Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
2018 brings an especially Sublime sighting. On 30 January, Christie’s, New York offers a superb late Turner watercolour of ‘The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer’. This is being sold by a private American collector, and was last seen in Britain when it was sold by Christie’s in London in 1976. The sale catalogue has an extended essay by Ian Warrell (follow link in caption below) but there still seems to be even more to consider with regard to Turner’s approach to the subject, particularly in respect of his treatment of the topography.
The watercolour is a product of Turner’s sketching tour to Switzerland in the summer of 1841. He was sixty-five in 1840, and his appetite for the sublimities of the world became more urgent. In 1841 he embarked upon the first of four successive expeditions to the Alps, and the period of greatest intensity and brilliance in his sketching. Following the first tour he hit upon the idea of gathering a number of sketches together in a series and asking the collector and dealer Thomas Griffith to secure commissions for finished watercolours based on the sample sketches. For more extended reading on the topic area see further references at the end of this article.
The present watercolour is one of perhaps twenty sketches that Turner showed through Griffith. Ian Warrell made a collation of these in his exhibition catalogue ‘Through Switzerland with Turner’, Tate, 1995, pp. 149-50. In that list the present watercolour is no.7. One distinguishing characteristic of the late sample sketches is that they are generally numbered in red chalk on the back. It can now be noted that the present watercolour is numbered ‘18’ at the bottom right corner. The significance of the number is not altogether clear. Presumably it relates to a lost list of subjects, but the number of subjects expanded with further groups in subsequent years, and the highest number in the series appears to be ‘46’ on a sketch of ‘Lucerne by Moonlight: Sample Study’ (Turner Bequest, TB CCCLXIV 324, Tate D.36182).
Turner remarked in a letter quoted by Warrell 1995 p.149 that he wanted to keep the sketches in their ‘primitive state’. In the event the dealer could find buyers for only nine finished watercolours, and for less than Turner thought they should fetch. The artist seems to have been quite knocked back by how tepid and limp was the response. One might say with good reason. The watercolours that he did make, including that based on the present study, ‘Lake of Lucerne from above Brunnen’ (Private Collection) are now almost universally counted among his very greatest achievements.
The first series of sample sketches were mostly subjects visited in the summer of 1841. The itineraries of Turner’s Alpine tours in the 1840s still remain to be properly established, but it is clear that in this year the main focus of his attention was the Lake of Lucerne area. I hope to treat this topic more comprehensively should opportunity permit, but for now let us concentrate on the immediate subject.
I last visited Brunnen in 1990 when writing ‘Turner in the Alps’. Unfortunately the mountains were wreathed in cloud. When the old steamer came in from Fluelen the effect was Turnerian enough, but for the purposes of illustrating the mountain forms, not ideal. I hope to be able to manage a few days there this coming spring. Back in 1990, it is still more salutary to reflect, my computer had a green screen and the world wide web was still a prototype at CERN. Today, almost top of the list of a Google search for images of Brunnen one may find this stunner:
The small village of Brunnen – at that time still largely undeveloped and with only one decent hotel – seems to have occupied Turner as much as any other locality in 1841. This is perhaps not surprising, for it is situated on a sharp bend in the southern part of the lake, commanding the most spectacular view on the whole lake – the Bay of Uri to the south, which itself is part of a panorama that also encompasses a long stretch of the lake between mountains to the west. The bend on the lake is marked by the distinctive peak of the NiederbauenKulm, and as if this were not enough Brunnen also offers a view inland to the twin peaks of the Mythens above the village of Schwytz.
The views of the lake were commanded from the lake-facing rooms of the inn, the Goldener Adler, right by the boat landing, and from 1838 there was a brand-new daily steamer service that connected Fluelen at the southern point of the lake, with Lucerne at the north. We have seen in a previous article how during the same tour of 1841 Turner settled himself in a lake-front hotel at Lucerne to study the effects of light on the lake on Mont Rigi, and it seems that he did much the same at Brunnen. The Goldener Adler (described as ‘best, not very good’ by Murray’s Guide to Switzerland in 1838) burned down in 1846 and was rebuilt on a grander scale, and this business continued right down to 1948, when alterations were made and it was renamed ‘The Elite’. More rebuilding followed in 1982 and in 2004 the complex was converted to apartments. The prime site, however is readily recognisable on the left corner where the Bahnhofstrasse reaches the lake and turns onto the quay. The ground floor still caters for visitors via the Restaurant Elite.
