Turner’s Mont Cenis revisited

I recently heard from the French scholar Roland Courtot. I have drawn on his work before, especially with regard to Sisteron. He has spent many years engaged in topographical research in relation to artists in the Alps. He has archived much of his work in the online research archive of the University of Aix-Marseille and if my work interests you, I’m sure his will too.

He specifically asked whether I might comment on his 2019 article ‘William Turner and the passage of Mont-Cenis in 1820: a drama in the mountain?’  [the full text (in French) can be read online here] concerning Turner’s watercolour of the Passage of Mt Cenis, 15 January 1820 at Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries.

J.M.W.Turner, Passage of Mont Cenis, 15 January 1820, courtesy of Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries:

This is one of the best of all Turner’s travel pictures. I have actually exhibited it twice, the first time in the exhibition ‘Turner in Yorkshire’ at York City Art Gallery in 1980, and the second time in the exhibition ‘Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta’ at Aosta, Italy in 2000. So my professional interest in this subject stretches back forty years, but I first saw it in the Turner Bicentenary exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1974. I was in my second year of studies at University, and realised that this was the kind of world I wanted to travel through. I have been sloping off down that road for nearly fifty years now.

Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Mont Cenis, photograph taken by Professor David Hill, June 1998

Courtot’s article wants reading in extensio, but if I might summarise here, has two main dimensions, the topographical and the observational. His approach is founded in the idea that commentary on Turner’s work has tended too little to enter into the topographical and too little to engage with the observational. In many respects those twin poles licensed my own presumption to enter art history in the later 1970s, and although in the years since, many scholars have brilliantly countered the lack, many, even most, important works require comprehensive reconsideration. Altogether, this ought to offer real encouragement, especially to younger scholars, that there still remains enormous space for exploration and discovery within Turner’s ouevre.

Mont Cenis looking toward Grande Croix; photograph by Professor David Hill, taken June 1999

Courtot considers the exact location depicted in the watercolour, but most particularly looks closely at what is going on in the composition and what actually there is to be seen. He argues that it is all too common for things to present to our eyes but for us somehow not to see them. This was a particular concern of mine during my teaching career, and I hope all of my students took something from being shown that they had no idea how many masts that ship had, in the painting by Claude Lorrain that they had been looking at for ten minutes before it disappeared.  Or how many floors there were in that building at the left, or how many windows, or how many figures there were in the foreground, or what were they wearing, or what animals they were accompanied by? You need language and method to register such things, and using this approach Courtot makes some telling observations, which I will come to later. 

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But to start with the where and when. Turner inscribed the watercolour ‘Passage of Mt Cenis, Jany 15 1820’. The Mont Cenis pass connects Italy with France and provides a route between Turin and Chambery. The towns at its immediate ends are Susa in Italy and Lanslebourg in France. It is an ancient route, but was vastly improved by Napoleon between 1806 and 1810, to make it usable almost the whole year round. With a good surface, easier gradients and a string of twenty-five refuges manned by cantoniers whose job was to clear and keep open the road, as well as to aid nd shelter travellers, it became one of the most reliable of all the Alpine passes. Turner crossed it on both his outward and return journeys during his tour to Italy of 1819-1820.

Mont Cenis – Old Refuge on the Piedmontese dide. Photograph by Professor David Hill, June 1999

Courtot places the scene between refuges 7 and 8, that is on the Italian side near the top of the succession of hairpin bends that climbs up towards the lake. I have to differ with that.

The refuge at the left of the watercolour is numbered ‘16’. Murray’s Guide for Travellers to Switzerland published in 1838, gives a good account of the Mont Cenis pp.329-30, which tells us that refuge number 17 marked the border between Savoy and Piedmont as it was then, which, whilst ascending from Lanslebourg was a very short way before the col itself. Many of the original refuges are long disappeared or rebuilt but we know that the refuges were numbered ascending from the Piedmont side, and we can see from an 1821 map of the route that when proceeding in the direction of Lanslebourg all the refuges in this section were on the left side of the road. So Turner specifically signifies that we must be looking northwards across the col to refuge 17 and the Piedmont/Savoy border.

The topography as seen from the road near refuge 16 does not quite answer that seen in the watercolour, but there is a very similar concatenation of elements from just past the border where the road sweeps right then left to begin its descent towards Lanslebourg.

Turner did have sketchbooks on the go during both his outward and his return crossings in 1819 and 1820; the France Savoy Piedmont and Return from Italy sketchbooks in the Turner Bequest at the Tate. There are some views perhaps taken around the time of the crossing, and some wonderful studies of figures seen on the road but neither sketchbook, as Courtot notes, contains any sketch of precisely comparable topography to the watercolour.

