Sublime Sites

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

In Turner’s Footsteps at Heidelberg: Part 6

REVISED 14 April 2016 (DH) towards end, to discuss recently discovered poetic source

This post concludes the essay begun on 19 October 2015 and continued on 18, 20 and 23 November 2015 and 17 January 2016. 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 part #5 I considered a watercolour at the National Gallery of Scotland on the occasion of its annual exhibition in January. Here, I finally get round to considering the starting point of all this, a late oil painting at the Tate called ‘Heidelberg’. Concluding this may be, but conclusive, it is not. My motive for procrastinating through five previous episodes will become clear. In the perspective of his sketches, Turner’s previous treatments and his accumulated knowledge, its identification as Heidelberg emerges as problematic, but the resolution of those problems even more so.

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842 Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate In what follows, I question the long-established identification of the painting as ‘Heidelberg’, (sometimes ‘Heidelberg in the Olden Time’) and propose an earlier date than the current consensus of 1844-5. 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-n00518

J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate
In what follows, I question the long-established identification of the painting as ‘Heidelberg’, (sometimes ‘Heidelberg in the Olden Time’) and propose an earlier date than the current consensus of 1844-5.
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-n00518

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842 Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate As displayed, 3 September 2015

J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate
As displayed, 3 September 2015

The identification has been established since at least 1856 when it was listed as no.255 ‘Heidelburg’ in the schedule of the Turner Bequest. Shortly afterwards it was engraved by Thomas Abel Prior and published in The Turner Gallery (1859-61) under the title of ‘Heidelberg’.

Thomas Abel Prior after J M W Turner Heidelberg Steel engraving, image size, 174 x 262 mm Published 1859-61 as one of a series of sixty posthumous engravings called ‘The Turner Gallery’. The plate is titled ‘Heidelberg’, but the accompanying description calls it ‘Heidelberg in the Olden Time’. All the early commentators found the topography problematic.

Thomas Abel Prior after J M W Turner
Heidelberg
Steel engraving, image size, 174 x 262 mm
Published 1859-61 as one of a series of sixty posthumous engravings called ‘The Turner Gallery’. The plate is titled ‘Heidelberg’, but the accompanying description calls it ‘Heidelberg in the Olden Time’. All the early commentators found the topography problematic.

Strangely, perhaps, the topographic issues were acknowledged more by the very earliest commentators than any more recently.

The first is Ralph Wornum’s description that accompanied the engraving in The Turner Gallery:
‘No.42. Heidelberg in the Olden Time. Copied by W Goodall. Engraved by T.A.Prior.
A fanciful restoration of the celebrated old medieval castle on the banks of the Neckar, founded by Conrad II, and long the residence of the German emperors and Counts of Baden. A feast and merry-making is represented in the courtyard of the schloss, where the lord and lady are receiving their guests. The castle was destroyed by the French in 1689. Turner has converted the hills of the Neckar and the whole scene is quite arbitrarily treated.’

Walter Thornbury, who wrote the first full-length biography of Turner, but who is usually introduced by modern scholars in order to be given a good pummelling, was the next to observe the license: ‘The painter has restored the palace of the German Emperor and the Counts of Baden, the French partly destroyed in 1689, according to his own fantasy.’ Plainly to his credit he had noticed that Turner’s castle didn’t look very much like that of Heidelberg present or past.

The same theme was picked up by the Art Journal in 1864 when it republished the engraving:
[The castle] ..stands on the left bank of the Neckar, with the city of Heidelberg at its feet, and a range of comparatively loft hills in front and at the back, but not of such height as Turner has given to them. Here, as in many other of his pictures, the artist has done little more than borrowed some ideas from the locality, which he has worked up according to his own fancy. For example, he has rebuilt the castle – which for many years has presented no other appearance than a magnificent ruin – as it might be supposed to be when it formed the palatial residence of the Electors Palatine of the Rhine; he has invested the scenery around with a grandeur which, amid all its beauty, does not belong to it, and he has peopled it with a courtly throng, such as for centuries neither city nor castle has witnessed – princes, and nobles, and knights, and ecclesiastical dignitaries, and fair women, holding high revel in the open air. It is a gorgeous representation of olden time pageantry, conceived in that intense poetic spirit which is so prominent a feature in all Turner’s compositions, and which we willingly accept in lieu of the more prosaic treatment the subject would undoubtedly have received from one who only regarded truth of locality, and aimed at naturalism rather than idealism.

It is a fairly common trope of Turner commentary that Turner only becomes fully himself when liberated from topography. The Art Journal goes on to laud the multitude of lines of possible interpretation that have thus been liberated from the trammels of locality and naturalism.

