In Turner’s Footsteps between Lucerne and Thun: #1 Back to the Beginning

The recent appearance of a Turner watercolour called ‘Lake Lucerne at Dusk’ at Sotheby’s Old Master Drawings sale in New York on 27 January reminds me of unfinished business. The very first article on was about a Turner watercolour of the Lungernsee which Turner visited and sketched whilst making a tour from Lucerne to Thun [to visit that article click here].

J.M.W.Turner, The Lungernsee, Switzerland, Sotheby’s, London, 6 February 2014, lot 140. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s

I promised then to make a photographic tour to retrace Turner’s footsteps and later that same spring we spent a splendid week in Lucerne and afterwards traced Turner’s route up and over the Brunig Pass. We returned with a stack of material, sufficient to treat the tour as a whole. I began work on one of the Lucerne subjects [click here], but not being tethered to any deadliness, the project was soon overtaken by other interests. I wandered off on a different trip. Happy days before the current plague.

‘Lucerne at Dusk’ [so-called], Sotheby’s, New York, 27 January 2021, lot 69. Image source; Sotheby’s

The Sotheby’s watercolour turns out to be another subject from the same tour from Lucerne to Thun, and we will get round to discussing that in due course. Before that, I am determined to work my way to that point by retracing the whole tour page-by-page from the sketchbook.

Image source: Tate

The Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook (Tate, Turner Bequest TB CCCXXIX) is a small pocket book of 52 pages (5 ½ x 3 3/16 ins) bound in marbled boards, with leather spine and pencil loops. It is perhaps a shame that for the present the Tate website carries such a very low resolution image of the cover.

The images of the sketches, however, are excellent, and record an itinerary starting at Lucerne, where he filled fifteen pages with quick memoranda before crossing the lake to Stansstad. From here he took a boat to Alpnach and then a char to Sarnen before ascending to Lungern and across the Brunig Pass to Brienz. There follows an excursion to Meiringen and the famous Reichenbach Falls, before returning to Brienz. He then takes a boat across the lake to the the Giessbach falls, and then on to Interlaken. The final leg takes him across the lake of Thun to Oberhofen and the town of Thun where this sequence of sketches ends. The sketchbook was selected (or even bought?) in Lucerne exclusively for the journey, and Turner made sketches at regular intervals throughout. The comprehensiveness of his coverage of subjects suggests that he had not made a systematic survey of the crossing on any previous occasion. Furthermore, he appears to have so much wanted to record every prospect on the route that he made unsteady scribbles even when being jolted in a char, or on horse or mule-back. This was quite an undertaking for a man in his advanced sixties. There was no coach crossing of the Brunig at this time.

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The book is dated 1841 by Finberg, but on no really certain grounds. Finberg’s basis for the date appears to be the assumption that the Lucerne sketches informed an 1842 watercolour called Lucerne from the Walls (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Merseyside; Willton 1979, no.1529). In fact there is no connection with that watercolour – none of the sketches record a visit to that particular viewpoint – and instead the direct connection is with an 1845 watercolour called Lucerne Town (USA, New York, Morgan Library, Wilton 1979, no.1544). That seems to point quite clearly to a date of 1844. If so, Turner was sixty-nine years of age. His tour that year was his last to the Alps and much of the work that resulted from this sketchbook is glimmeringly crepuscular.

We will begin at Lucerne

2 thoughts on “In Turner’s Footsteps between Lucerne and Thun: #1 Back to the Beginning

  1. Cessy, France 12 Feb 2021

    Dear David,

    I’m delighted to see you’re back on the case of Turner in Switzerland. John and I have made a detailed study of Turner’s massive 1844 Continental tour and, like you, have piles of info such as 1844 Continental train timetables, details of the plans for the first Basle station and so on. But to get to the heart of the matter, we all need to share dates and routes. So, rather than write far too much, I’ll concentrate mainly on 1844 dates, some of which were published in my Spring 2016 article “Turner in Northern Switzerland” in the British Art Journal that’s now in the public domain.

    TURNER DATES for 1844. He does a remarkable study of ‘Rhine Tributaries’ in Germany, with a final stay in Heidelberg: books in for 3 nights from 24 Aug 1844; Basel: books in for 2 nights from 26 Aug (therefore leaving Heidelberg a day early); Baden: books in for 7 nights from 28 Aug 1844 – which would suggest he left there on Wednesday, 4 Sep 1844. This clashes with Turner’s entry for crossing the Brünig “September 3” (in CCCXLVIII-17a-Grindelwald Sketchbook), having already by then stayed in Lucerne.

    The above article includes an alternative interpretation for this date that I now set aside, because – having searched high and low at archives and hotels for years – our helpers have recently found a new and important date: Solothurn 16 Sep 1844. Back finally in Basle, he booked into the newly-opened, top European hotel: The Three Kings for 3 nights from 2 October 1844. We’ve found no return date for Heidelberg (and he would anyway have gone on through there, by train to the Rhine).

