The Drachenfels on the Rhine, Germany [Drachenfells], c.1832

Watercolour, 5 x 8 ins,, 128 x 204 mm

Manchester City Art Gallery (1917.113)

Turner catalogues: Wilton 1216; tdb1333

This is a small, highly-finished and richly-coloured watercolour showing the view along a river to a hill surmounted by a castle with a castle-topped promontory to the left. A road runs along the riverside at the left and on the far bank to the right is a large building surmounted by a clock tower. There are various river craft in the foreground,, including two barges near the centre being towed by a large team of horses. A full moon is low in the sky to the right, and a low sun out of picture to the left bathes the upper slopes of the hills in a rosy glow.

Image courtesy of Manchester City Art Galleries

The watercolour is one of nine made for engraving in ‘Finden’s Landscape Illustrations to Mr Murray’s First Complete and Uniform Edition of the Life and Works of Lord Byron’. This plate is by William Finden, dated 1833 and was issued in part XI, no.1, 1833 as ‘The Drachenfells’ and afterwards bound in Volume 2 of the three-volume final set.

Photograph by David Hill

The subject is the view along the river Rhine to the castle of Drachenfels in the centre distance. To the left is the ruin of Roland’s Eck, and to the right the extensive buildings of the convent of Nonnenwerth.

Rolandseck and Drachenfels on the Rhine
Photograph taken by David Hill, April 2006

The viewpoint is on the left bank of the Rhine looking downstream, a few miles upstream of Bonn, and the elements of the scene are all still readily identifiable, and the general view recognisable, but the convent is now completely obscured by trees, and always was separated from the left bank by a subsidiary channel, rather than the main river as is implied by the watercolour.

Turner visited the site in 1817 on his first sketching tour to the Rhine. There are numerous sketches of the Drachenfels, but two stand out in relation to the present watercolour.

Image courtesy of Tate, D12774, D12775

The first is a double-page spread in the Waterloo and Rhine sketchbook. This shows a cabriolet parked at the side of the road under the Rolandsberg, with the postilion sitting on a wall while the artist sketches. The Drachenfels occupies the centre of the composition and the convent of Nonnenwerth is just visible at the right edge of the composition. Turner recorded the same view in a watercolour at the Courtauld Institute Galleries.

Image courtesy of Tate, D12863

A second sketch in the same sketchbook records the view from further upstream, bringing the convent more centrally into the composition, and also bringing Rolandseck into sight atop the promontory to the right. Turner also recorded this view in a watercolour in a private collection.

The present watercolour is a synthesis of information drawn from the sketches and his memory. In particular he remembers the road and the convent to the right. He also remembers the view from further back with Rolandseck in view above, and boating activity in the foreground.

Nonnenwerth: north-west angle
Wikimedia: Wolkenkratzer/ CC BY-SA

In respect of the architecture of the convent, however, his memory completely deserted him, and the building shown in the watercolour bears little resemblance to that seen by Turner in 1817. His principal reference was a sketch in the Itinerary Rhine sketchbook, (Turner Bequest CLIX 30a; Tate D12572). This shows the convent from the north-west angle.

Nonnenwerth and Rolandseck, Looking Upstream from the West Bank 1817 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

He transposed this into the watercolour, even though the angle of view is evidently that from the west or south-west, but misinterpreted his drawing as a flat elevation with a central tower.

Photograph by David Hill

The most significant error being that of the form and placement of the tower. In fact the tower was a fairly typical small German Baroque spire, and most importantly situated over the chapel at the north end of the range of buildings.

Detail of boat being team-hauled against the current

One detail of the present composition is also elaborated from his memories of 1817. In the foreground we see a Rhine barge being hauled upstream by a team of horses. This much have been terrifically hard work against the current, particularly so when the river flow was high in summer. In the private collection watercolour Turner makes it doubly difficult, showing the boat man-hauled.

Armstrong 1902 says that this was first issued in Murray’s “Byron”, 1825. “Childe Harold”, Canto IV, and this was followed by Rawlinson vol.2, no.412 and Wilton 1979 no.1216. This was dismissed by Brown 1992, who demonstrates that it was made expressly for Finden’s Landscape Illustrations to Lord Byron published 1832-4, on which work began in late 1830. The Findens seem on the whole to have worked up their plates soon after the waterc9lours were delivered, which would suggest a date of 1832 for the present example.

Most commentators establish the watercolour’s relationship to a passage in the  third canto of Byron’s famous poem ‘Child Harold’s Pilgrimage’

‘The castled crag of Drachenfels

Frowns o’er the wide and winding Rhine,

Whose breast of waters broadly swells

Between the banks which bear the vine.’