In 1875 a new series of The Turner Gallery was issued with new commentaries by W Cosmo Monkhouse. He found the topographical issues critically troubling. His comments are worth reproducing whole:

W Cosmo Monkhouse’s commentary from ‘The Turner Gallery’, published 1875

W Cosmo Monkhouse’s commentary from ‘The Turner Gallery’, published 1875

Hardly a single subsequent comment even acknowledges that there might be any kind of issue with the topography. It seems presumed that no serious modern commentator needs to be concerned with such matters. Sir Walter Armstrong’s 1902 description was completely untroubled: ‘Looking west from hillside above castle. Crowds of gaily dressed figures merry-making. Castle restored’ and the most important recent commentaries on the painting by Andrew Wilton (Turner and the Sublime, 1980, under no.92) and Cecilia Powell (Turner in Germany, 1995, no.131) have built upon an acceptance of the subject as Heidelberg to follow Martin Butlin in the catalogue of the Turner Bicentenary exhibition of 1975, to interpret the regal couple and festive crowd in the foreground as specifically representing the festivities celebrating the installation at Heidelberg of Elector Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James 1 following their wedding in 1613.

Heidelberg Castle and Town from the Garden Terrace: Sunset Photograph by David Hill, 26 August 2015, 17.22 GMT

Heidelberg Castle and Town from the Garden Terrace: Sunset
Photograph by David Hill, 26 August 2015, 17.22 GMT

The truth is that Turner’s painting doesn’t look anything like Heidelberg. The only level on which there is any connection is that of abstract general description. There is a castle on a hillside to the left with a town below; there is a valley running into the distance at the right; the sun is in the sky in the right distance. Turner’s castle has a tower to the left, and some Renaissance gables in the centre and a terrace towards the right. So too, Heidelberg, but none of Turner’s specific features makes any real correspondence with those of Heidelberg. The town in the painting bears no resemblance whatsoever to that of Heidelberg, and the painted valley is alpine. The early commentators were variously concerned that there is no sign of the river Neckar, or of Heidelberg Bridge, its statues, bridge towers or the distinctive staged tower of the Heiliggeistkirche and bemused that Turner’s mountains are plainly snow-capped. If Turner has ‘borrowed any ideas of the locality’ of Heidelberg in this picture, it is pretty hard to see quite what they were. Even harder in the light of the evidence that the previous instalments of this article have been at pains to establish, that Turner had a perfect idea of what the locality and architecture of Heidelberg consisted.

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of castle, left side Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of castle, left side
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

Heidelberg Castle from the Garden Terrace Photograph by David Hill taken 26 August 2015, 7.52 GMT One of the principal viewpoints at Heidelberg is from the magnificent elevated terrace that forms the east side of the gardens of Heidelberg Castle. Turner made numerous sketches there, including his first impression at the beginning of the terrace at its south end (7a) where he appears to have been a little distracted by two rather glamorous ladies that took his eye away from the scenery. As is typical of him, he looked to go further than the regular circuit, so he embarked upon a fairly strenuous (I can testify) clamber around the slopes above the castle to find still more elevated views. His next sketch in the series (8a), is somewhat beyond and above the north end of the terrace. His vantage point must have been quite precarious on the edge of a considerable cliff above the Neckar. He made several further sketches on the slopes, culminating in one (12) at about the height of a path called the ‘Elisabethanweg’. The effort of attempting views above the level of the terrace today is wasted; they being all blocked either by new building or unchecked tree growth.

Heidelberg Castle from the Garden Terrace
Photograph by David Hill taken 26 August 2015, 7.52 GMT
It is plain that the castle in the painting does not even remotely resemble that of Heidelberg as seen looking down the valley.

Heidelberg Castle from the south east Photograph by David Hill, taken 25 August 2015, 17.56 GMT The castle in the painting does, however, bear some resemblance, at least in general massing to Heidelberg castle as seen from the south west. The similarity almost certainly licensed the identification. Turner painted this aspect in his watercolours of Heidelberg but no-one has questioned its incompatibility with a view down the valley.

Heidelberg Castle from the south west
Photograph by David Hill, taken 25 August 2015, 17.56 GMT
The castle in the painting does, however, bear some resemblance, at least in general massing to Heidelberg castle as seen from the south west. The similarity almost certainly licensed the identification. Turner painted this aspect in his watercolours of Heidelberg but no-one has questioned its incompatibility with a view down the valley.

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of town and valley centre and lower right Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate If Heidelberg, where is the bridge, let alone anything recognisable of the town?

J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of town and valley centre and lower right
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate
If Heidelberg, where is the bridge, let alone anything recognisable of the town?

