In Turner’s Footsteps between Lucerne and Thun: #22 Lungernsee

Here we continue our journey through Turner’s Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook and arrive at the Lungernsee at the foot of the Brunig Pass. The site left a profound impression on him.

Lungernsee, first glimpse from the train. Professor David Hill, 28 May 2014
Mountains circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Turner recorded his first sight of the lake in a few lines on f. 21v, taken so hastily that he scribbled over part of a previous sketch. For Turner, first impressions were always vital and wherever possible he tried to set something down, no matter how slight.

Kaiserstuhl and foot of Lungernsee. Professor David Hill, 28 May 2014
Mountains circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

As the char made its way alongside the lake he gave a few lines to the view back to the foot of the lake.

By the time that he arrived at Lungern it was probably high time for some dinner and a rest. Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland said of the village: ‘(Inns: Sonne, better than that at Sarnen; Lowe) the last village in the valley, situated at the foot of the Brunig, and at the S end of the lake.. Here the char-road ceases, and the rest of the way must be travelled on foot, or on horse, which are kept here for hire.’ Before that he had serious business to transact with regard to the lake, but that was for the morrow. For the moment he could reflect upon the melee of memories and impressions stored up on the journey from Lucerne.

Apart from Murray’s Handbook, which Turner almost certainly carried with him, the most popular book on the country was Switzerland Illustrated, with views taken by William Henry Bartlett (1809-1854) and text by William Beattie (1793-1875). Published in parts from 1834-1836, and subsequently bound into two volumes, this offered the most extensive and comprehensive visual survey of Switzerland in 108 steel engravings, together with an easily informative and anecdotal text. The two 4to volumes are each the size of a decent hardback novel, and were designed to be portable. It is not impossible that Turner could have carried them with him.

He would have enjoyed Beattie’s account of the last few miles [pp.122-3]

After quitting Sarnen, we advance through a succession of magnificent forest scenery, till we reach the first stage of the Brunig—with Mount Pilate in the rear-when suddenly the delicious lake of Lungern is seen expanding its glittering waters at our feet. This is one of the most exquisite spots in Switzerland–a complete fairy scene; so deep its seclusion-so perfectly beautiful its character–and on three sides embayed by richly wooded mountains or rather mountain summits; for one of its remarkable features is, that it is situated on the mountain-at an elevation of two thousand three hundred and twenty feet-with woody promontories jutting forward into its tranquil surface.

In the distance, the snowy pinnacles of the Schreck, the Well, and Wetter Horns -the giant pinnacles of the Oberland—are seen glowing like gold in the

— evening sun, and, as twilight advances

Far up yon rugged alp the forest heaves-
Fanned by the breath, and flickering in the beam
Of starry skies—a wilderness of leaves ;
Through which, at intervals, the glacier-stream
Leaps forth in silver !

When seen to advantage-such as it now appears from the point selected by Mr. Bartlett-this lake forms a picture “rarely to be matched in beauty, and scarcely to be surpassed in sublimity.” It is in speaking of such scenes as this that “the language of enthusiasm is the language of truth.” The village of Lungern, the last of the canton, contains a good inn, with an air of great order and cleanliness. The houses are faced with small pieces of wood painted to resemble the scales of fish.

Old House at Lungern. Professor David Hill 29 May 2014.

At the hotel he could also have immersed himself in Murray’s account of the Lungernsee. He would have been struck by the contrast:

[On a desktop, right click image for option to open full-size in new tab. Close tab to return to this page.]

There is hardly a more dubious instance of environmental interference in the entire history of Switzerland. Briefly in 1836 it was decided to lower the lake to reclaim land for pasture and cultivation. A team of miners dug a tunnel up from the Kaiserstuhl to a point beneath the lake at the desired level. The likelihood of millions of tons of mud and water breaking through the crust must have lent some urgency to the surveying. At last, a keg of gunpowder was set with sufficient fuse for the tunnel to be cleared and the bottom of the lake breached. The water level was lowered by 18m, or roughly 60 feet.

