In Turner’s Footsteps between Lucerne and Thun: #2a-3 Lucerne from the Swan Hotel to the Hofkirche

In this, the second full page-spread of Turner’s Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, the artist continues an excursion from the Hotel Swan at Lucerne along the lake front in the direction of the Hofkirche. In the 1840s most of this distance was spanned by an old wooden covered bridge, the Hofbrucke. Today, the area is Lucerne’s premier lakefront promenade and the site of many of its luxury hotels.

J.M.W.Turner, Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, f.2a. Image source, Tate

In the first sketch (f.2a) the artist turns to look back at the Hotel Swan, with towards the left, the tower of St Peter’s church, the Tour Baghard, the Wasserturm and Mont Pilatus beyond.

Lucerne; Swan hotel and quay. Photograph taken by Professor David Hill, May 2014

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To the right is the Lederturm, demolished in 1848, with Luegisland tower and the Heu (Hay) tower of the city walls in the far distance, right. In the centre foreground is the booking office for the steamboats that plied the lake. The first, the Stadt Luzern was introduced in 1837

Model of first of three paddle steamers to be named Stadt Luzern, the first steamship on the Lake of Lucerne (1837 - 1872). Her hull survived - much modified - until recent times as the bilge tank cleaning vessel Beibo
Model of first steamer, Stadt Luzern. Image feed: Swiss Transport Museum, Lucerne

and that was joined by a second, the St Gotthard in 1843.

Model of Lake Lucerne paddle steamer St Gotthard (1843 - 1872 - hull remains in service
Model of second steamer, St Gotthard/ Image feed: Swiss Transport Museum, Lucerne

We can see the steamboat pier running left from the ticket office and one of the steamers is waiting at the end of the pier. We can perhaps identify the ship in the sketch as the Stadt Luzern, for it has a foremast. In the models at the Swiss Transport Museum, the St Gotthard has no mast.


Steamer off Lucerne. Photograph by Professor David Hill, May 2014

Turner’s viewpoint must be close to the entrance to the Hofbrucke. The City of Lucerne has produced a splendid site devoted to its covered bridges. The Hofbrucke was built in the thirteenth century on piles across the water partly for defence and partly for communication between the old town and St Leodegar’s church, the Hofkirche. Up to the 1830s it provided an almost unbroken passage from the Jesuitkirche on the left bank of the Reuss all the way to the Hofkirche. By the 1840s, however, its demolition had begun in order to provide building land for hotels, and accompanying hard promenade. The first seventy-five metre section at the western end was demolished in 1835 to build the Swan Hotel and the Schwanenplatz. The next hundred meters was removed in 1839 to build a new steamboat quay. A third hundred meters was destroyed in 1845 to build the Schweizerhof hotel, and the remainder followed in 1852. Turner’s sketches record the area’s appearance between 1839 and 1845 with the Schweizerhof section of the covered bridge still in place.

J.M.W.Turner, Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, f.3. Image source, Tate

On the opposite page, f.3, Turner has crossed the bridge to the Hofkirche and gained the shore below the church. Looking back, he now takes in the Swan Hotel and other buildings along the Schwanenplatzquai, together with the array of towers along the Musegg wall. We can trace the line of the Hofbrucke right from the centre of the composition beneath the Lederturm. Unlike in the sketch opposite on f.2a, Mont Pilatus is now outside the left edge of the page frame.

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Lucerne from near the Hofkirche. Photograph by Professor David Hill, May 2014

This a fairly comprehensive survey of the towers and spires of Lucerne and its command of the lake, and Turner decided to develop this towards a finished watercolour.

J.M.W.Turner, Lucerne from the Lake, sample study. Image source, Tate

Turner worked up this colour study as a sample to show to prospective customers. As is frequently the case, the treatment of the architecture is far less diligent than in his pencil sketches. The adumbration of towers, buildings and spires is vague at best and the Hofbrucke is entirely missing, but in his colour studies Turner is always primarily interested in the phenomenal effects. In this case he is principally interested in the way in which the reflections transmit the clear cold darkness of the water, rather than the colour of the buildings.

Lake Lucerne reflections. Photograph by Professor David Hill, May 2014

Exactly the same effect can be observed in my photographs, although the lake was less still than when Turner studied it. This is an effect which seems only to occur when the subject is backlit or otherwise in shade. This photograph was taken at 20.36 (C.E.T)  less than half an hour before sunset behind the buildings to the right. Photographs of the same buildings in sun the following morning show a completely different effect.

Lucerne reflections #2. Photograph taken by Professor David Hill, 26 May 2014, 12.04 CET

Incidentally, the comparison with the pencil sketch shows that the received title of the colour study is wrong. The viewpoint of the sketch is certainly not from the lake, but rather from the shore.


J.M.W.Turner, ‘Lucerne from the Lake’, 1845. Morgan Library, New York.
Image feed from Morgan Library.

The colour study in turn formed the basis of a finished watercolour called ‘Lucerne from the Lake ‘(Morgan Library, New York). It was bought by John Ruskin, and he was quick to include a reference to it in the 1846 re-issue of the first volume of ‘Modern Painters’: [3/552]‘.. a drawing executed in 1845, of the town of Lucerne from the Lake, is unique for its expression of water surface reflecting the clear green hue of the sky at twilight.’ It is perhaps a little surprising that he mistook the true origin of the colour.


Image courtesy of Morgan Library, New York

The watercolour is in many respects more accurate in terms of the architecture than is the colour study and Turner must have returned to the sketch for his detail plus two more sketches on the following page f.3a, which we will discuss in the next part. For now, however we can say of the watercolour that Turner comprehensively reconceptualised the time of day and atmospheric effect of the colour study. Keeping the aquamarine reflections, he set the time of day as dawn. The sun slants in from the left reflecting brilliantly from the Museggmauer, whilst just catching the tops of the towers and spires of the town. The air is thick with light, and the forms of the town and the hills just begin to coalesce through the glare.

Next: From the Hofkirche to the Museggmauer

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