concern for topographical accuracy and created a glowing, almost hallucinatory image. The figures in the foreground dissolve into their surroundings, and the depiction of light from the setting sun, as it glances across and gilds the high, thin clouds, is especially masterly.’
Such things plainly did matter to Turner. He knew more about topographical and phenomenal effect than anyone who ever lived, saw more of such things than most, and had a visual perception more sensitive, more visually intelligent and more profound than any artist before or since. The problem is how might the contradictions be reconciled?
The watercolour is now generally said to date from about 1846, towards the end of Turner’s life when he was no longer able to travel (his last tour abroad was in 1845). The telos of the National Gallery of Scotland commentary is that in Turner’s late phase he entered a state of grace free of the trammels and ties of topography and embraced a sublime without worldly co-ordinates.
It’s a grand myth but few human beings have ever been more gargantuanly engrossed in being in the world than was Turner. His was never a prosaic perception but only rarely was it fantastic. He generally only allowed himself to imagine outside the frame of geography when it was so licensed by poetry or literature. Even then his sense of things was informed by experience, and by a desire to paint with a better knowledge of the way things are than any of his predecessors. The last five years of his life are indeed a zone in which the direct light of new experience was denied him, but no-one ever sought to recouperate that light so fiercely.
In truth there might be a slightly less sublime way of resolving the issues with the Edinburgh Heidelberg. In looking at it again this January, I was struck by how controlled and fine is the handling, despite its degree of unfinish. It lacks any of the waning but beautiful painterliness that characterises his work from 1846 onwards. In fact it compares for control, so far as it has progressed, particularly well with the Manchester watercolour. The closest comparison, however, that most readily comes to my mind is with a watercolour of Coblenz at Cincinnati Art Museum.
This is one of a set of ten ‘Swiss’ watercolours that Turner made in the late spring/early summer of 1842, before going off on his summer tour to the Alps. The sky is particularly close, as is the intensely illuminated hillside.
In fact the more I have worked through the comparisons, the more closely the Edinburgh Heidelberg begins to align itself with the Minnesota and Manchester watercolours, particularly the latter. In many ways it might even stand between them, and be a rehearsal for the Manchester watercolour. One even begins to be able to imagine that one can see placeholders in the Edinburgh watercolour for the details of the bridge, towers, castle, town and church that might have followed. It may even be that Turner started off the Edinburgh watercolour with the idea of it being a sunrise, and then thought that the better effect would be that of moonrise. That the Michaelsberg shadow remains an inconsistency may in the end testify only to the process of him evolving his ideas upon the sheet.
In part #3 of this series I suggested that the Manchester watercolour might have been made in association with the ten ‘Swiss’ subjects. To recap, Turner made four finished watercolours and showed these, along with up to twenty unfinished sample studies that patrons might commission finished subjects from. Although the National Gallery of Scotland Heidelberg is larger than any of the known sample studies, it sits stylistically well alongside them and their finished counterparts and looks best assigned to that period, even if not directly implicated in that project.
We cannot leave this subject, however, without considering the activity in the foreground. It is one inevitable consequence of the National Gallery of Scotland not lending their Vaughan Bequest watercolours that the watercolour has received very little scholarly commentary. So despite the thousands of eyes that must have gazed upon it, no-one seems ever to have publically questioned what is going on in the foreground.
Only one occasion comes to hand. When Sir Walter Armstrong listed it in 1902 he described it as: ‘”Heidelberg-Morning” Circa 1840. [Nat. Gal. Of Scotland. Vaughan Bequest, 1900.] 14 3/4 x 21 3/4. Looking up the Neckar from north bank. Women washing, and boats. Sun rising over bridge. Castle in mist on right. Gorgeous sky.’
Nonetheless ‘‘Women washing, and boats’ seems hardly to begin to unpack whatever is going on here. In the foreground is a great sprawling shape, evidently floating, or at least a little way from the bank. It may be several boats – to the left is what appears to be a cabin or canopy at the stern of some kind of vessel, but where it ends, or what shape it might be, is unfathomable. There may be several boats drawn together, but whatever the case the edge of this floating mass is lined by women reaching down to the water. At the far side it is plain that they are all facing away on hands and knees. There is enough detail to see that these are generally young and unbonneted. We cannot, however, quite make out what it is that they are handling in the water.
They all appear to grasp something with both hands – one on the front row towards the right has hold of a rectangular shape. It seems remarkable that they are all engaged in reaching down in unison, which suggests that they are working co-operatively, and perhaps even all managing one large entity. There seems to be some blue and white striped fabric involved in all this. Tongue lickings of it at the bottom right, and hinted at again towards the left.
The women are all at the edge of a space, but of such a shape as to make a very unlikely boat. Perhaps it is more than one boat, but if so that is just as difficult to construe. Under the cabin or canopy to the left, however, are seated two figures, only roughly defined, but even so apparently dressed in bulkier clothes, that to the left male, that to the right female, and playing no part in the activity, except to oversee it. ‘Woman washing’ maybe, but on an epic scale; a veritable Aida amongst laundrettes.
There are figures on the bank to the left, which ought equally to be considered.
In background is a boat, high up above the waterline, and various timbers, possibly a makeshift boatyard, and in the foreground there is a group of figures on the riverbank, including one male figure, dressed not dissimilarly to the University students seen in the Minnesota and Manchester watercolours, with two women in the foreground, one reaching down to the water, a child standing back from the water, and even what appears to be a small dog. It may be that there are indications of other figures stretching back along the shore, and a rope trailing in the water from the stern of the boat canopy towards the shore.
Who knows what might be going on here? There is no hint of such a motif in any of Turner sketches of Heidelberg, nor indeed in any of the sketchbooks in which occur sketches of Heidelberg. All the same one cannot help feeling that this is something that Turner witnessed on his travels and recorded somewhere. I have made a brief trawl through such references to Heidelberg as I can quickly scan, but find nothing comparable in any other images. I will make some enquires of Heidelberg Museum, and report anything they might tell me. In the meantime my readers, small group as you may yet be, I will be glad to publish any constructive suggestions or that you might care to make through the comments section below.
This looks like a good place to post this as a self-contained section, while any of you within striking distance of Edinburgh before the end of January can go along to the National Gallery of Scotland and see (free!) the Heidelberg amongst the other Vaughan Bequest watercolours, whilst they are still on exhibition.
TO BE CONTINUED
The next instalment should be the last.
Supported by the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation