In Turner’s Footsteps between Lucerne and Thun: #5 Lucerne from near the Hofkirche

Here we continue to explore the sketches in Turner’s Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, completing an excursion along the lake front from the Swan Hotel to some distance east of the Hofkirche. These sketches form the basis of a studio watercolour painted in 1845, from which we might infer that the visit was Turner’s last to Switzerland in 1844.

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

There are three sketches on f.3a. The main sketch is taken from a viewpoint further along the Hofkirche shore than the previous sketch on f.3. The area is now the splendid promenade of the Nationalquai, and backed by a parade of fine hotels and apartments. In Turner’s day it was still largely undeveloped and his sketch brings in a clear view of the Hofkirche at the right.  In the distance we can see (from left to right) the Jesuitenkirche (at the very edge of the page), the Tour Baghard, the Swan Hotel, the Lederturm (demolished 1848), the Hofbrucke with the towers of the Musegg wall beyond, with the Hofkirche closing the view to the right. The panorama is continued to the left in a sketch top left to include the remainder of the Jesuit Church, the Kapellbrucke and the Wasserturm. At the top right is a quite separate sketch taken from an even more easterly point on the shore, now taking a wider viewpoint still to take in Mont Pilatus to the left, and panning left to include the arch of the Musegg wall.  Finally we might note the detail near the middle of the top edge of the steamer just setting out on its journey across the lake, its plume of smoke rising towards the peak of Mont Pilatus.

Pilatus and Lucerne from the Nationalquai. Photograph by Professor David Hill, May 2014

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The sequence of sketches that begins at the Swan Hotel is typical of Turner’s methodical approach to topography. By recording the same elements at intervals he captures their shifting parallax and hence their three-dimensional relationship. The most striking progressive development is in the relationship of the town to its background mountains. As he retreats they rise into greater prominence in the background. Most tellingly, Mont Pilatus, which is directly over the Wasserturm in the first of the sequence on f.2, progressively shifts its relative position to the left, so that it exits the left side of the page by the time that he reaches the vicinity of the Hofkirche in f.3.

The final sketch top right on f.4 shows how far left it truly lies by the time that he reached his furthest viewpoint.

As discussed in relation to the previous page-spread, this series of sketches provided the basis of a watercolour called ‘Lucerne from the Lake’ painted in 1845.

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

The architectural details are better in all of the pencil sketches than in the finished watercolour, but comparison suggests that the sketches on the present sheet were his principal reference for the watercolour. Eliding the Hofkirche from the main sketch gives exactly the same distance, rhythm and interval of spire and tower.

The watercolour’s first owner was John Ruskin, who referred to it at least twice in his writings, the first time, as we saw in the previous instalment, with regard to the reflections, and subsequently to discuss Turner’s treatment of the profile of Mont Pilatus.

Turner does not seem to have devoted much care to sketching the profile of Pilatus in any of the current haul of sketches, but he certainly learned that it did not actually form a backdrop to the city from this distant viewpoint. Ruskin made several visits to Lucerne, and it comes, at least at first, as something of a surprise to discover that he does not seem himself to have registered this state of affairs.

So whilst Ruskin could see that the profile of the hill in the watercolour did not very closely match that of Pilatus in fact, looking more closely at the original he could make out in the underdrawing a pencil indication of a peak which Turner did not follow with washes of colour. This he took to be Turner’s correct drawing of the profile, which the artist then supressed in order to express a superior aesthetic insight into the crescendo effect in nature’s utterance of the character of crests.

The reader can hardly fail to enjoy Ruskin’s description and illustrations of this process in the fourth volume of Modern Painters Vol.4, [1854, pp.272, 306-7; see below]. In this volume more than any other Ruskin set out his wonderfully sublime concept of Turner, namely that his artistic has an uncanny ability to slough through facile appearance to attune itself to the deeper truths of natural form.

Turner certainly did enough with his suggestions of hills in this watercolour to permit the viewer to imagine the presence of Pilatus glimmering into view through the light. And when Ruskin visited Lucerne in 1846, common appearance conspired to do nothing to dispel that perception. He stayed at the Swan Hotel from Saturday 29 August to Friday 4 September, including four full days, plus the days of arrival and departure. It rained for almost the entire time. It rained so hard that the lake rose and flooded the town; water was pouring in the door of the hotel by the time they left. The upshot was that he did not once see any of the mountains clearly, least of all, an out-of-place Pilatus.

Pilatus from the Nationalquai, dusk. Photograph by Professor David Hill, 25 May 2014. 21 17 CET.

Next: A walk along the Museggmauer.


Ruskin’s remarks on Pilatus in Modern Painters, IV.


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