Rhine Series: an introduction


This series of fifty-one watercolours depicts subjects on the river Rhine between Cologne and Mainz. The traditional story of their origin was related by Walter Thornbury in his Life of J.M.W.Turner published in 1862:

Walter Thornbury, Life of J.M.W.Turner R.A,, 1862 vol.2, p.86

They remained together at Farnley until 27 June 1890 when thirty-five were sold at Christie’s. The remaining sixteen clung together until 1912 when they were purchased by Agnew’s. Since then the group has been scattered to collections all over the world. The British Museum has the largest group of seven.

Ruskin saw them at Farnley in 1851, and was moved to write about them in his pamphlet PreRaphaelitism, published in that year.

‘… he made a series of sketches on the Rhine, in body colour, now in Mr. Fawkes’s collection. Every one of those sketches is the almost instantaneous record of an effect of colour or atmosphere, taken strictly from nature, the drawing and the details of every subject being comparatively subordinate, and the colour nearly as principal as the light and shade had been before, -certainly the leading feature, though the light and shade are always exquisitely harmonized with it. And naturally, as the colour becomes the leading object, those times of day are chosen in which it is most lovely; and whereas before, at least five out of six of Turner’s drawings represented ordinary daylight, we now find his attention directed constantly to the evening: and, for the first time, we have those rosy lights upon the hills, those gorgeous falls of sun through flaming heavens, those solemn twilights, with the blue moon rising as the western sky grows dim, which have ever since been the themes of his mightiest thoughts.

I have no doubt, that the immediate reason of this change was the impression made upon him by the colours of the continental skies. When he first travelled on the Continent […], he was comparatively a young student; not yet able to draw form as he wanted, he was forced to give all his thoughts and strength to this primary object. But now he was free to receive other impressions; the time was come for perfecting his art, and the first sunset which he saw on the Rhine taught him that all previous landscape art was vain and valueless, that in comparison with natural colour, the things that had been called paintings were mere ink and charcoal, and that all precedent and all authority must be cast away at once, and trodden under foot. He cast them away: the memories of Vandevelde and Claude were at once weeded out of the great mind they had encumbered; they and all the rubbish of the schools together with them; the waves of the Rhine swept them away for ever: and a new dawn rose over the rocks of the Siebengebirge.’

Thornbury was equally moved by the group and continued:

Walter Thornbury, Life of J.M.W.Turner R.A,, 1862 vol.2, p.87

Both Ruskin and Thornbury saw these watercolours as direct products of the tour. Ruskin, moreover, considered them to be sketches and ‘the instantaneous record of an effect of colour or atmosphere’. For him, they represented a turning point in Turner’s career, the very point at which he learned to abandon prefiguration and to take his colour direct from nature.

Wilton 1979 introduces the series and lists examples nos.636-686, though Powell 1991 p.58 n.50 offers some corrections and additions. The principal modern accounts are those of Agnes von der Borch  in  the catalogue of ‘J. M William Turner: Koln und der Rhein’, at Cologne, 1980, Mary Tussey in the catalogue of the ‘Turner in Yorkshire’ exhibition at York 1980, and in her Ph.D thesis at Stanford University ‘J M W Turner’s Working Methods in his 1817 series of fifty-one Rhenish Drawings’, and the detailed introductions given by Cecilia Powell in ‘Turner’s Rivers of Europe’, (Tate, 1991) and ‘Turner in Germany’ (Tate, 1995).

A.J.Finberg (Life of Turner, 1939, p.249-50) appears to have been the first to dismiss Thornbury’s story that Turner came direct to Farnley from Hull. He also argues that the watercolours were not painted direct from nature, and points to the relationships to pencil sketches in the sketchbooks that he carried with him. He even dismantles the idea that they are direct products of the tour, arguing instead that they could have been made after Turner’s return to England, perhaps whilst he was in the north in the autumn of 1817 at Raby Castle and County Durham, or even during his stay at Farnley in November..

Powell follows this line based on a systematic re-cataloguing of the 1817 Rhine sketches in Turner’s Rivers of Europe. Tussey, however, argues that there is sufficient evidence to put Turner on the spot in some, perhaps many, cases. It may well be that there is room for further discussion on this point. This might be a good place to reweigh the evidence once the catalogue of all the examples is complete.

DH July 2020

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