Turner’s Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, Tate, open at pages 20a-21

In the morning Turner set out make a proper examination of the lake. He began by making his way towards the lake foot, where the effect was most obvious, and filled a blank page spread that he had skipped over in making his sketches around Giswil.

Mountains: Lake of Sarnen circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

His first sketch on the left-hand page of the spread (20v) records the mountains of the Bernese Oberland from the turn in the road below Lungern. Turner’s line is rather hasty, but the small toothed peak in the centre is recognisable as the Wandelhorn (2303m) rising left to the Gerzen (2710m) and ridge of the Schwartzenberg. The ripple of peaks to the left is the trio of Rosenhorn (3689m), Mittelhorn (3704m) and Wetterhorn (3692m). There is no detail to the intervening form, and we might imagine that the detail was bleached out in the glare of morning light. In any case Turner seems to have been interested only in recording a quick impression of the skyline, as if this sketch was merely incidental.

Lungernsee lake foot. Professor David Hill, 28 May 2014
Mountains: Lake of Sarnen circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Turner was making his way towards the lake foot and stopped overlooking the bay about half way down the right bank to make a second quick sketch on the opposite page. When I visited in 2014, I walked through the meadows above the lake and took a photograph from above Turner’s viewpoint, but Google Earth can provide a near-exact comparative from the road.

This page also includes a few lines, trees and the shoulder of a hill, probably the continuation left of the sketch on f.20a, opposite.

Lake, with Mountains. Bargland [Turner] (Bürglen, Lake of Lungern), Etc. circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Once arrived at the lake foot, Turner settled down to make his most considered and controlled sketch for some time, recording the view along the length of the left bank from ‘Burgland’ opposite, to the Oberland summits over the Brunig Pass in the distance. With a more relaxed approach, however, the peculiarity of the much-reduced lake now becomes more obvious in the drawing. The left hand side records a considerable vertical drop from the road to the water. All along the far bank we notice the naked slopes below the former level, and the fact that the ‘P[russian] Blue’ water is now reduced to little more than a puddle. Since 1921 the water level been restored [a different kind of interference – refilled 28m higher – 92 feet – for a hydro-electric scheme] and we must certainly wonder what Turner thought about the condition in which he found it. The least we can say is that he was fascinated enough to have brought with him some larger sheets of paper and his paints and he set to now to record it in watercolour.

His first coloured sketch is a watercolour that was sold at Sotheby’s in London on 6 February 2014 as lot 140. It was initially catalogued as ‘A SWISS LAKE SCENE, POSSIBLY BRIENZ’, but before the sale I completed an article for that identified the subject correctly.

J.M.W.Turner, The foot of the Lungernsee, watercolour, private collection. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s
Foot of the Lungernsee. Professor David Hill, 29 May 2014

The view is taken from the right (eastern) bank of the Lungernsee, near its northern end, and looks north over the lake foot to the ridge of the Kaiserstuhl that dams the lake at this point. The ridge in the far distance is an intermediate ridge that descends towards the Lake of Sarnen. The time of day is morning. The sun illuminates the Kaiserstuhl in the middle distance, the distant ridge beyond, and the tiny church of Burglen on the far shore to the left. The lake itself, and the whole of the valley in which it sits, is still in shade, the sun not yet having risen high enough to shine over the hills to the right. Turner would have known that the distant ridge culminated at its right end with the peak of Mont Pilatus, but it is lost here in morning mist.

It must have seemed quite a shock to someone journeying to the upper reaches of the valley and expecting to find a remote country. The age-softened shores were now a slew of naked rock and mud. The modern equivalent might to set off across some flower-filled Alpine meadow, only to turn the corner and find a huge motorway or High-Speed train construction project in full swing. The figures looking over the wall in the right foreground seem to suggest direct observation or fresh memory, and one of them has heaved themselves up onto the boundary wall to gaze down astonished on the remains of the lake far below.

