In Turner’s Footsteps between Lucerne and Thun: #27 Around Meiringen

Here we continue our journey through Turner’s Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook. At the end of the previous instalment the artist arrived at Meiringen. Here we explore the village and take stock of the scenery round about, present and past.

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Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland (p.81) describes Meiringen as ‘the chief place in the vale of Hasli, lies on the rt. bank of the Aar and contains about 700 inhabitants. The picturesqueness of its situation is much praised. Brockedon says, “The vale of Meyringen concentrates as much of what is Alpine in its beauties as any valley in Switzerland. Its precipitous and wooded sides, streaked with white cascades almost without number, and here and there over-topped by some snow-white peak, are indeed beautiful features.’

Gabriel Lory
Les Cascades de Dorfbach et Alpbach a Meyringen, 1822
Coloured aquatint

The old town has a medieval church and streets of grand chalets sheltering just around the corner from the Alpbach torrent and waterfalls. On the higher side of the torrent the road was controlled by a small tower fort, the Restiturm. Its situation at the head of the lower valley served major packhorse routes to the south over the Susten, Grimsel and Furka passes, as well as in the opposite direction over the Brunig Pass to Lucerne, or via the Oberland lakes to Thun and Bern. For the intrepid traveller there was the higher level Gross Scheidegg pass direct to Grindelwald. The village serviced the roads and bridges up dale and down and provided handling services for goods, as well as accommodation for travellers.

Rudolph von Normann, Meiringen 1839, etching 350 x 284 mm
© Trustees of the British Museum 1851,0503.53

Murray lists two inns, the Sauvage which it calls good, and the Bear, but continues ‘Of late, these houses have been, to a certain extent, deserted for the Baths of Reichenbach, situated on the opposite side of the valley. There is another good inn, the Couronne on this side’. Tourism provision was clearly developing apace. Visitors to the area were further stimulated by the publication in 1893 of Conan Doyle’s Final Problem, in which his hero Sherlock Holmes meets his end at the nearby Falls of Reichenbach. Sherlock Holmes is a major industry at Meiringen today, but as we shall see Turner’s work was probably some of the first to impress the site on public consciousness. Of the village that Turner visited, however, there are only a few original chalets surviving, besides the medieval tower of the church. Much of the village seen by Turner was destroyed in two huge fires of 1879 and 1891.

Meiringen 1802 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Meiringen 1802 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
John Robert Cozens (1752-1797)
Valley with winding streams (Looking down the Haslital from above Meiringen) ?1794
Watercolour, 14 ¼ x 20 ¾ ins
London, V&A, Dyce.708

Turner visited Meiringen in 1802 on his first continental tour. He reached it over the Grosse Scheidegg and went on to Brienz. He was introduced to the area through the watercolours of John Robert Cozens, whom he studied as a young man at an informal academy run by Cozens’s physician Dr Thomas Monro. The doctor was a great admirer of his patient’s work and made it available to young landscape artists through study evenings at his London home. Turner made two careful pencil sketches on his first visit, the first looking up the Haslital past the Restiturm, and the second looking town the valley past the church. The latter has a similar background to a watercolour by Cozens at the V&A in London.

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

Arriving at Meiringen some forty years later, Turner recorded his first impression in a quick sketch in the Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook (f.33). This was  taken from the approach to the village with the Alpbach falls above left of the church and the Restiturm to the right. On the ground today it is difficult to find a vantage point that exactly corresponds to the sketch, even allowing for new development and the fact that the left-hand fall, the Dorfbach, was entirely piped away in 1889 to generate electricity. The parallax of church and falls argues a viewpoint some way back [the tip of the church spire can just be seen at the centre of the photograph above, peeping over the white building] but the relationship of the falls and the background hills implies a viewpoint somewhat nearer. It seems possible that Turner was actually on the move as he drew. Perhaps he hired a char for the journey. In any case he must have arrived at Meiringen well before midday and given that he started at Lake Brienz at sunrise, it might yet have been mid-morning.

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

He seems barely to have paused in Meiringen but pressed straight through the village to te banks of the Alpbach torrent to take a good look around at his surroundings. His first sketch looks up the torrent to the three falls above Meiringen, the Dorfbach to the left with the church spire at its foot, the Alpbach a little to the right,  the Milibach in the centre and the Restiturm towards the right. He continued the view left down the north flank of the Haslital in a detail upside-down at the top of the page. As often, Turner noticed a figure passing through his field of view as he sketched. He had very possibly been sensitised to the human dimension of his landscape by Murray’s Guide (p.82) ‘The men of Hasli are celebrated for their athletic forms and strength.. The women, again, enjoy the reputation of being prettier, or rather less plain than those of most other Swiss valleys. Their holiday costume is peculiar and not ungraceful, consisting of a bodice of thick velvet, reaching up to the throat, starched sleeves, a yellow petticoat, and a round, black hat, not unlike a soup-plate, and about the same size, stuck on one side of the head, and allowing the hair to fall in long tresses down the back.’

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

From not far distant, a little higher up the left bank of the Alpbach, Turner swung around to the right on the opposite page (34r) to take in the view of the head of the valley. The material effectively continues that of f.33a to the right, with the Restiturm at the left edge of the field of view, continuing across the mouth of the Aare gorge (Aareschlucht) with the now-familiar wedge of the Pfaffenchopf above and the peaks around the Diechterhorn closing the higher reaches of the valley.

Mountains: Falls of the Reichenbach circa 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Mountains circa 1830-41 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Gaining as much height as possible on the banks of the Alpbach, Turner completed this sequence in the sketchbook with a view across the valley to the Reichenbach falls. From a sufficient elevation it is possible to bring the Klein Wellhorn into full view, framed in the upper Reichenbach valley.  He was sufficiently pleased with this view to draw another version of it on one of his sheets of grey paper. This appears to be taken from a little further left, perhaps near the Restiturm, but it is a little hard to see quite how Turner could bring the Klein Wellhorn – indicated in white chalk – to such a height in relation to the craggy bluff on the left side of the Reichenbach valley above the falls.

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In making these sketches Turner must have remembered his first visit in 1802. On that occasion his principal objective had been the falls of the Reichenbach. In the early years of the nineteenth century it did not have anything like the celebrity that Sherlock Holmes gave it. Turner was probably drawn to it through the work of John Robert Cozens who had visited the area in 1778. Turner copied a Cozens watercolour of the subject when he was about twenty. He was twenty- seven at the time of his visit to the Reichenbach and two years later he painted one of the most astonishing of all his early watercolours, The great fall of the Riechenbach [sic] in the valley of Hasle, Switzerland, now at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery in Bedford. Without exaggeration this can be claimed to have made all previous treatments of such a subject appear dull. A few years later he developed a second take on the subject, this time immersing the viewer in both the subject and the effect. These works were seen only rarely in public, but were nonetheless renowned amongst artists and devotees of the Alps. It is perhaps not too much to claim that Turner’s work shaped consciousness of Alpine scenery for a whole generation.

These two sketches in the Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook and on grey paper, however, are as close as he got to the falls on this latter visit. It is as if he thought that his work with the subject in the earlier watercolours was complete. Now in his late sixties he was looking for something in completely fresh site. His objective now was the Aareschlucht.


I am grateful to Mr Walter Schmid of the Haslimuseum at Meiringen for much useful information relating to Meiringen and its surroundings.

For the museum website see:

Museum der Landschaft Hasli – Website Haslimuseum

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