In Turner’s Footsteps between Lucerne and Thun: #20 Jolting by Sachseln

Here we continue our journey through the pages of Turner’s Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook. In the previous instalment the artist set out from Sarnen with the sun descending behind the hills to the west. Here he progresses by char towards the head of the lake passing through the village of Sachseln.

Turner’s Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, Tate, open at pages 18a-19

This page spread contains two sketches of the lake and mountains taken on the road from Sarnen.

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Mountains circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D33167

The first records the lake from the point at which the road crest a small rise and opens up an expansive view to the head of the lake. As with the previous spread he records shafts of sunlight spilling onto the water over the horizon to the right.

Mountains. Saxtin [Turner] (?Saxeten or Sachseln) circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D33168

The second is taken from a few hundred yards further on, where the village of Sachseln [inscribed [‘Sax Sinl’] comes clearly into view. We can make out the tower of the church to the left. Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland would have informed Turner that the church is a place of some celebrity, being the final resting place of St Niklaus von Flüe (1417 – 1487) a farmer from nearby Flüeli who through visions became a hermit monk in the nearby Melchertal. He managed, it is said, to live without food for nearly 20 years, but attained fame through stern and sage advocacy for peace between belligerent comrades in the fragile Swiss confederacy.

Mountains. Saxtin [Turner] (?Saxeten or Sachseln) circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D33168

The page also contains (upside down in relation to the main sketch) three detail studies of church towers. These were presumably snatched from the moving char, and are so rough as to defy positive identification, and some, if not all, may be out of sequence. That at the top left could be St Thodulkirche at Sachseln, as might that at the bottom edge, but the tower in between is most likely that of the old church at Lungern.

Turner’s Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, Tate, open at pages 19a-20

The next page (19v) contains a rough sketch of a church with mountains behind.

Mountains: Lake of Sarnen circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D33169

This seems likely to have been intended to record St Thodulkirche as the char passed through the bottom of the square at Sachseln, but if so, it was taken without stopping, giving time only to take a fleeting glimpse of the scene and then scribble it down as best he could from memory. This is an issue that is perhaps worth a longer pause for thought than we can give it here. An artist cannot [except with some optical gadgetry] look at the subject and the paper at the same time, so is always drawing from memory.

Turner recognised that this can be both a strength and a weakness. It is a poor way to record specific formal detail, such as of architecture or the profiles of mountains, but perfectly suited to effects of colour and light, or sensations, or the more general feeling of a space. At this stage of his career Turner was much more concerned with the latter. The rest could always be checked from more prosaic sources. The camera has rather made us forget that formal particulars are not the only are source of visual significance. Indeed the camera can impute significance to almost any particularity at which it might be pointed.

As the char progressed on from Sachseln, the view behind opened up across the foot of the lake towards Mont Pilatus and the Stanserhorn.

Mountains: Lake of Sarnen circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D33170

The brief halt at Sachseln station was the closest I came to this view, but H.reudi von buren has posted a much more sublime photograph on Google Earth.

Sarnersee, links Pilatus-rechts Stanserhorn

Turner had slightly more leisure to observe his subject, but still an unsteady surface on which to draw. Nonetheless his profiles make the mountains recognisable. In truth, however, the view in itself is relatively plain, and is generally only enlivened by effect. On a clear summer evening the Stanserhorn would be bathed in evening light, and the sun glinting on the peak of Pilatus. Even with only the pressure of his pencil at his disposal, and the lurching page of his sketchbook, Turner manages to leave himself a reminder of the moment, with the firmer touch of the pencil around the peak.

Mountains: Lake of Sarnen circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D33170

Next: Giswil and the Kaiserstuhl

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