Heidelberg Town, Bridge and River from the Garden Terrace Photograph by David Hill, taken 26 August, 2015, 07.46 GMT It is hard to relate anything in Turner’s painting to this.

Heidelberg Town, Bridge and River from the Garden Terrace
Photograph by David Hill, taken 26 August, 2015, 07.46 GMT
It is hard to relate anything in Turner’s painting to this.

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of snow-capped mountains, upper left Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate These peaks are more like 3000m + mountains of the Alps.

J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of snow-capped mountains, upper left
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate
These peaks are more like 3000m + mountains of the Alps.

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of snow-capped mountains, upper right Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of snow-capped mountains, upper right
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

Sadly also for the putative allusion to Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart. If that were indeed the case, one would expect there to be some recognisable portrait connection, or some circumstantial link. Neither figure at all resembles any portrait that I can find. In fact the male figure is plainly of an earlier type of the High Renaissance, belonging to the generation of Henry VIII or Francis I of France.

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of Royal Couple, bottom left Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate These are usually identified as Frederick V and his bride Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James ! of England, who were married in 1613 and lived at Heidelberg. If so one might expect Turner to have researched their likenesses, but there are no comparisons that I can find. The male figure seems an earlier type, more of the generation of Henry VII or Francis 1 of France.

J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of Royal Couple, bottom left
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate
These are usually identified as Frederick V and his bride Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James 1 of England, who were married in 1613 and lived at Heidelberg. If so one might expect Turner to have researched their likenesses, but there are no comparisons that I can find. The male figure seems an earlier type, more of the generation of Henry VII or Francis 1 of France.

Gerard van Honthorst 1590-1656 Portrait of Frederick V, Elector Palatine, 1634 Oil on canvas Heidelberg, Kurpfalzisches Museum  Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gerard_van_Honthorst_006.jpg Apart from the fact that Frederick here wears royal robes, he has nothing in common with the Renaissance type that Turner includes in the painting. The seventeenth century preferred fancy lace collars, and length and elegance in both physique and facial hair.

Gerard van Honthorst 1590-1656
Portrait of Frederick V, Elector Palatine, 1634
Oil on canvas
Heidelberg, Kurpfalzisches Museum
Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gerard_van_Honthorst_006.jpg
Apart from the fact that Frederick here wears royal robes, he has nothing in common with the Renaissance type that Turner includes in the painting. The seventeenth century preferred fancy lace collars, and length and elegance in both physique and facial hair.

The obvious circumstantial link would be with the splendid terraced gardens that are such a feature of the castle today, and which were plainly explored and recorded by Turner. These were begun for Elizabeth in 1614 and Elizabeth’s former tutor Salomon de Caus was brought over from the English court to oversee operations. This was landscaping on a simply epic scale, and the terraces were regarded as an eighth wonder of the world. Turner had looked over them to sketch the castle and recorded ladies promenading upon them. Of them in Turner’s painting, however, there is not a hint.

Jaques Fouquiere (1591-1659) Heidelberg Castle and the Hortus Palatinus, c.1620 Oil on canvas, 179 x 263 cm Heidelberg, Kurpfälzisches Museum der Stadt Heidelberg The terraced gardens at Heidelberg were built for Elizabeth Stuart from 1614, and were regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. There is no sign of them in Turner’s painting. Image source: Wikimedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hortus_Palatinus#/media/File:Hortus_Palatinus_und_Heidelberger_Schloss_von_Jacques_Fouquiere.jpg

Jaques Fouquiere (1591-1659)
Heidelberg Castle and the Hortus Palatinus, c.1620
Oil on canvas, 179 x 263 cm
Heidelberg, Kurpfälzisches Museum der Stadt Heidelberg
The terraced gardens at Heidelberg were built for Elizabeth Stuart from 1614, and were regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. There is no sign of them in Turner’s painting.
Image source: Wikimedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hortus_Palatinus#/media/File:Hortus_Palatinus_und_Heidelberger_Schloss_von_Jacques_Fouquiere.jpg

Heidelberg Hortus Palatinus Photograph by David Hill taken 26 August 2015, 09.09 GMT

Heidelberg Hortus Palatinus
Photograph by David Hill taken 26 August 2015, 09.09 GMT

The insufficiency in relation between the painting and Heidelberg did prompt me to consider whether the subject might be another site altogether. After imaginatively traversing every Alpine valley that I could think of, I was forced to the conclusion that there were several valleys that might fit the bill, but none of them have a castle of this size or character. That is until I came across the following sketch:

 J M W Turner Ruined Castle, with Mountains, 1841?c Pencil with slight touches of watercolour on paper, 227 x 325 mm A page from the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook’, Tate D33664.Turner Bequest CCCXXXIX 11 Tate Britain, London Self-evidently related to the painting called ‘Heidelberg’. But of somewhere else altogether. Photo 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-ruined-castle-with-mountains-d33664