Nor, perhaps should we expect to find any. There is instead a written account of the crossing given by Turner himself in a letter to a friend a few years later. Courtot mentions this, but does not quote it. It is well-known to Turner scholars, but is worth reproducing here in full, especially since no-one seems ever to have quite properly teased out from it what exactly occurred:

Mont Cenis has been closed up some time [Turner is writing on 7 January 1826, in a period of poor winter weather] tho the papers say some hot-headed Englishman did venture to cross a pied a month ago, and what they considered there next to madness to attempt, which honor was conferred once on me and my companions de voiture. We were capsized on the top. Very luck it was so; and the carriage door so completely frozen that we were obliged to get out at the window – the guide and the Cantonnier began to fight, and the driver was by a process verbal put into prison, so doing while we had to march or rather flounder up to our knees nothing less in snow all the way down to Lanceslybugh by the King of Roadmakers’ Road, not the Colossus of Roads Mr MacAdam, but Bonaparte, filled up by snow and only known by the precipitous zig-zag..’

Zig-zag descent to Lanslebourg

Turner does say, we should note, that they were capsized on the top. That is at the col itself, between refuges 16 and 17. These were hardly optimal conditions for sketching, so we should expect that there would be none of the incident itself. He would have been fully occupied extricating himself from the situation, and saving the huge haul of sketches that he had made on the tour. Instead we do find in the Return from Italy sketchbook (Turner Bequest CXCII) that he managed previously to sketch some of the dramatis personae involved, including both Piedmontese and Savoyard cantoniers, and a few sketches taken on the ascent.

Image source, Tate
Images source, Tate
Image source, Tate

The last has the inscription deciphered by Nicola Moorby in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest

‘Snow in Shade and Sky in Light Shade of Blue scarcely | a Shadw but warm [?Rep]. The Snow white warmed by the sun | throws up a cloud of Vapour. like V – [where] opposite of the | Sun is the shadow by the cloud is [?deeper] [?Purple] the Half Shade | lighter than the Sky’.

and another sketch (f.2a) in the same sketchbooks is also inscribed;

Image source, Tate
Men clearing away snow for the | Carrige [sic] Women and Children b[?egging] – | the Sky pink – the light and the cool Many | rather warm – Trees are all cover with | snow the Trees in the distance, and wood [?quite] darker1

Amidst digging and distress it might appear that the artist triumphs over narrator to an almost questionable degree. We might well question the fact that Turner’s interest is mostly attached to nuances of colour whilst the folk around him are forced to digging and begging.. But rather like a photographer in a war zone, we must expect the artist who had by this time spent more than thirty years training himself to retain the detail of his experience, to focus as a priority on being able to recall whatever he might subsequently require.

One key element of Courtot’s essay is his careful consideration of the visual incident in the watercolour. We will return to Turner’s account in due course but for now, Courtot’s course is to concentrate solely on what we can see, and see where that might take us. I have spent my entire career telling art students to do that. Start with seeing the visual evidence for what it is (rather than what it is supposed to be) and work that as hard, far and imaginatively as one can. Then [and only then] start with the context and received ideas. Also accept the fact that the two might not conform terribly well; indeed might turn out to be completely at odds with one another. It’s in those dissonances that the art resides and where meaning beyond cliché can be created.

The interested reader should study Courtot’s consideration of the visual incident in the picture.  Hs article reminds me of another of the hobby-horses that I liked to ride when teaching. If you want to open up understanding of a thing then there’s no better way than to draw it. Courtot’s enters into each of his visual disquisitions with drawings. In art galleries my advice to students was to sit down and draw something, to focus the attention. It didn’t much matter that there were five hundred masterpieces on view; if they spent an hour drawing just one hand of a single figure in a painting, they would take away a lesson for life. I remember taking a party to Newborough Sands on Anglesey one Spring. When we returned from a day drawing, the minibus that I was driving had disappeared. A search found it hidden behind the toilets. The early returnees had managed to get in, let off the handbrake and push it away. ‘And whose handiwork is this?’, I enquired. ‘Well’ the explanation began; ‘This big hand came down out of the sky and lifted it up and put it over there.’ And after a pause, added… ‘But we’ve all drawn it’.

But I digress.. Courtot looks first at the mule-drawn cart, and notices that a seriously violent incident is unfolding. The cart is teetering on the edge of the road, whilst the mules dig in in fear, and an all-in brawl has broken out on the road in front. Courtot draws attention to the ferocity and desperation of the violence, and wonders plausibly that this might well depict a gang of thugs pirating a cargo under the cover of the bad weather. He describes the scene as resembling Chinese shadow painting, which phrase serves all the more effectively to fix it in the viewer’s mind

Courtot also turns his attention to the coach in the right foreground. He is particularly struck by the panic of the horses as they try to heave the coach around from the violence in the road ahead. He notices the fact that the driver is missing and that the passengers are desperately trying to open the door. He also makes the quite remarkable observation that the coach appears to be seen from two directions at once. At the left we see it from the front left quarter, and at the right from the rear left quarter. It is certainly a just observation and thought-provoking, but on reflection its seems a more prosaic reading that the coach has got stuck, and the horses have wheeled round so violently as to break off the back axle. In which case the passengers are in acute jeopardy; for if the horses’ efforts succeed, they will soon be dragging the cabin along on its floor, and there will be no-one in a position to check their career.

