In Turner’s Footsteps between Lucerne and Thun: #25 At Brienz

Continuing our journey through Turner’s Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, the artist here completes his crossing of the Brunig Pass and stays overnight at Brienz. He witnesses effects of evening and morning over the lake, and rekindles memories of his first visit to the town forty years earlier.

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The road from the foot of the Brunig brought Turner to the head of the Brienzersee at Kienholz. Here boats waited to carry travellers onwards across the lake. They would have been a particular boon for those wishing to go directly towards Interlaken. An aquatint by the Swiss artist Joseph Ludwig Blueler dates from around the time of Turner’s visit and shows travellers arriving at the lake shore.

Joseph Ludwig Blueler, Head of Brienzersee from near Kienholz, c.1830
Hand-coloured aquatint 192 x 291 mm (image)
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Turner’s Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, Tate, open at pages 29a-30

Turner’s accommodation in the village of Brienz was less than a mile distant, and he had time to make a few pencil sketches along the remainder of his road. It is difficult to be certain of the exact order in which they were made, but the first is probably that at the centre left of the page spread on which he made his final sketch on his descent from the Brunig.

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Mountains. ?Giessbach and Valley of the Aare [Turner] circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

The sun was setting by the time that Turner arrived at the lake. His first sight records the crags of the Giessbach to the left, with the sun shining directly down the lake, standing over the Niesen (2362m) the rightmost of the twin peaks down the lake, and only a few minutes from setting behind the ridge of the Augstmatthorn.

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

His next filled the blank space on the opposite page of the same spread recording the view down the Brienzersee from the village of Kienholz, where the lake opens up beyond the crags of the Giessbach on the left, to reveal the full length of the Interlaken valley.

The next is the topmost sketch on the following page spread. This is taken from a few hundred metres further along the road, with a still more open view down the lake to include the foot of the lake at Interlaken with the mound of the Ringgenberg Castle in the centre. The Niesen is now partly occluded by the ridge rising to the summit of the Augstmatthorn (2137m). The sketch compresses a very wide field of view from the peaks rising above the Giessbach at the left to the entire Augstmatthorn ridge reaching so far as to overlook Brienz church to the right. The sketch is most remarkable for its annotations in the sky. Sadly, apart from ‘V  R’ towards the left, these are undecipherable. The best we might say is that they appear to indicate colour and effect so we might surmise the time of day to be evening. The shade against the ridge of the Augstmatthorn possibly indicates that the sun was setting behind it. That would be perfectly commensurate with the late September/early October period in which we know he visited the area in 1841.

In that fading light we should give some consideration to where Turner spent the night. Murray (p.82) names only one hostelry at Brienz; ‘Inn: Weisses Kreutz, Croix Blanche, clean’, and says only of the village that it is ‘small.. at the E end of the lake, on a narrow ledge at the foot of the mountain, remarkable only for its beautiful situation.’ The Weisses Kreuz prospers to this day on its site overlooking the boat landing, augmented in 1839 by a steamer service, in 1888 by the railway coming over the Brunig from Lucerne, and in 1892 by the celebrated cog railway to the summit of the Brienzer Rothorn. With the proliferation of transport opportunities, the hotel became a grand tourist hub. It enjoyed at least three new builds but the original chalet survives in use, and seems determined to outlive its successors. A small selection of images may serve to illuminate its appearance in Turner’s day.

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Johan Jacob Wetzel,
Les Auberges a Tracht [Traditional Inns] au Lac de Brienz, c.1806-34
Hand-coloured aquatint, 194 x 276 mm
 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The first is a coloured aquatint by Franz Hegi after the Swiss artist Johan Jakob Wetzel. The example shown here is at the British Museum, where it is dated 1806-1834 but the Helvetic Archive has a copy which it dates to about 1825. We can see that the original chalet at the left has been extended by its mirror image (in the centre) and then at the right by a new large-gabled chalet. It is perhaps a shame that we cannot be more precise about the date, but the latest possible date is 1834 when the artist died.