J M W Turner
Ruined Castle, with Mountains, 1841?c
Pencil with slight touches of watercolour on paper, 227 x 325 mm
A page from the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook’, Tate D33664.Turner Bequest CCCXXXIX 11
Tate Britain, London
Self-evidently related to the painting called ‘Heidelberg’. But of somewhere else altogether.
Photo 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-ruined-castle-with-mountains-d33664

The general composition of the sketch is exactly that of Turner’s painting. The castle has the same general massing, there is a valley flanked by Alpine mountains with some good degree of correspondence with those in the painting. The general space of the foreground is similar, and the diagonal running from the centre to the bottom right is exactly the same, and there are suggestions of churches and spires to correspond with those in the painting, particularly at the bottom right.

Frustratingly the subject has not yet been identified. The sketch is the sole pencil drawing in a sketchbook called the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook (Tate, Turner Bequest, TB CCCXXXIX) together with twelve watercolour studies, the majority recording the same unidentified Alpine location. There is a town in an Alpine valley, with church tower topped by an onion dome in a small town beneath a hill crowned by a castle (or perhaps two separate castles). The sketchbook has been little studied or exhibited, and none of the subjects have been identified.

The paper is watermarked ‘J Whatman. Turkey Mill. 1839’, as is another, similar sketchbook called the ‘Como and Splugen’ sketchbook (Tate, TB CCCXXXVIII) after some of its subjects that have been identified. It seems a reasonable supposition that the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook was used on the same crossing of the Splugen pass from the Upper Rhine valley in Switzerland to Chiavenna and Lake Como in Italy, usually dated to 1841.

[Gallery of sketches from ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook. Click on any image to enlarge and display captions]

The coloured sketches in the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook are, however beautiful and interesting, not at all consistent with the topography of the painting. Those that relate to the pencil sketch clearly show two small castles on an eminence overlooking a town, and suggest that the evident mass of the castle in the pencil sketch is something of an illusion caused by a visual conflation of two aligned but separate subjects.

This will only become positively verifiable once the proper locality is discovered, but it seems clear that the undoubted similarity between the sketch and the painting does not amount to a substantive topographical relation. The sketch is more like the painting, however than anything that Turner drew at Heidelberg, and so much so as to self-evidently suggest a relationship. It is clear, however that the details of the sketch are much more suggestive than defined and permit a variety of imaginative interpretations. My proposition, therefore is that its ambiguity prompted Turner to use it as a compositional stimulus to build an imaginative landscape in the painting.

So we must I think abandon all attempts to treat the painting as a work of topography. Despite the long history of treatments on the basis of some assumed relationship with Heidelberg in truth there is nothing to suggest that Turner himself ever intended any such link to be made. The title was conferred when the schedule of the Turner Bequest was drawn up in 1856, five years after the artist’s death. Turner never exhibited the painting, nor recorded any title with it. It is perfectly possible that the title was a surmise on the part of the executors.

Indeed if the painting does draw anything from Heidelberg it does so in such a way as to deny any connection. On the other hand there is an evident connection with a topographical sketch, but the sketch is so ambiguous in its specific topography that its serves only as a general compositional starting point. In short, the painting must be seen first and foremost as an imaginative landscape; any putative connection with Heidelberg has merely served to set the picture in an inappropriate frame.

That said, the picture draws deeply on Turner’s experience of topography. It seems certain that the scale and massing of the castle, its towers and Renaissance gables, does draw upon Heidelberg. After all, Turner painted no fewer than three grand watercolours of the view of the castle from the river. In truth we might say that in developing the forms and details of the painting, he synthesised a variety of aspects of his Continental travels. The snowy mountains and deep ‘V’ shaped valley, plus the suggestion of a considerable church tower crowned with a small spire at the lower right, puts me very much in mind of the Val d’Aosta. I spent a very happy few years tramping up and down that valley in the late 1990s in preparation for the exhibition of Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta at the Archaeological Museum in Aosta in 2000. The Val d’Aosta has very much more the character of the valley in this painting than does Heidelberg. I am reminded somewhat of the view down the valley from below Aosta itself. There is a sketch in the Turner Bequest made on Turner’s visit to the Val d’Aosta in 1836 that records this view from above the church of Villair, where there is a church tower like that in the lower right of the painting, and a castle, the Chateau Quart overlooking the valley from the left. But Quart is nothing like the castle in the painting, and specific topographic relations turn out to be as vague as with Heidelberg. Nonetheless the snow-capped peaks, depth of valley, and the form of the church tower at the bottom right suggests that Turner was drawing from the rich store of his Val d’Aostan experience.