J.M.W.Turner, The foot of the Lungernsee, Watercolour. Image courtesy of V&A Museum, London

This study provided the basis of a larger studio watercolour at the Victoria and Albert Museum (124-1894). This was begun in 1848 as one of a series of larger watercolours of Swiss subjects, but in the event was left unfinished, possibly due to his waning health. His imagination had lost none of its vigour, however, and he enlarged the scale to enact an epic geodrama of contending light and dark, warm and cold, sunshine and shower. The landscape is being swept by bands of weather, the blue cloud falling upon the slopes and gathering in the lake.  It is almost as if nature is in outrage at what has been done to the lake, and has wrathfully determined to refill it.

Lungernsee and Oberland Mountains from Lake Foot. Professor David Hill, 29 May 2014
J.M.W.Turner, Lungernsee and Oberland Mountains, watercolour. Image courtesy of South African National Gallery, Cape Town.

The Lungernsee yielded two other watercolour sketches. The first is at the South African National Gallery, Cape Town (1517). This records the view from the foot of the lake looking north to the Brunig Pass and Bernese Oberland. The time of day is now afternoon. The sun slants across the mountains from the right, and lights the snowfields of the Wetterhorn, due south from this viewpoint. A thin crescent moon is indicated in the centre. In 2022 a quarter moon passed through south at 17.23 on 2 August and at the same time on 1 September [see website]. As we have seen in precious instalments, Turner noticed the moon making its low summer pass above the mountains at Sarnen the previous day. He also noticed the effect of sunlight slanting through the air above the Sarnersee, and this watercolour gave him the opportunity to record the substance of these phenomena in colour.

J.M.W.Turner, Lungernsee and Oberland Mountains, c.1848. Watercolour. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

The Cape Town sketch formed the basis of another large late watercolour begun about 1848 and also left unfinished. This featured in the recent sale of the collection of Paul G Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, at Christie’s, New York, 9 November 2022, lot 56, where it fetched the enormous sum of $4,620,000. Allen had recognised its importance when he bought it at Sotheby’s in 2007 for £3.604.000. It is curious that both sketch and watercolour were known as ‘Lake Nemi’ until being properly identified by the present author before their exhibition together at Essen in 2001 (nos.186/187). Even though the market has recognised the watercolour’s importance in monetary terms, its aesthetic significance has not yet been fully discussed, I think, in relation to its subject.

In moving from the sketch to the studio watercolour, Turner heightened the sense of tranquillity. He also elaborated the effect of the sun’s rays, and emphasised the underlying dynamic of warmth slanting into the gathering chill. The moon is made more obvious, up to about a third, its crescent given definition by the coolness gathering around it. In the foreground a string of cattle has come down to the lake to drink, and appear more than a little bemused as to how to reach the water.

The mood is elegiac, and by the time that Turner laid in these washes, he was sixty eight, several years had elapsed since he saw the lake, and his days of being able to stand in such scenes were past. His last trip to the Alps was in 1844, and he seems to have been rarely travelled far from home in the last five years of his life. From that perspective the drained bowl of the lake must have taken on a profoundly personal significance.

WilIam Bartlett, Lungernsee. Plate from Switzerland Illustrated, 1836. Image courtesy of the V&A, London

The comparison vividly demonstrates the violence that had been lately wrought upon the lake, but also how far beyond Bartlett had evolved Turner’s imagination and power. There seems no doubt that Turner knew Bartlett’s image. He was always acutely [if not morbidly] sensitive of the work of other artists, and always determined to strive for something more. Bartlett’s views of Switzerland defined the scenery of the country to European consciousness for a generation. Turner would almost certainly have been looking to find something even more remarkable of his own. Indeed we might well say that Turner’s entire Alpine project of the 1840s was an attempt to find imagery that moved beyond the establish visual framework to truly answer to the sublimity of the Alps. Turner was the first to realise something of the sublime potential of Alpine imagery following his tour of 1802. I wrote about that in Turner in the Alps published by John Murray in 1992. By the later 1830s he might well have felt that his achievements had been somewhat usurped by Bartlett’s book, but the truth is that the younger man’s images were little more than popularising variations of the themes that Turner first established. Now he was looking for imagery that realised a sublimity beyond conventional visual tropes.