J Ferber
Gasthof zum Weissen Kreuz in Brienz, c.1840?
Lithograph, image size 104 x 164 mm

The second is a lithograph by J Ferber of Winterthur. This is dated by the site on which it appears as c1840. It shows that the centre chalet was by this time demolished and replaced with the mirror image of that at the right, joined to the original by a new central bock. If the date is correct than this is possibly the building in which Turner stayed. In any case it proved popular and enduring and survived until the 1960s or 70s when it was replaced by the present comfortably modern building.

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Jean Jacottet (1806-1880)
Brienz, Hotel de la Croix Blanche, c.1840?
Burgerbibliothek of Berne

The third is another Swiss lithograph by the artist Jean Jacottet (1806-1880). Again this is undated, but it must postdate the introduction of paddle steamers on the lake in 1839 for we can see one in the distance, heading towards us. The heavy preponderance of traditional lake boats in the foreground, however, suggests that this must be quite soon after the steamer’s introduction. It is almost tempting to start looking for Turner somewhere on the quay.

This was not Turner’s first visit to Brienz. The gable of the old chalet proclaims that Lord Byron stayed there in 1816, but Turner visited in 1802.  I wrote about this tour at book length in Turner and the Alps (George Philip, 1992). I claimed then that the work produced from that tour was the first to picture the true sublimity of Alpine scenery and showed everyone that followed what might be possible. Forty years had passed and Turner had not been back to Brienz. He was twenty-seven then and now in his later sixties. The encounter with his past self must have given pause for reflection.

And so it does for myself. I am surprised, for example, not to have given Brienz more space. When I was writing in 1990, however, I was more interested in the high peaks, glaciers, gorges and cascades. So I chased after views of the Eiger and Jungfrau, Riechenbach and Staubbach. This chimed with Turner’s own priorities, coming to Brienz only after visiting and sketching all the major sights of the Oberland. For me, by and large, the lakeside towns were useful only as departure points for high adventures and challenges. But even as a twenty-seven year old Turner saw the deep significance of the situation of Brienz. As Murray says, albeit briefly, the village stands ‘at the E end of the lake, on a narrow ledge at the foot of the mountain, remarkable only for its beautiful situation’. The ‘only’ seems to be rather superfluous. Apart from its location on safe ground at one end of lake offering a link in a major chain of communication between Bern and Lucerne, and even towards Italy over the Susten and Grimsel passes along the Haslital, its situation is also climatically blessed. Its ledge faces south; its houses are sheltered by a high ridge to the north; it is surrounded by rich alpine pastures, fertile fields, rich woodlands, game from the woods and mountains and fish from the lake. Turner’s major work of Brienz from his visit of 1802 is a comprehensive survey of all those comforts.

The Lake of Brienz, 1809
Watercolour, 388 x 556 mm
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Taken from the front of the Weisses Kreuz, it looks out over the foreshore at Brienz, across the lake to the steep slopes rising to the Faulhorn. The afternoon sunlight streams in from the right, and everyone seems happy to enjoy it, sitting smoking, carousing,  pottering about their business readying boats, or sorting loads for pickup and onward transit. The people seem to be thriving on the situation as well as the pumpkins to the right. Incidentally it is engaging to see the care which Turner devotes to making out a capacious leather travel wallet (see part #24) awaiting the next leg of its journey.

Lake of Brienz, moonlight, c.1809
Watercolour, 277 x 392 mm
Private Collection
Photograph: David Hill

Turner must have been delighted to reacquaint himself with the Weisses Kreuz, especially since it appears to have substantially revamped since he was there in 1802. Looking out onto the quay he would without doubt have reflected on his previous takes on the village. In 1802 he had also been interested in the lake in darkness. Taking a boat on the lake he sketched the view of the church and village from the lake.

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When he came to work this composition up into a finished watercolour, it was in recollection of a rather special occasion. Out on the water he recalls being overtaken by dusk and surprised by the full moon rising over the mountains around the Brunig Pass to the east. There is no obvious sign of this in the pencil sketch, but he used a colour study to allow the effect to re-emerge on his paper. The result is perhaps one of the most magical events amongst all his earlier watercolours. Forty years on, he appears to have been hoping to discover something just as extraordinary.