J M W Turner L’Eglise in the Val d’Aosta, with Quart castle beyond, 1836 Graphite on paper, 261 x 278 mm Tate Britain, London, D34881, Turner Bequest CCCXLIV 389 Photograph by David Hill, 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-leglise-in-the-val-daosta-with-quart-castle-beyond-d34881

J M W Turner
Church of Villair in the Val d’Aosta, with Quart castle beyond, 1836
Graphite on paper, 261 x 278 mm
Tate Britain, London, D34881, Turner Bequest CCCXLIV 389
Photograph by David Hill, 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-leglise-in-the-val-daosta-with-quart-castle-beyond-d34881

L’Eglise in the Val d’Aosta, with Quart castle beyond Photograph by David Hill taken June 1999.

Church of Villair in the Val d’Aosta, with Quart castle beyond
Photograph by David Hill taken June 1999.

Another memory that seems to feed into the more general form of the valley is that of the view of the Susa valley as seen from the ascent to the Mont Cenis pass. Turner passed that way in the later stages of the tour of 1836 after he had visited the Val d’Aosta. He made a number of sketches of this subject, and there is one watercolour by his hand and another, not by him, but clearly related, and possibly (I wondered) by his travelling companion on that tour H A J Munro of Novar, The colour, and general landforms, seem to relate to the ‘Heidelberg’ painting very well.

J M W Turner The Ascent of the Mont Cenis Pass above Susa, 1836 Watercolour, 222 x 280 mm Christie's 30 June 1981 no.126 as ‘View along an Alpine Valley, probably the Val d'Aosta’. Image courtesy of Christie’s Identified in Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta, 2000, p.241 as the view over Susa towards Turin from above the church of Giaglione. The general forms of the landscape compare more closely with Turner’s painting, than do those of Heidelberg.

J M W Turner
The Ascent of the Mont Cenis Pass above Susa, 1836
Watercolour, 222 x 280 mm
Christie’s 30 June 1981 no.126 as ‘View along an Alpine Valley, probably the Val d’Aosta’.
Image courtesy of Christie’s
Identified in Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta, 2000, p.241 as the view over Susa towards Turin from above the church of Giaglione. The general forms of the landscape compare more closely with Turner’s painting, than do those of Heidelberg.

?H A J Munro of Novar The Ascent of the Mont Cenis Pass above Susa, 1836 Pencil and watercolour, 231 x 300 mm USA, New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, John Hill Fund, B1979.12.830 as ‘Mountain Scene, Mist Rising; unknown artist, style of Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775–1851, British Image courtesy of Yale University, http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1666857 Munro was Turner’s travelling companion on the tour of 1836. Given the similarity of this to the Christie’s watercolour, it may be identified as a similar vantage point, and given the approximation to Turner’s manner, it seems possible that it was made under Turner’s instruction. We do know that such instruction took place (see SublimeSites, ‘Turner at Sallanches’, 19 March 2015) but this would be the first product of the instruction to be identified.

?H A J Munro of Novar
The Ascent of the Mont Cenis Pass above Susa, 1836
Pencil and watercolour, 231 x 300 mm
USA, New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, John Hill Fund, B1979.12.830 as ‘Mountain Scene, Mist Rising; unknown artist, style of Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775–1851, British
Image courtesy of Yale University, http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1666857
Munro was Turner’s travelling companion on the tour of 1836. Given the similarity of this to the Christie’s watercolour, it may be identified as a similar vantage point, and given the approximation to Turner’s manner, it seems possible that it was made under Turner’s instruction. We do know that such instruction took place (see SublimeSites, ‘Turner at Sallanches’, 19 March 2015) but this would be the first product of the instruction to be identified.

Google Earth Street View image of the view from the ascent to Mont Cenis, looking over Susa towards Turin.

Google Earth Street View image of the view from the ascent to Mont Cenis, looking over Susa towards Turin.

It is perhaps time that we gave some consideration to the date of the painting. Early commentators all agree on a date of about 1835, but more recent commentary by Andrew Wilton and Cecilia Powell has settled on c.1844-5. The style, however, with its bold and painterly impasto, palette knife, smoothing, melding, in conjunction with careful brushwork, with colours both opaque and transparent, has a range of material frankness combined with extreme delicacy that thoroughly relates only to exhibited works from the years 1841 and 1842. Most of these are very different kinds of subjects; Dawn of Christianity (Flight into Egypt) (Ulster Museum, Belfast) exhibited in 1841 is one, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet (Tate) exhibited in 1842 is another, but by 1843 and 1844 Turner’s handling gives way to something more liminal, as if the material were still in the process working out how to form the objects it wants to become. For a brief period before that, however, he was entirely bent on displaying his entire range of painterly technique, in places as unguardedly as in any sketch. There are isolated earlier works with which it might be equated, the famous 1837 exhibit Snow-Storm, Avalanche and Inundation – a Scene in the Upper Part of Val d’Aouste, Piedmont (Art Institute of Chicago) is one, but the majority of his exhibits between then and 1840 are much more thoroughly finessed.