    For those readers studying these dates, I’d make the following important point: trust the first date in the visitor records, but by all means question the apparent leaving date, as that may be a receptionist or printer’s error, maybe tied to the person he arrived with.

    Nevertheless, it would have been possible for him to have left Basle on the 6am train on 5 Oct to make it – pretty well all the way by train – to Portsmouth by early afternoon on the 8 Oct to join the King Louis-Philippe welcoming party. “Rain, Steam and Speed” in action, one could say; indeed, surely a world record for that particular journey! Surely, he’d have left a day or two earlier?

    I’ve promised the editor of the BAJ an article updating Turner’s 1844 watercolours of Interlaken for which we’ve comprehensive comparative photos, and indeed we’re assembling the entire 1844 trip, complete with weather reports, should that be of eventual interest to readers. The weather that year was truly awful: rain, rain and rain as we see in T’s 1844 accurate portrayal of it in his Lucerne Sketchbook.

    In considering more broadly the 1840s, note that Ian Warrel has Turner also crossing the Brünig in 1841, and so the pocket sketchbooks of the almost identical route that you’re studying in your above article need to be separated; indeed, all the way to Strasbourg (much of which has been done but not always recorded by Tate). BTW, for readers, Ian’s map of T’s 1841 tour of Switzerland is published in an odd place: page 21 of Ken Howard’s Switzerland. All update suggestions are welcome!

    There’s also a lot of individual / separated sketches that relate to these journeys. Note his sketch of Innertkirchen – and indeed beyond, as that awful weather eventually forces T’s famous ‘turnback’, rather than achieve a likely objective to view the start and upper part of the River Rhöne that would have completed his study of that important river. I’ve all this in hand, but it remains to be published. Please take it into account for your own important (re-)studies of the sketchbooks, as I hope it’ll give you some new areas to consider for locations.

    Finally, in attempting to sort out T in the 1840s, I throw in another rather significant ‘wobbly’ for you: Turner in Basel in 1842: 7th + 8th September 1842 and 16 September 1842. It may help to say that we didn’t find him in Baden in 1842. So you, and indeed your readers, are invited to tell us about Turner’s 1842 couple of weeks in Switzerland .. please. We need at least another date somewhere else, or some other clue, and of course his travels to and from Basel. (The Strasbourg – Basle train service was available to him; just opened – as this may be a factor).

    For those dates – above – that are new, I’d be grateful if authors would kindly include a reference to ‘Prue Bishop’. When I refer to the new dates, I’ll include the full background info as to who dug them out for us.

    Lastly, I’m pleased you mention your teaching methods, as my own have always been markedly similar – to the extent that I wonder if there’s a particular bit of Leeds background here? I was lucky enough to be extremely well taught in my one-year post-graduate art-teacher’s diploma there that highlighted the very points you make.

    From my studies of hundreds of Turner sketches, I see a relationship between Turner’s recording of observational detail and the time he spent at a location – with overall also agreeing that year on year his sketches become more and more difficult to interpret; with of course the great man throwing in some notable exceptions.

    I recall that years ago we agreed that Mr T would likely give us the run-around for the rest of our lives, that seems very much to be working out that way.

    Keep up the good work! And stay safe!! Prue [Prue Bishop]

    Afterthought. If anyone wishes to write to me direct, you’ll find contact info on my web site: I’ll always respond.

    1. Hi Prue
      Thank you for this glimpse into your treasure-trove of information on Turner’s 1844 tour. Your intended article sounds as if it will be every bit as interesting as your last, and I look forward to it very much. For now, however, I should say that I am not yet quite certain that my current itinerary Between Lucerne and Thun can conclusively be dated to 1844. The strongest evidence so far (explained under pages 2a-3) is that some sketches provide the direct basis of a watercolour tpaintned 1844-45. I think, however, as I explain in the introduction ‘Back to the Beginning’ that the record of the crossing of the Brunig Pass in this sketchbook must have been his first, or at least the first during which he could make proper sketches. You mention the sketch in the Grindelwald sketchbook which is certainly dated 3 September 1844, but I am not at all sure that the subject of that is the Brunig Pass. You also mention an ‘individual/separated’ sketch of Innertkirchen. As you know, but readers might not, Innertkirchen stands near the head of the Haslital where the Susten Pass and Grimsel Pass roads diverge. As we shall see (if I manage to sustain this thread long enough) the Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook certainly places Turner within sight of Innertkirchen before he turns back down the valley to Brienz. I don’t know of any separate sketches of the subject, but if I understand your comment aright, perhaps you might contribute any such reference in a comment when [and if] we reach the appropriate point? Until then, many thanks for all your time and effort, and wishing you much enjoyable Turnering in the beautiful country of Switzerland. All best, David

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