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

In the morning Turner was once again at the head of the lake near Kienholz, close to the viewpoint of his sketch on ff.30v-31r. The gusto with which Turner handles space in the former contrasts with a second treatment of almost exactly the same material. This much smaller, and squeezed into a blank space remaining at the side of an earlier page in the sketchbook, but it is worth our consideration for its temper seems different. Here Turner is on the shore of the Brienzersee, a little further right of the line of sight of ff.30v-31r, but allows the material to spread out in a relaxed way across the width of the page. There is a sense of calm and expansiveness, quite different from the urgent energy of the other. It is noteworthy that Turner could operate in such differing modes, even with the same material in the same sketchbook. The explanation is here is perhaps not hard to find. In the second sketch the Giessbach crags to the left are in shade, which sets the light in the east, and at the extreme left the north-facing slopes are bathed in ‘Red’ light. The previous sketch was the last of a long hard day on the hoof. It is driven by the focused energy of the determined traveller. That second must have been drawn the following morning, in the temper of a man rested and refreshed and now more adjusted to being in a place than pressing through it.

Lake of Brienz from near Kienholz, sunrise, c.1841
Watercolour, 249 x 365 mm
Manchester City Art Gallery (1917.112) as ‘A Swiss Lake’
Lake of Brienz from near Kienholz, sunrise, c.1841
Watercolour, 249 x 367 mm
Sotheby’s, New York, Old Master Drawings, 27 January 2021, lot 69 as ‘Lake Lucerne at Dusk’

Turner was so impressed with the effect over the lake this morning that he made not just one, but two important watercolours. The first is at Manchester City Art Gallery (1917.12) where currently catalogued as ‘A Swiss Lake’, and the second is in a private collection having been sold at Sotheby’s, New York on 27 January 2021 lot 69 as ‘Lake Lucerne at Dusk’. They may here be newly identified as showing The Lake of Brienz from near Kienholz, and the time of day as sunrise.

Moreover the two watercolours show successive stages of the same sunrise. In the Manchester watercolour the recently-risen sun illuminates the upper slopes of the mountains to the right. In the Sotheby’s watercolour it has risen sufficiently to have just reached the shore. In the Manchester watercolour a full moon stands just left of the peak of the Augstmatthorn, and in the Sotheby’s watercolour it has descended to the right, and is close to setting behind the ridge.

The peak of the Augstmatthorn is almost due west (270 deg) of the viewpoint. In the Manchester watercolour the moon is a degree or so south so 269 deg and in the Sotheby’s watercolour, it is perhaps two degree north of the peak, or about 272 deg. In the Manchester watercolour it is at an elevation of about 14 degrees and in the Sotheby’s watercolour a couple of degrees lower.

The implication is that Turner has carefully observed and noted the changing effect. The first question for me, then, is whether he can actually have observed these events, and moreover to what extent he might have recorded them here in real time.

Astronomical machinations are not to the forefront of everyone’s mind. It should however, be readily appreciable that throughout the year the sun and moon rise and set at varying times, in widely differing parts of the sky, and, given the lunar cycle from full moon to new, in a bewildering variety of combinations. Here, however the sun is rising in the east, more or less down the line of the Haslital to the left, which would set the time of year as equinoctial, that is around 21 March or 21 September. Turner was never at Brienz in March, but he was there in late September or early October in 1841.

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Google Earth: Projected sunrise over the Haslital from summit of Augstmatthorn, 2 October 2023