Lungern, Brunig Pass and Obserland Mountains. Professor David Hill, 29 May 2014
The Brunig Pass from Lungern. Watercolour, Private Collection. Image Fine Art America

The final study in this series is a watercolour in a private collection in the United States, that has not been seen in public since its appearance at Leger Galleries in London in 1968. This has long been called ‘The Brunig Pass from Meiringen’ but, rather, records the Brunig Pass from near the head of the lake at Lungern. The tower of Lungern old church is seen at the left, and a few chalets and barns are scattered across the foreground at the entrance to the village. The viewpoint is roughly where the road makes its last turn from the lake into the village. Turner had made a quick pencil sketch of the Oberland peaks from thereabouts in the Between Lungern and Thun sketchbook (f.20v, above). Now the time of day is evening with the sun catching the north face of the tower and a chalet to the left, whilst the barns in the centre are already in shade. A warm glimmer suffuses the upper slopes of the pass, whilst cooler mists gather in the valley bottom.

J.M.W.Turner, The Brunig Pass from Lungern, 1848. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Like each of the other Lungernsee watercolour studies, this also provided the basis of a large late watercolour begun in 1848, but in this instance the work was carried to completion. The Brunig Pass was last on the market when sold at Christie’s, New York, 28 January 2009 no. 37. It is one of Turner’s most celebrated late watercolours, and is all the more important in that it appears to have been the last commission that he managed to complete.

Traditionally identified as ‘The Brunig Pass from Meiringen’, the view in fact is of the Brunig Pass from the village of Lungern, with the western end of the Lungernsee to the lower right, and the church of Lungern in the middle distance towards the left. The road to the pass can be traced rising diagonally from left to right and over the pass to the right a crescent moon hangs over the distant Swartzhorn (2788m) whilst to the left the peaks of the Bernese Oberland, including the Wetterhorn (3701m), mingle with the clouds. From this viewpoint, Meiringen is on the opposite (west) side of the pass in the Haslithal. The crescent moon is in itself proof of the orientation, since it indicates a westerly view since the moon can only be in this position relative to a setting rather than a rising sun.

The colour is richer and with much deeper blue and green in the right diagonal half than any reproduction can properly render. The handling close up is astonishingly painterly; rubbed, smeared, melded and textured and a riot of intermingled colour. The rust colour below the distant peaks at the right is particularly beautiful. From a distance the handling is suggestive of an infinitude of form and detail, and of deep space and substance.

The watercolour was commissioned by John James Ruskin at the behest of his son, John Ruskin. Andrew Wilton noted in his 1979 catalogue of Turner’s watercolours: ‘Ruskin annotated a letter to him from Turner, dated 13 January 1848, as referring to this and the Descent of the St Gothard. The pair were presumably executed later in 1847 or early in January 1848‘. The letter is dated 13 January 1848 and Turner said that ‘In regard to the mounts for the Drawings I will carry them on their own paper until you have finally fixed’ , which Ruskin annotated ‘to the last drawings executed for me by Turner (The Brunig and the Descent from St Gothard to Airolo)’ published in full in John Gage, The Correspondence of J.M.W.Turner RA, 1980 no.308, (BL Add MS 50119 fo. 70).  Gage gives another letter (no.310, National Library of Scotland MS 590 fo.1631) of Midsummer day 1848 in which Turner replies to John James Ruskin to say ‘Dear Sir/ I have received a Letter from Mr J Ruskin – Dover for a few days and stating that you intended being in Town on the 26th or 27th for Switzerland on Paper and I would be happy to meet your expecting them – the first two Drawings – but having been laid up with a broken Knee-pan I must require your indulgence a few days more – say on or before the 1st of July [and signed]’. Gage 1980 p.220 reports that Ruskin’s father paid 200 gns (ie £210) for the pair in  August 1848. Ian Warrell With Turner through Switzerland, 1995 p.154 gives 12 August, and they were presumably collected as per Turner’s suggestion on or after 1 July. Ruskin was away in Normandy and his father wrote to tell him of the new acquisitions.

