The Drachenfels on the Rhine, with the Rolandsberg and Nonnenwerth, 1817

Watercolour on pale grey flecked laid wrapping paper, probably Dutch, 8 1/4 x 11 3/8 ins, 209 x 290 mm.

London, Courtauld Institute of Art. D1967.WS.94

Turner catalogues: Wilton 667; tdb0799

This is a medium-sized watercolour, of a landscape scene, looking along a river to blue hills, with a rock escarpment to the left impending over a road. A cabriolet has stopped and several figures stand nearby, evidently enjoying the view.

Drachenfels, 1817
Courtauld Institute of Art, London (Bequest of W W Spooner)
Courtesy of The Courtauld Gallery | Licence: CC BY 2.

The subject is the Drachenfels on the Rhine as seen from the south, from a viewpoint on the road running below the Rolandsberg on the west bank of the Rhine a few miles south of Bonn.

The viewpoint is directly opposite Nonnenwerth and the nunnery is just visible at the extreme right of the composition.

Drachenfels under Rolandsberg
Photograph by David Hill, 2006

The general scene is recognisable today, except for the fact that the road is somewhat enlarged to permit faster traffic, and the view of the nunnery on the island is somewhat obscured by trees.

The watercolour is one of a celebrated series of fifty-one watercolours of Rhine subjects bought by Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall Yorkshire. According to the story given by Walter Thornbury, Turner returned from his tour, went direct to Farnley and pulled out a roll of coloured sketches made on the tour. Fawkes bought the lot, and Turner mounted them in an album for his host.

Modern scholars, most notably Cecilia Powell, have dismantled this story. The context is more fully explored in the introduction to the 1817 Rhine tour, and the issue of whether Turner painted these direct from nature, in part or not at all, retains its interest. In any case, the present watercolour is a key reference point in the discussion.

Powell 1995 observes ‘This is one of the most sketch-like of Turner’s 1817 Rhine series, though it was itself based on a pencil sketch..’ (TB CLX 38v-39r – there repr, cited also by Cologne 1980).

Waterloo and Rhine Sketchbook, 1817
Turner Bequest, CLX 38v-39r: Tate D12774D12775
Image courtesy of Tate

Tussey 1993 observes that the present watercolour and another of Drachenfels at Stanford University Museum of Art, California, are exceptional in the series for being on laid paper. This wants some explanation, and it may be that both have a similar origin. Powell suggests in Courtauld 2008 that since the paper appears to have been bought in Holland on Turner’s return journey, that this must have been painted after Turner’s return to England.

Drachenfels (Courtauld Institute of Art) -detail of cabriolet and figures
Courtesy of The Courtauld Gallery | Licence: CC BY 2.

The details of figures &c differ between watercolour and sketch (and in fact are more interesting in the sketch], but it does not seem that sketch and watercolour can be reconciled in terms of each being distinct viewpoints, especially in terms of the road. Moreover the effect of light in the watercolour, which would be particular if painted direct from nature, does not seem quite cogent. If the light comes from the left and casts such long shadows with regard to the coach, why is the road not in shadow because of the high wall? The watercolour also omits the tower on the top of the Drachenfels that is clearly visible in the sketch, although the 1889 description seems to suggest that it was plainly visible then.

Powell interprets the extempore quality as indicative of a disinclination to linger due to apprehension of brigands and tumbling boulders. This seems rather too great a contrivance to be credible, and in any case the whole point of the figures is that they take time to enjoy the view. If not done from the motif, it has certainly adopted the manner of a sketch. The sketchiness is designed to suggest the taking of the time to paint, and of the value of being upon the spot and at the point of contact with the world. The evening light from the west gives a sense of basking both in light and scenery.

The same site is recorded in a more distant view (W.666) from further upstream, and also a later watercolour made for Finden’s Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron (W.1216).

DH, July 2020


Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, Yorkshire d.1825 and by descent to
Revd. Ayscough Fawkes (1889) to
Christie’s 27 June 1890 no.32 as ‘Drachenfels and Nunnery, 8 1/4 by 11 3/8 in’, bt.for £126.0.0 by
‘F A Smith’ i.e.
Fine Art Society, London;
Mr and Mrs W W Spooner of Ilkley, Yorkshire, by whom bequeathed, 1967 to the
Courtauld Institute of Art Galleries, London

References and Exhibitions:

Farnley coll MSS 1850 ‘Sketches on the Rhine (In a case) no.47 Drachenfels & Nunnery N 11 3/4 x 8 1/4’;
Exh RA Old Masters 1889 no.69 as ‘Drachenfels and Nunnery. In the foreground is a road protected by parapets, high above the river; on it is a coach and a figure on horseback; beyond are high cliffs and hills on the other side of the river, with a tower on the summit of one of them; cloudy sky. Size 8 1/4 by 11 3/8 in’;
Armstrong 1902 p.250 as ‘Drachenfels, from the left bank. 1819. [F H Fawkes, Esq, Farnley Hall. RA 1889] 8 1/4 x 11 3/8. A road with parapet, high above the Rhine, with a coach and a figure on horseback. Across the river the Drachenfels and the Seven Mountains. Chiefly body-colour, on stained paper’;
Wilton 1979, No. 667 as ‘Drachenfels, 1817’, repr. b/w;
Exh Cologne, 1980 no.7 as ‘Rolandseck, Nonnenwerth und Drachenfels (Drachenfels and Nunnery, N), 1817’, repr b/w;
Tussey 1993, J M W Turner’s Working Methods in his 1817 series of fifty-one Rhenish Drawings, no.47;
Powell 1995, Turner in Germany, no.9 as ‘The Drachenfels’, repr colour;
Exh Dove Cottage and London, 2008-9, ‘Paths to Fame, Turner Watercolours from the Courtauld Gallery,’ as no.14, ‘The Drachenfels, 1817’, repr colour;

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