Ian Warrell’s essay in the 2018 Christie’s sale catalogue explores the context and subject-matter of the watercolour. He points out that the area is rich in historical associations. For example the slopes on the opposite shore enclose the field of Rutli where the first pact of Swiss confederacy was sworn in 1291, whilst on the left shore stands a small chapel which marks the spot where, not long after the oath was sworn, William Tell famously leapt ashore to escape from the tyrant Gessler. Warrell makes the nice suggestion that a tiny spot of dark blue watercolour under the cliffs to the far left marks the position of Tell’s Chapel. In the same spirit, it might be added that the plume of smoke from the steamer appears to lead the eye to the site of the Field of Rutli.
The principal subject of the composition is the southernmost arm of the Lake of Lucerne. This is known as the Bay of Uri and is by some measure the most majestic stretch of the whole lake. The water is bounded by sheer rocky precipices, overtowered by high mountains, and takes on pellucid hues, constantly modulating according to weather and time of day. Turner sketched this stretch of the lake many times. There is a major body of work based at the southernmost tip of the Bay of Uri looking north from Fluelen, but that must await a different occasion: For the time being it is sufficient occupation to acknowledge that, including the present watercolour, there are no fewer than eight watercolour studies of the Bay of Uri from Brunnen alone.
[Click on any image to enlarge, read caption, and scroll in gallery view]
The collection above excludes two works in the Turner Bequest that are currently identified with the Bay of Uri. The first is called ‘Lake of Lucerne: The Bay of Uri from Brunnen’ (TB CCCLXIV 356, Tate D36218) but which lacks the steepness of the relief that characterises this stretch of Lake Lucerne and must, I feel sure, be somewhere else. The second is called ‘Morning on the Lake of Lucerne: Uri from Brunnen’ (TB CCCLXIV 313, Tate D36171) which has the right character, but which includes in the centre indications of a ?church and trees on the opposite shore, and must therefore I think be considered uncertain. Detailed consideration of the wider framework must await a fresh visit to the site, but for now it is worth considering the specific topography of the present work. In the Christie’s 2018 catalogue essay Ian Warrell identifies two watercolour sketches in the Turner Bequest as the basis of the present work.
‘The scene is presented in much the same way on two sheets of a roll sketchbook (the soft backed notebooks Turner favored on his later travels), but in both of those the color has been added quite sparingly over pencil outlines that were presumably made on the spot (Tate; inv. TB CCCXXXII 32 and CCCLXIV 387; the second of these includes the steamboat). Lake Lucerne from Brunnen skilfully combines the information in those sketches, tweaking the visual information to best effect, enhancing the impression of height which lengthens the reflections, though the compression of some landscape features distorts what is found in reality.’
The first of these two sketches has hitherto been identified as ‘Morning on the Lake of Lucerne’ and Warrell is obviously right to identify it more specifically as the Bay of Uri from Brunnen. His idea that the sketches were made from nature also seems plainly right. It is a curious fact that there are no pencil-only sketches that may be associated with Brunnen in the 1840s, but these two sheets have rapid on-the-spot pencil work, overlaid with sparing watercolour washes. Warrell’s idea that the two sketches were synthesised in the present composition also seems persuasive, especially given that such a synthesis would account for the left and right halves of the foreground appearing in the same composition. It might be further observed that whilst Christie’s 2018 describes the medium of the present watercolour as ‘pencil and watercolor with scratching out’, any pencil work in fact is all but invisible, and it appears to have been approached directly in watercolour. Warrell’s clear implication is that the two Turner Bequest works are sketches made on the tour of 1841, and the present watercolour a synthesis of that material made in the studio.
It may be, however, that Turner’s development of the topography remains problematic. Even before I have the opportunity to evaluate all this carefully on site, it appears that the two studies do not quite supply the material found in the present watercolour.
The most obvious issue is that neither sketch provides the dramatic treatment of the left shore that appears in the present watercolour. The second is that neither offers anything like the same treatment of the mountain profiles. In fact, it is clear that whilst Turner is working with pretty much the same material – and both might have been made from a room in Goldener Adler – his emphases are quite different. In the first the left slopes are magnified in his attention, whilst in the second the cliffs of Rutli and the overimpending peak of the Niederbauenkulm (1923m) loom disproportionately large. In both sketches the snowy saddleback of the Uri-Rostock (2928m) which dominates the attention of most ordinary viewers, is dispatched with a few summary lines and no real hint of its greater height.
The second sketch does, however, move closer to the present watercolour, in that it places the Niederbauenkulm at the centre of the composition. It differs in that it gives dominant proportion to that peak, whereas here it forms part of a more continuous mountain panorama. Overall the treatment of space here seems astonishingly counter-photographic. It is, however, typical of a frequently synthetic approach that Turner adopted in his sketches from the mid-1830s onwards, even when working on the spot. I first realised to what extent when working on his 1836 sketches of Val d’Aosta subjects ‘Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta’ (2000).