Warrell 1995 p.154 quotes Ruskin’s reply at some length. It seems that the father was a little disappointed and thought them expensive. On 24 August Ruskin replied to his father to placate him, and to prevent him doing anything to upset the artist, and to look for the positive in what his father had told him; ‘[B]y your account of the colour, I cannot help hoping much even from Brunig. All Turner’s green and blue drawings that I ever saw were magnificent’ [qu Warrell 1995 p.154]. It is also plain from the letter that the reason Ruskin did not want his father to upset the artist is that other drawings had been bargained for, and Ruskin was still hopeful of getting them: ‘let us… get the rest of our drawings, if possible, as we have got the two, perhaps least agreeable’. This chimes with Turner’s letter of midsummer day in which he describes the drawings as ‘Switzerland on paper.. The first two Drawings..’  Further, from the comments in Ruskin’s letter to his father ‘I daresay Turner will give me the sketches, but I do not care..’ it appears as if the subjects had been selected from sample sketches, in much the same way as Turner had offered earlier Swiss series between 1842 and 1845. The father clearly had some expectation that for 100gns per watercolour, Turner would hand over the sketch as well as the finished watercolour. Given that the sketches for these subjects do not ever seem to have formed part of the Turner Bequest, it seems possible that he did so, eventually.

We may well wonder what it was that provoked Ruskin to place the watercolour with Christie’s on 22 May 1852, only six months after the artist’s death. Perhaps he came to see the artist’s demise too clearly prefigured in it. He also soon parted with its companion, The Descent of the St Gothard, which was in H A J Munro’s collection by 1857. A presale article published by Christie’s in 2008 quotes a report of the present watercolour in The Times for 24 May 1852 calling it ‘one of his later works and most gorgeously tinted’ and also argue that even though it failed to sell, the price realised of 115 gns compares favourably with the 100 gns. That was the artist’s own valuation of the late Swiss watercolours and that it fell just short of Ruskin’s reserve of £130. Christie’s 2008 also quote (from Warrell 1995 p.155) Ruskin writing to his father on 1 June 1852, presumably in response to a post-sale enquiry, to say that ‘The Brunig must not be sold at anything less than 150 it is valuable as Turner’s last watercolour drawing, and done for me. I would rather for the present keep it’.

Ruskin’s feelings about the watercolour oscillated and he finally resolved himself against it as evidence of the artist’s twilight. There is a letter from Ruskin to Ellen Heaton postmarked 5 March 1882 in which he advised on her bids in the forthcoming sale of the collection of Thomas Plint. By that time it had been mistitled:  ‘Splugen is not Splugen but Brunig, it is one of the two last drawings that Turner made. It was made for me. I let Gambart have it for 50 guineas. It is entirely bad – a drawing of dotage.’ At the time of writing Ruskin himself was very much feeling his age, and the recollection of Turner’s demise was very likely too reflexive for contemplation. It may be that in the end Turner’s painterliness came to prefigure the inevitability of dissolution.

In many ways, however, this is Turner at his absolute peak – revelling in his creative potency, his accumulated understanding and knowledge, and his ability to bring this to life in his materials. The details are fascinating: At the lower left is a man on crutches, his legs dressed in emerald green making a contrast with a girl on the opposite side of the road whose stockings (or perhaps petticoats) are also green as if to contrast sprightly youth with crocked old age. Turner might well have been making a wry allusion to his own recent pedestrian incapacity with a broken knee-pan. A crowd is evidently turning out to watch some grand arrival. A horse dynamically bursts out of the dust, but it is hard to make out what exactly is following. In any case the horse represents the perfect figure of dynamic travel and vigorous being in the world. In those terms, perhaps, Turner was reduced to the sidelines, but in artistic terms his imagination was undiminished in its powers of sublime energy and vitality.

Next: Across the Brunig Pass

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