That was first published in 1816 and might have been one of the principal motives for Turner’s visit the following year.

Commentators also draw attention to the romantic associations of the site, particularly of Roland’s Eck and the convent of Nonnenwerth, with the 11th century epic ‘Chanson de Roland’ relating the deeds of the brave knight, and, in this case, of his lover who believing him dead, took holy orders, only to discover that she had been mistaken. Just a few years later, Turner returned to the same location and the story of Roland, for an illustration to the work of Thomas Campbell.

Photograph by David Hill

Rawlinson notes ‘There is a Replica, slightly larger (5 9/16 x 3 1/2), and with many minute differences; e.g. a mast on the extreme right is visible. I do not know where it appeared.’ An impression found in Bonn in 2007 is inscribed ‘Aus d. Kunstanst.d. Bibliogr. Hildbh.’ which is the imprint from 1828 to 1856 of Joseph Meyer’s Bibliographisches Institut of Hildburghausen. The plate was included in ‘Meyers Universum, 1833-61, which extended to 17 volumes in 12 languages with 80,000 subscribers all over Europe, and was one of the most successful subscription publications of the nineteenth century. Mayer successfully extended his interests in many fields. Given that Turner is not credited anywhere on this plate, one can only conclude that his portfolio of practice included piracy. That said, the copy is a remarkable piece of work. The additional details do help the composition. The only obvious inferiority is the convent tower, where the engraver [also not credited] had no idea what he was depicting, compounding Turner’s own invention.

Detail Meyer

Detail Turner

For further context on Meyer’s work see ‘Visualizing the World in Meyer’s Universum’, by Kirsten Belgum, in Colloquia Germanica, Vol. 49, No. 2/3, Themenheft: Periodical Literature in the Nineteenth Century (2016), pp. 235-258.

The Drachenfels was one of the most sketched subjects in Turner’s career. He recorded in on numerous tours. Similar subjects have been identified from 1824, 1833, 1835, 1839 and 1840. Cf Alice Rylance-Watson, ‘The Drachenfels from the Rhine 1835 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, December 2015, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, August 2017,, accessed 11 July 2020.


?Sir J T Hippisley (c.1860);
?Thomas Brown, to
Christie’s 8 June 1869 (650), bt.
Sir W Cunliffe Brooks, to
Phillips, 1901;
Lady Cunliffe Brooks, (1903) to
Phillips, 8 July 1903, bt.
Agnew’s by whom sold 4 November 1903 to
James T Blair, by whom bequeathed 1917, to
Manchester City Art Gallery

References and Exhibitions:

Engraved by W Finden for ‘Finden’s Landscape Illustrations to Mr Murray’s First Complete and Uniform Edition of the Life and Works of Lord Byron’, as ‘The Drachenfells’, dated 1833 and issued in part XI, no.1, 1833, and in Volume 2 of bound edition 1833.
Thornbury (c.1860) 1877 p.597 as ‘Byron Drawings.. The Rhine’;*
Armstrong 1902, p250 as “Drachenfels” 1820-24. [Ex Sir W Cunliffe Brooks, Bart. Phillips, 1901.] 3 1/2 x 5 1/4. The Rock is centre across the river. Full moon rising to right, over island of Nonnenwerth. Horses towing boats in F. Engraved by W Finden, Murray’s “Byron”, 1825. “Childe Harold”, Canto IV;
Exh Agnew’s 1903, no.181;
Rawlinson, 1913, vol.2, no.412;
Exh Manchester Whitworth, 1921, no.205;
Exh Leeds 1925 no.127;
Exh Manchester CAG, 1952, no.53;
Exh: R.A. 1974 (288);
Exh Marble Hill House, Turner and the Poets, 1975, no.65;
Exh Agnew’s W/cl from Manchester CAG, 1977, no.96;
Wilton, 1979 No 1216 as title, repro b/w;
Clifford 1982, no.12 as ‘The Drachenfels, Germany, c.1823-4’, repr b/w;
Exh Turner and Byron, 1992, no.53 as ‘The Drachenfels, 1833’, repr b/w [engr no.54];
Engr exh Powell 1995 no.26 repr b/w;
Nugent and Croal, 1997, no.59 as ‘The Drachenfels, Germany, c.18’, repr colour;
Manchester City Art Gallery online catalogue as ‘The Drachenfels, Germany, c.1832’, repr colour ‘’
Alice Rylance-Watson, ‘The Drachenfels from the Rhine 1835 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, December 2015, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, August 2017,, accessed 11 July 2020.

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