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of handling, centre left (1)  Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of handling, centre left (1)
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of handling, centre left (2)  Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of handling, centre left (2)
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

One potential complication is that the canvas has a duty stamp dated 1830. It seems inconceivable that Turner would have kept a stretched canvas standing around in his studio unused for ten or twelve years whilst in the meantime making scores of paintings on new-bought canvases. So whilst it seems clear that most of what we see appears to be of 1841-2 in date, there is the possibility that he laid in a beginning of a composition sometime considerably earlier. That opens up all manner of possibilities. In 1831 he made an extensive tour to collect subject to illustrate the life and works of Sir Walter Scott. He painted several large paintings of Byronic themes, but there are no equivalents for Scott. Another scenario might be (for example) that Turner laid in a Val d’Aostan or other Alpine valley and then added the castle to it; a kind of ‘Hybridberg’. It would also presume that there is at least two distinct phases of work ie that the majority of the landscape is the first phase, and that the castle was overpainted onto that at some later stage. I have to say that when I examined the painting for signs of that, I could see nothing obvious. Any lay-in might have been thinly painted, so not show through at all, but the surface seems relatively homogenous, and its long, thin, curving ‘French’ craquelure [see Spike Bucklow, ‘The Description of Craquelure Patterns’. in Studies in Conservation, 42/3, 1997, 129-40] is typical of well-bound layers painted onto a canvas prepared with a good, flexible ground, and give the painting very much the appearance of having been developed in a single campaign, with its major compositional elements equally constituent parts of the original conception. Taking all this together, and the relationship to the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook drawing, whose watermark would date the sketch no earlier than 1839, a date of 1841-2 seems to sit the painting most comfortably into Turner’s oeuvre.

 J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of upper left, by raking light,  Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate Taken by raking light to show homogeneity of craquelure and texture across the castle; suggesting that the painting represents a single, sustained campaign of work, rather than separate phases of work separated by several years.


J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of upper left, by raking light,
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate
Taken by raking light to show homogeneity of craquelure and texture across the castle; suggesting that the painting represents a single, sustained campaign of work, rather than separate phases of work separated by several years.

If we dispense with specific topographical reference altogether, then we must begin to consider the picture in an altogether different frame. In Turner’s work, fictional landscapes are generally reserved for fictional subjects, so there must yet be a literary reference here to be identified. What that might be I will save for a little later, but before that must address the fact that no-one ever seems to have considered the figures at anything like the length that they deserve.

Let us start with the Royal couple. If we discard the idea that Turner ever intended any recognisable relationship with Heidelberg then we must give up the proposed correspondence with Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart. Nonetheless the couple do project a very specific character, and play a distinctive role within the composition.

The male figure has more of the bulk, beard and demeanour of a High Renaissance king. I have not been able to find an exact parallel, but he reminds me particularly of Titian’s 1538 Portrait of Francis 1 (Paris Louvre). The profile treatment is especially striking, for it was already old-fashioned by the date of the painting. Portrait profiles were most popular in the later fifteenth century. Titian used one of Francis as the basis of his painting. So the Royal type in the painting suggests a date no later than the first half of the sixteenth century.

If we consider the situation of the royal couple, it becomes evident that something quite specific is occurring. The most obvious detail is that of two pikes laid down before them. These may be identified specifically as Swiss halberds. This was the distinguishing weapon of the troops of Swiss mercenaries that provided fearsome advantage to French Royal and Papal armies in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries until firearms made them redundant. Their inclusion here might suggest a High Renaissance date for the subject, although they remained in ceremonial use long after (even to this day) their military significance waned. In the very specific way in which they have been laid down before the Royal couple, however, they may be taken as the literal representation of a laying down of arms, and to explain the considerable pile of armoured greaves and gauntlets that have been deposited besides.

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of halberds and armour, bottom left Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of halberds and armour, bottom left
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

Hallebarde_177

Swiss halberd (“Solothurn” style), early 16th century. On display at Morges military museum, accession number 176 Source of image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_arms_and_armour#/media/File:Hallebarde_177.jpg Firearms meant that these all but disappeared as a serious weapon by the middle of the C16.

