Bacharach on the Rhine, looking upstream, sunset, c.1832

Watercolour vignette on paper, sheet size 9 x 10 7/8 ins, 229 x 276 mm

USA, New York, Vassar College Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie. (864.1.217)

Turner catalogues: Wilton1222; tdb1339

Vassar College, USA:

This is a small, highly-finished watercolour vignette of boats moored by a town bristling with spires and towers. In the centre is a tower gateway fronting onto the shore, with to the left a church spire, and at the left edge a tall waterside tower. To the right is a large gothic octagonal chapel with large windows, and above, on the top of a steep hill the ruins of a once-considerable castle. Sunlight streams in from the right and a crescent moon hangs in the sky above a tower on a distant hill.

The watercolour is one of seventeen vignettes made for engraving in John Murray’s edition of the ‘Life and Works of Lord Byron’. This plate was engraved by Edward Finden, dated 1832 and was issued as the frontispiece to volume 8 with the engraved title of ‘Bacharach on the Rhine’.

Image courtesy of Google Earth
Image courtesy of Google Earth

The subject is a capriccio of Bacharach on the Rhine as imagined from the north, with the Zehnturm in the centre of the composition, the tower and spire of St Peter’s Church immediately to the left, the Diebsturm tower further left, the Gothic Wernerkapelle immediately to the right and the ruins of Burg Stahleck above. The modern viewer will be hard pressed to recognise much of this today. The Zehnturm was demolished c.1830, St Peter’s Church is not much like that given here, The Diebsturm is reduced to little more than a stump, the Wernerkapelle has retained its character, but Burg Stahleck has been completely rebuilt and restored. More seriously, the river never occupied the ground given to it here.

Bacharach from the new road. Photograph by David Hill, 2006

The character of the town has been further altered by the construction of the railway and of a modern roadway, together with a wide apron of parking and greenspace between the carriageways and the river.

after Matthaus Merian, Bacharach engraving, c.1650. Image courtesy of British Museum

The overview of the town is today perhaps best appreciated from the river, but for our purposes it is interesting to see it in its early seventeenth century pomp in an engraving after Matthaus Merian at the British Museum. The Zehnturm is the penultimate tower at the right. Turner’s viewpoint is on the road to its right.

Image link: Tate D12820

Turner visited the site in 1817 and sketched this material in his Waterloo and Rhine sketchbook Powell, (TB CLX 61a; Tate D12820). That may be taken as a careful record of the first impression of the town when arriving by road from the north. The Zehnturm controlled passage into the city and hence controlled one of the major north-south thoroughfares of Europe. Turner also treated the view in a watercolour, Bacharach and Stahleck (Hunterian Museum, Glasgow), one of the celebrated series of fifty-one Rhine ‘sketches’ bought by Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall.  Both sketch and watercolour take care to site the viewpoint on the road approaching the entrance to the town. Even in 1817 the river itself was a good hundred yards to the left.

Photograph by David Hill

In the present watercolour Turner brought in the Rhine to lap at the Zehnturm portal, the ‘Zehnttor’ as if it were a watergate. Looking over his sketches of 1817 some fourteen years afterwards when developing a composition for Byron’s works, it appears that he felt this to be a more apt memory of the site.

Photograph by David Hill

It is noteworthy that Turner has expended considerable care in setting the time of day at evening, the exact angle and elevation being established by the shadow on the central tower. With the sun slightly over our right shoulder, however, the moon is in completely the wrong place for the phase (a few days after new) depicted. It should either be much nearer to the sun or, if as here separated from the sun by more than 90 degrees, it should be over halfway to full, and much higher in the sky.

Photograph by David Hill

Published as the frontispiece to Volume 8 of Byron’s Life and Works, dedicated exclusively to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and paired with the title-page vignette of Castel St Angelo. It would be interesting to consider why these images in particular were selected in relation to this work, though it is noteworthy that Canto 3 of Childe Harold was published in 1816, the year before Tuner’s first tour of the Rhine, and Canto 4 in 1818, the year before Turner’s first visit to Italy.

In the context of the present image, it is noteworthy the Rhine does not occupy a large portion of the space in Canto 3 overall. Byron describes his sea-borne exile from England, the Field of Waterloo, ruminates on Napoleon and the folly and self-defeating nature of human ambition, before arriving at the Rhine in stanza forty-six of one hundred and eighteen to contrast the previous vaunting vanities with retirement and immersion there in maternal Nature.

Byron’s Rhine commentary begins at Drachenfels, contrasting castles and towers with teeming vegetation, before interposing 4 stanzas of a love letter on the theme of a (deliberately contrasting) naïve appreciation of the beauty of the river. He continues upstream to contrast more militarism with the enduring river. He dwells upon the monument to Marceau at Coblenz, and on the fort at Ehrenbreitstein before passing on to the Alps in stanza LXII. The Rhine thus occupies just twenty stanzas in all of the one hundred and twenty-two [including the love-letter] that constitute the canto.

In this case, it seems likely that the complex of towers stood in well for Byron’s general contrast of castles with a pastoral quotidian, and Turner’s personal memory of this river hub was meant to contrast with the evidence of passing moments of personal aggrandisement and power. Cecilia Powell (1991, no.25) makes the point that Turner’s illustrations present a fait accompli implying a commonality of vision between poet and painter. There might also be an element of nostalgia. In 1816 and 1817 it was expected that Romantic sublimity would be found in European exploration. Times had changed: By the 1830s the common experience was more of tea-gardens, packet-steamers and Literary Souvenir ‘romance’.

DH July 2020


?Sir J T Hippisley (c.1860);
John Ruskin;
Elias L Magoon;
Matthew Vassar, by whom given 1864 to
Vassar College Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, New York State, USA

References and Exhibitions:

Engraved by E Finden, dated 1832, as frontispiece to ‘The Works of Lord Byron….,1832-4, volume 8 (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage);
?Thornbury (c.1860) 1877 p.597 as ‘Byron Drawings..The Rhine’ [It is not clear which of four Byron Rhine subjects this could be];
Vassar College 1869 Catalog, #293;
Armstrong 1902 p.241 as Bacharach 1825-30 vignette, but no collection given;
Rawlinson, volume 2, 1913, No.418;
Vassar College 1939 Catalog, p. 47, pl. 45
Wilton 1979, No.1222 as Bacharach on the Rhine, c.1832, repro b/w;
Engr exh Powell 1991 no.25 as Bacharach. On the Rhine 1832, repr b/w;
‘No Incidents but a Ghost and a Storm: European Prints and Drawings of the Romantic Period,” Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, 20 September – 15 December 1996; Poughkeepsie, NY, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, “Humanizing Landscapes: Geography, Culture and the Magoon Collection” 5 Oct. – 20 Dec. 2000. Cat. No.64, repr. p.63
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College Poughkeepsie, NY SECOND SIGHT: Originality, Duplicity, and the Object January 14-April 10, 2005;
Poughkeepsie, NY, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, “Catching Light: European and American Watercolors from the Permanent Collection,” May 8- July 26, 2009.
Peter Black and Elizabeth Jacklin, ‘Bacharach and Burg Stahleck, 1817, in Turner Society News no.123 Spring 2015, p15, not repr.;
Vassar college online catalogue [accessed 21 July 2020] as ‘Bacharach on the Rhine, 1832-34’, repr colour:

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