From that point on (if not before) he seems to have felt completely unconstrained by conventional optical intervals, even when looking directly at his subjects. As anyone who photographs landscape will know, living perception of place is a dynamic, embodied process. The mind is concerned with the personality of things, with significant relations, with dynamic properties and associations and above all with how it feels to be there. The main point of looking out on the Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen is the fact that one looks down the southern arm of the lake to the left and the western arm to the right and that the lake pivots around the peak of the Niederbauenkulm.
When Turner toured the Alps in the 1840s, his principal source of information would have been Murray’s Guide to Switzerland published in 1838. In its account of Brunnen, the breadth of the view is the first feature to be mentioned: ‘.. the village of Brunnen – (Inn: Goldener Adler; best, not very good) – to ports of the Canton Schwytz, built at the mouth of the river Muota. Its position with reference to the surrounding scenery is one of the most fortunate on the lake, commanding a view along two of its finest reaches.’
The trend of the two sketches cited by Warrell is towards a treatment of the whole sweep, and it seems worth considering another pair of sketches that appear to embrace the same dynamic. The first (Turner Bequest CCCXLIV 354) is the only one of the studies that treats the left shore in the same way as the present watercolour, and the second (Turner Bequest CCCXLIV 385) is the only sketch that swings fully round to the right to open up the western arm of the lake. The latter also treats the Niederbauenkulm in the same proportion as the present watercolour and brings in the line of hills stretching away to the right.
It may be that the present work is not so much a synthesis of on-the-spot sketches as a culmination, and it may belong (my familiar refrain, I confess) to the place as much as any of the other sketches. He did, after all, describe the sketches collectively as being in their ‘primitive state’. The present example, though more elaborate than some of the others, is painted in a limited range of colours; two blues, an ochre and an indian red, and is no more elaborate than numerous other late watercolour sketches that originate from sketchbooks. There is nothing in it that could not have been painted in a hotel room. Furthermore, the effect of light is quite specific, setting the time of day as early morning with the light slanting in from the left, grey upon the hills, dark upon the distant lake, and independent of any of the other sketches made at the site.
‘Primitive state’ was a core concept for Turner. His artistic power derives, I would argue, from the constant tension in his work between analysis and synthesis, observation and imagination, and is completely reliant on the dialectic between them. Pictures such as this are certainly acts of imaginative power, but that imagination only has any meaning insofar and because of the fact that it is grounded in being in the world.
There can, however, be little doubt that the composition is synthetic. The foreground is entirely notional, there never was anything but a continuous shore front stretching as far as the mouth of the river Muota which is some way to the west (right) of the town. The treatment of the left shore is an abstraction of what Turner knows to be the case – the shore is precipitous in many places, but nowhere does it cut such a dramatically overhanging profile as is here suggested. The treatment of the Uri-Rostock is much diminished (as it is in all but one or two of the other sketches) and the mountains to the right are greatly exaggerated if not entirely invented. Yet the effect is wonderfully fresh and naturalistic. The style is certainly that of a sketch; so it is not impossible that this was done on the spot but as a deliberate transcendence of optical naturalism, in order to allow a process of assimilation to take place. So founded in observation and being there, but synthetic of the concept formed through being there. He was well-practised doing that in his on the spot pencil sketches, so why not in watercolour?
The truth is that Turner approaches the place as an artist. His objective is to find something in the subject more than can ordinary sight, or indeed an ordinary artist. And increasingly throughout his career he was doing that in on the spot observations. So my proposal is, at the end, a little paradoxical. Even when sketching from nature he actively seeks to work beyond ordinary observation. When Turner observes a place it informs him of a reality that is more of that place than simple appearances can relate.
Ian Warrell, ‘Turner’s Late Swiss Watercolours – and Oils’, in Exploring Late Turner, New York, 1999.
Ian Warrell, Through Switzerland with Turner, Tate, 1995
David Hill, Turner in the Alps, 1802, London, 1992
1976 was the year in which I took my first degree at the University of Leeds. The sale at Christie’s in which the Brunnen appeared – the last time it was seen in England – must have been one of the first in which I took an interest. That was also the year in which I decided that there was potentially a lifetime’s interest in Turner and began my doctorate at the Courtauld Institute in London. The promise of a lifetime’s interest has been more than amply delivered. Far more interest, it is salutary to reflect, than can be accommodated in merely one lifetime. This year gives me a shared perspective on Turner passing sixty-five, Seeing enough of Switzerland starts to seem quite a pressing matter.