Not only is there a laying down of arms, but also a rich bounty. The implication is that the men of arms and nobility are her gathered to ceremonially submit and bring tribute to the King and Queen. No commentator has ever, I believe, made any specific reference to the bare-headed figure that makes obeisance to the couple. He seems to me to be an extremely significant figure that might help unlock more specific allusion in the subject. He wears doublet and hose typical of the later sixteenth/ early seventeenth centuries, under a rich, thick woollen cloak, and doffs a large, feathered hat. His bearing is courtly and ceremonially deferential, and the cloak perhaps tells of a journey to be here.

Behind him is a heap of coloured cloths draped over some kind of pedestal or frame. Perhaps these are standards of the nobles, laid down at the end or surrender of hostilities. A little further back, a similar figure to that bowing turns away, his homage paid.

So a time of arms cedes to a time of love. The centre foreground is a sea of people, the crowd punctuated by couples embracing, animated children and open, happy faces. To the far left a soldier dances with a young woman, in the left foreground a bugler takes the waist of a bonneted woman, in the centre a dark visage looks over the shoulder of a woman held in close embrace, whist just beyond and young couple gaze tete-a-tete towards us. In the left foreground an older man happily (perhaps a little too enthusiastically) takes the waist of an elegantly bodiced young woman.

[Click on any image to open full-size in a gallery]


So there is an obvious general story here of peace presided over by a Royal couple. Given the date here argued for the painting, it is tempting to wonder about some possible allusion to the recent marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, which had taken place on 10 February 1840, but there is nothing in the picture that I can see to signpost any such allusion. Given the observation that Turner generally reserved fictive landscape for fictive events, a more likely line of speculation is that the painting represents a literary subject.

It was only in further puzzling over the sketches in the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook [still failing to pinpoint the locations] that I realised that the literary source was right there amongst the topographical sketches. One page contains the draft of a passage of poetry.

J M W Turner A draft composition of a passage of poetry, 1841? (whole page) Pencil on paper, page size 227 x 325 mm A page from the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook’, Tate D40432.Turner Bequest CCCXXXIX 11 Tate Britain, London Photo 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-title-not-known-d40432

J M W Turner
A draft composition of a passage of poetry, 1841? (whole page)
Pencil on paper, page size 227 x 325 mm
A page from the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook’, Tate D40432.Turner Bequest CCCXXXIX 11
Tate Britain, London
Photo 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-title-not-known-d40432

J M W Turner A draft composition of a passage of poetry, 1841? (detail #1) Pencil on paper, page size 227 x 325 mm A page from the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook’, Tate D40432.Turner Bequest CCCXXXIX 11 Tate Britain, London Photo 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-title-not-known-d40432

J M W Turner
A draft composition of a passage of poetry, 1841? (detail #1)
Pencil on paper, page size 227 x 325 mm
A page from the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook’, Tate D40432.Turner Bequest CCCXXXIX 11
Tate Britain, London
Photo 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-title-not-known-d40432

J M W Turner A draft composition of a passage of poetry, 1841? (detail #2) Pencil on paper, page size 227 x 325 mm A page from the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook’, Tate D40432.Turner Bequest CCCXXXIX 11 Tate Britain, London Photo 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-title-not-known-d40432

J M W Turner
A draft composition of a passage of poetry, 1841? (detail #2)
Pencil on paper, page size 227 x 325 mm
A page from the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook’, Tate D40432.Turner Bequest CCCXXXIX 11
Tate Britain, London
Photo 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-title-not-known-d40432

Turner’s handwriting is notoriously difficult, but enough is decipherable to make certain association with the Tate painting.

‘While {Thus] Rose the morning its towers blush
The hills glittered with rising ray

The snow clad hills shine to the rising ray
And oer the [?illeg] blush the Sun with rising shed
Its lustre far over Tower and Stream and all looked gay
Festivity and Mirth – but in the [now] setting beam
Empurpled the deep vale – sad [?illeg] warned
The Lion of St Mark had Conquered’

All the key elements of the painting are here. The rose-blushed towers, snow-clad hills, a rising or setting sun, Tower and Stream, gaiety, festivity and mirth, an empurpled vale. And the last line clearly connects the subject matter with Venice – ‘The Lion of St Mark had conquered’.

The fact that this is an evolving draft, seems to prove that this is Turner’s own composition, and his sketchbooks are littered with fragments of an epic poem called the Fallacies of Hope’ that never seems to have amounted to nothing more substantial than a smattering of epigraphs for exhibited paintings. His syntax is generally creatively convoluted and here it is ambiguous whether the Lion of St Mark has been conquered or itself done the conquering. On the whole, however is seems more like the former. Tracing the sense back from the last line it appears as if it is ‘Festivity and Mirth’ that ‘sad [?illeg] warned, The Lion of St Mark had conquered’.