This leaves us somewhere between the horns of a dilemma. Courtot does not attempt to map his observations to Turner’s version of events as given in the letter; neither however, has the letter ever been at all reconciled with the detail in the picture. This, actually, is entirely as one might expect. The gleanings from proper looking generally sit uncomformably with the contextual and the received.

There is something of an issue in any case with understanding Turner’s account in the letter. Why should the guide and cantonier have begun to fight? And what does it mean that ‘the driver was by a process verbal put into prison’?

When I showed the picture in the exhibition Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta, (Archaeological Museum, Aosta, Italy, 2000) I attempted in the catalogue to explain this in plain terms:

‘It was snowing and the coach capsized near the summit. The door was frozen and he had to climb out of the window. Tempers became frayed, no-one would speak to the driver, and the guides, who really should not have allowed the coach to set out, started fighting with the cantoniers. The cantoniers were stationed in the little square houses built at regular intervals along the road, and it was their job to keep the road in good repair. It was also their lot to go out and rescue coach drivers and their guides who got stuck when they should have known better. It is hardly surprising that they were unhappy. In the event Turner and his party had to flounder down to Lanslebourg, only being able to follow the road by the snow-poles set at its side.’

That might well be to some degree an exposition of the letter, but after reading Courtot’s essay, I have to admit that it is by no means sufficient to explain what is shown in the watercolour. I am not completely confident that the interpretation of ‘putting the driver by Process verbal in prison’ should be refusing to talk to him. There is, moreover, a pitched battle going on around the cart. The coach is not ‘capsized’, and it is not clear which (if any) of the figures might be the driver. Moreover, Turner did not supply that account until six years after the event, and then only in a letter to a friend. There is some room to doubt whether the letter and the details of the watercolour need be at all closely related.

The watercolour was painted in 1821 for Turner’s great friend and patron Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall in Yorkshire. A note in one of Turner’s sketchbooks [Paris, Seine and Dieppe sketchbook, Turner Bequest TB CCXI 10; Tate D18540) records that it was one of five subjects relating to the tour to Italy in 1819-20 for which Fawkes was charged 25 guineas each. Four more Italian subjects brought the total to nine, almost the entirety of Turner’s finished output from this tour in watercolour.

More than any other patron, Fawkes took an extended interest in Turner’s travels. He was the principal buyer of Alpine subjects from Turner’s tour of 1802, bought a series of fifty-one coloured sketches from the Rhine tour of 1817, and Farnley provided the base for his explorations of Yorkshire, the north of England and the Scottish borders in the 1810s. Turner stayed at Fawkes’s Yorkshire home pretty much every year from 1808 to 1824. No-one accumulated more product of Turner’s travels, nor can anyone have enjoyed more regular access to the artist’s anecdotes.

It is tantalising to imagine what might have been the conversation over the watercolour in the drawing room at Farnley, but the truth is that the moment of artistic conception took place in the artist’s studio. The group of fighting figures, which is a striking visual conception in its own, might well have been fertilised by memories of shadow theatre seen in Italy or France. The art was especially popular at this time in both countries and no doubt as ever, then and now, much entertainment was derived from graphic portrayal of theatrical violence.

Shadow-play in the collection of the Museo del Precinema, Padua, Italy
By Curtain21 (talk) – I created this work entirely by myself., CC BY 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28912447

The terrified horses might have been melded out of memories of Renaissance battle scenes seen on some Italian Palazzo wall during the tour. And the maelstrom of elements allows rock and earth to flow and crash as fluidly as if it were a storm at sea.

So how might we summarise what is to be seen in the composition itself? A place Turner had been, and a place of recent creation. A brand-new state of the art road across an Alpine Pass, not yet ten years old. Built to unify an empire with the most secure, best-managed, cutting-edge transport facilities in the world.  The war was past, but here, nonetheless, in a place uniquely devoted to safety, smooth commerce and security, and in a place where the only enemy should be the weather, people are battering one another to a pulp, horses are made wild with fear and panic, and unless those inside the carriage manage to escape, it appears that they must be soon dashed to their doom.

Hardly an ideal management of the peace. And Turner might well have intended that the viewer draw parallels with contemporary circumstances. The Peterloo massacre had occurred on 16 August 1819 whilst Turner was away in Italy. Eighteen civilians were killed and hundreds injured when cavalry with drawn swords charged into a crowd of 60,000 gathered in Manchester to protest against injustice and inequality in Britain after the war. The trial of some of the organisers was held in York in April 1820, just when Turner might have been thinking about his Mont Cenis subject, and eports of the proceedings provoked widespread rebellion amongst other workers, including many in the West Yorkshire cloth industry. As a radical Whig politician Fawkes would have had strong views about, and interest in, all of that.

But we do not have to think that the implications need be at all that historically specific. The depicted events are designed to speak across contexts and to equate to events through history. More generally we might say that those in the picture, and by implications ourselves, would all be much better off working together to maintain peace and order, and to find time and occasion to transcend petty squabbles and conflict, to give some attention and consideration to the great sublime spectacle occurring all around.


Mont Cenis, 1998

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