I will not pretend to have any great expertise in this area, but there are splendid tables at that set out all the requisite information. Suffice it here to say that a completely full moon does not set north of west except in the winter. It is, however, surprising how much difference a day or two can make and in late September/early October a moon two days after full does set appreciably north of west. In 1841 full moon occurred on 30 September 1841 and on 2 October the moon set at 7.58 am in the north-west at 293 deg. On that day the moon stood in the same part of the sky as in the Manchester watercolour at about 6.00 am, just as the sun was rising. On the same day is progressed to its position in the Sotheby’s watercolour about half an hour later. This simply begs for verification. I have embarked on such a madcap quest before (see my adventures at Sisteron in 2014). In 2023 a full moon occurs on almost the same date as in 1841 – 29 September. The synchronisation of sun and moon is not quite the same due to gradual shifts over time, but I hope to be there to see what may transpire. Mrs Hill [and perhaps not only Mrs Hill] will think the whole thing yet another insane, reckless and pointless enterprise. So many things to go wrong: Leaden skies, miscalculation, misadventure, no-one being in the least bothered, Turner simply making it all up. All of the foregoing seem highly likely, except for the last. I am cheered in my quest by at lest one photograph on the internet:

No moon here, but enough to prove the sunlight effect to be accurate. Even if it seems likely that Turner did observe the moon setting over the Augstmatthorn whilst the rising sunlight gradually filled the mountain slopes, there is quite a lot of work to be done to say that he recorded it direct from nature in these watercolours. With an interval between the two phases of perhaps little more than 30 minutes – there are obvious limits to what even the greatest and most experienced watercolourist in the world might achieve. Both watercolours have degrees of elaboration – the jade, viridian and blue overlickings in the Manchester watercolour; the brilliant cobalt of the Sotheby’s watercolour – the boats and figures in each, that seem to have required the underlayers to be dry. The topographical detail of both watercolours could have been derived from the pencil sketch 30v-31r, but the phenomenal particularities are quite unique and specific to their occasion. The Manchester watercolour glimmers with the uncertainty of first light. The distant Niesen is wreathed in grey mists which the sunlight has not yet reached, being still in the shadow of the giant peaks of the Eiger and Jungfrau. Turner traces a very specific line of shadow across the slopes of the Augstmatthorn, and picks out particular details of relief. The Sotheby’s watercolour shows that the sun dispelling the mists beyond Interlaken, although they have not quite yet cleared before the Niesen. The sun has reached the opposite shore to the right, but further along to the left the slopes of the Augstmatthorn are still in shadow. This seems specific and particular, and may be explained by the fact that by late September the sunrise has moved sufficiently north to be delayed until it has climbed high enough to clear the crest of the hills to the left.

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All of this seems so specific as to have been observed and so particular as to have been recorded under the direct impress of the observation. When Ian Warrell wrote about the Sotheby’s watercolour for the sale catalogue in 2021 he suggested that these watercolours both originated in a roll sketchbook. These were paper-covered sketchbooks, most typically of 32 pages, that were flexible enough to be rolled up to be carried when travelling, and Turner’s stock resource for watercolours on his tours of the 1840s. It is beyond the scope of this article, but would certainly be interesting, to attempt to reassemble the original group. Presumably the watercolour studies of the Lungernsee that we have already discussed must be candidates, and we will find other examples in the remainder of the tour to Thun.

At various times in later years, Turner took these sketches and worked them up to show prospective patrons in the hope of eliciting commissions for finished versions. It seems highly possible that Turner revisited both of these for such a purpose. In this light, then, we might admit that, however poetical, it does seem unlikely that the moon would be reflected in the lake as clearly as is apparent here. I will, of course, be completely delighted to be proved wrong if the opportunity to witness it does materialise.

Next: Meiringen and the Haslital

One thought on “In Turner’s Footsteps between Lucerne and Thun: #25 At Brienz

  1. Nice to be down on the ‘other side’ after the exhausting travels so far….jogging interminably along in a car, scribbled shorthand scraps, indecipherable marks and notes, climbing up and over on packhorse tracks – and to be able to compare now the sketches with some of those wonderful watercolours that still provide questions to make you want to set off again, just to see a setting moon – how stimulating can it get. I’m sure there will be tedious paperwork and driving (?) but compensatory cuisine and eventually a meteorological miracle (to be hoped for) at the end. What a memory he must have had – what creative recall – what superlative technical ability (taken so much for granted by so many). Many thanks for your diligence, accumulated experience and knowledge. Times winged chariot and all that – I look forward to your departure for another channel crossing.

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