It is a commonplace of the history of Venice that the very quality of civil living that it created was the source of its undoing. Founded on discipline and martial (particularly naval) vigour, the republic grew rich, and then In becoming an island playground it wasted its strength. In Turner’s time this process was understood to have culminated in the surrender of the republic to Napoleon, and its subsequent occupation by the Austrians, but Turner may have been thinking of its first major reverse in the years of the High Renaissance. Virtually every one of the major powers of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire, the Papacy and France sought its downfall, and in 1509 suffered a major military defeat at the hands of the French at the Battle of Agnedello. The republic survived, but was never again quite the full master of its own destiny. As Machiavelli put it in The Prince, on that day the Venetians ‘lost what it had taken eight hundred year’s exertion to conquer’. There is perhaps not quite enough to make a clear equation, but the kingly figure in the painting points to this period in history, and the North Italian wars of the early sixteenth century were the period of peak military importance for Swiss halberdsmen.

Quite how the specific events envisioned by Turner might relate to this period is far from resolved, but in lieu of that we might go on just a little further with the process of description. Ralph Wornum described the setting as ‘the courtyard of the schloss’, but this is very far from the case. In fact quite strikingly the gathering takes place at a considerable remove from the castle. This gives it a rather impromptu appearance. There are no pavilions or marquees or banqueting houses. As Turner knew full well, the weather in the Alps is never so reliable as to permit the planning of any fete without some provision for inclemency.

The theme of removal into nature is reinforced in another respect. The event location is on a wide terrace above the town. To the right a column of figures are still evidently in the process of ascending from the depths below. In the geomorphological scheme of things the bottom of the valley is where things flow away. Everywhere a strife towards ascendency; trees, towers and people, is contrasted with matter flowing away, most splendidly in the wreaths of water coiling and tumbling down into the valley. It is as if the terrace on which this crowd gathers is an intermediate stage between the base on which the struggle against dissolution is fought, and that on which aspiration is built.

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of tumbling water  Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

J M W Turner
A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of tumbling water
Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms)
Tate, London, N00518
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

And above all there is the light. It is important that this takes place outdoors, for above all it is a celebration of simply being in the light. As Wornum observed ‘the figures in the foreground not only give an air of festivity to the scene, but break up the light in a very pleasant manner’. Wornum, followed by a number of commentators, compares this with another well-known crowd scene of Turner from this period, a watercolour of Zurich of about 1845 (Kunsthaus. Zurich).

J M W Turner Zurich: fete, early morning, c.1845 Watercolour, 292 x 475mm, 11 1/2 x 18 3/4 ins Switzerland, Zurich, Kunsthaus  (1976/14) Photograph courtesy of Kunsthaus, Zurich The crowd in this watercolour is often compared to that in the painting of ‘Heidelberg’.

J M W Turner
Zurich: fete, early morning, c.1845
Watercolour, 292 x 475mm, 11 1/2 x 18 3/4 ins
Switzerland, Zurich, Kunsthaus (1976/14)
Photograph courtesy of Kunsthaus, Zurich
The crowd in this watercolour is often compared to that in the painting of ‘Heidelberg’.

Tate Heidelberg detail of figures

J M W Turner A Castle in an Alpine Valley, called ‘Heidelberg’, c.1842, detail of figures (whole group) Oil on canvas, 52 × 79 ½ ins (132 × 201 cms) Tate, London, N00518 Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Tate

But no-one but Wornum describes the function of the crowd as merely to pleasantly ‘break up the light’. And indeed it is almost precisely a device to pick up the lemon yellow that surrounds the sun and scatter it in gobbets and splatters throughout the foreground. This energy made substance stands behind the 1966 observation by Lawrence Gowing in his Turner: Imagination and Reality (p.38) ‘..cool light floods Heidelberg, one of the pictures that embrace a scene as vast as the world-view landscapes of tradition. The visions of the world as an endless continuum are appropriately peopled with almost indeterminate human clay, barely separated into individuals’. On the formal level Gowing’s observation may be produced a little further towards the articulation of what is staged by the painting in purely visual terms. I am reminded by it that the painting is after all one of Turner’s richest painterly performances. Everything in it is in dynamic motion. The paint is not just human clay but that of material creation, energetically upthrusting, and melting away. Given some time in the air and sun, and the peace in which to flourish, this can becomes a festively pullulating mass. Whatever its historic pretext might turn out to be, it is perhaps the defining work of his entry into his own last phase. A celebration of how vital life can be, when it is allowed the peace to be, and how dynamic when one turns to experience it at its most outward. And how part of that vitality is its inevitable dissolution.

Tate Heidelberg detail sun

Supported by the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation

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