I am pleased to report that Sublimesites has received a second commission from the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation. This will fund site research in May into the topography of a wonderful later painting by Turner of Heidelberg.
I have always loved the extraordinary crowd, gathered as if at some prototype of Glastonbury to celebrate a great solstial event. More recently it has occurred to me that the topography requires some serious consideration. It may all turn out to be rather deeper than anyone has hitherto suspected! More (potentially much more) anon..
Sponsored by the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation
This article gives some thought to a major painting by J.M.W.Turner, Rome from Mount Aventine, sold at Sotheby’s, London, on 3 December 2014 for £30.3m. Most previous accounts have accepted its topography more-or-less at face value: It turns out to be intriguingly deviant.
I spent most of my teaching career extolling the imperative of drawing. Not altogether for artistic purposes; rather because drawing is simply the best of all possible ways of getting to understand what one is seeing. In fact, without drawing, many of my students appear not to have seen what was in front of them at all! We might stand before a river bridge, with buildings on either hand and figures in various situations. But later if I asked what was the bridge like? How many arches did it have? What were the buildings like? How many storeys? How many windows; What decoration did they have? How many figures; What were the people wearing? What were they doing? They had no idea. But if they spent some time describing what they were seeing; then they were better; if they spent some time drawing; then unerring.
Turner is perhaps one of the most thorough-going exponents ever of the principle of understanding through drawing. Rome was a particularly important subject for him, so it was something of an occasion for Turner’s astonishing painting of Rome from Mount Aventine to be exhibited at Sotheby’s in London before it was auctioned on 3 December 2014. The fact that it fetched a world record price for the artist of £30.3 million pounds seems on reflection little enough. As extraordinary a price as that plainly is, it was surely good value. Although it is the second most expensive old master ever sold, after a Rubens, it doesn’t even make the top twenty top prices overall for works of art, all of which are modern or contemporary. Considering the prices fetched by Francis Bacon or Picasso, Rome from the Aventine looks like the bargain of the decade.
I do have to say that in seeing the painting again, I found it quite perplexing. For despite the fact that Turner devoted considerable care in sketching the view, the painting presents numerous problems in relation to its topography. Despite producing a (very beautiful) special catalogue for the painting, and making some feature of the detail in the panorama (albeit with some errors), Sotheby’s does not remark upon the fact (nor it seems, anyone previously) that Turner departs from his own topographic and architectural knowledge in quite major ways. An expert on Rome might easily conclude that Turner had a poor knowledge of the city and its buildings. In fact he had the highest quality of information in his sketches. Sublimesites is dedicated to the principle that topography matters: The fact that he used it loosely here is provoking, but at the very least we have to proceed from the fact that it was deliberate and intentional.
Sotheby’s 2014 catalogue gives a detailed context for the painting. It was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 as No.144 called ‘Rome from Mount Aventine.’ It was bought by Turner’s important later patron H.A.J. Munro of Novar (1794-1864) and was catalogued in that collection in 1865 as ‘No.121 View from Mount Aventine. Painted by Mr Turner for Mr Munro, on the spot’. This was repeated when the picture was sold from the collection at Christie’s on 6 April 1878, lot 98 as ‘Rome: View from Mount Aventine, 36 x 49 in. Painted for Mr. Munro on the spot. Exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1836’. Pretty much every modern commentator has dismissed out of hand the literal possibility of it being painted on the spot, although it is generally agreed that it was probably begun in Rome in 1828. It is the only one of the thirteen Turner paintings listed in the 1865 catalogue for which an on-the-spot origin is claimed.
Walter Thornbury gave further details in his biography of Turner published in 1862: ‘When Mr Munro gave Turner a commission for a view of modern Rome from a fine point that included the Tiber and some of the chief antiquities, the artist employed some time in looking for the place indicated, surprising Sir Charles Eastlake, who was with him by his anxiety to discover some particular spot. He had been particularly anxious as to what Mr Munro wanted – “a copy” or an ideal picture. A ‘copy’ was asked for, and a copy he did; so faithful, indeed, has the painter been in this beautiful picture, that he has, even at some peril to his success, introduced in the left-hand foreground a long monotonous row of modern houses; but these he has so cleverly varied with slant shadows, that they become pleasing, and lead on the eye to where it should go – the matchless distance.’
Thornbury tends to be somewhat journalistic with his information, and it is wise to be wary of accepting anything that he says at face value, but he did take information from Munro, who was still alive when the book was published. Taking this together with the comments in the Munro catalogues, which must have come direct from the collector, we have at the very least to infer that the painting was a commission – Munro’s catalogue says that it was painted for him – and that there was some substantive circumstance that caused him to say that the commission was executed ‘on the spot’.
Turner sketched in the area twice, in 1819 and 1828. His Roman sketches were studied systematically in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Cecilia Powell, first for her PhD thesis at the Courtauld Institute (1984) and then for her book Turner in the South (Yale University Press, 1987). They have recently been resurveyed by Nicola Moorby for the Tate’s new online catalogue of the Turner Bequest. This is as yet a work in progress and to date only Moorby’s treatment of the 1819 sketches has been published: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/first-italian-tour-r1132344#synopsis Sotheby’s 2014 catalogue reproduces the 1828 sketches that are most closely related to the painting, but does not give the kind of detailed topographic consideration that characterises Powell’s and Moorby’s approach. Nor does it consider any of the 1819 sketches, nor any other sketches in the vicinity whether of 1819 or 1828. This is exactly the kind of grounding that Sublimesites enjoys most in considering its topics, so let us take a circumambulatory approach to Turner’s viewpoint, before clambering up the hill to take a proper look at what there is to see.
Mount Aventine is the southernmost of Rome’s seven hills, with low cliffs looking over the Tiber on its western flank where terraces give onto a panorama that stretches from Trastevere and St Peter’s, over the river and Ponte Rotto to the old city crowded with domes and campaniles, and on to the Capitoline Hill and Forum. It is perhaps surprising that Sotheby’s did not offer us a photograph of the view as it is today. Thanks to the sponsorship of the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation I was able to make the trip to Rome in April 2015 and to follow exactly in Turner’s Aventino footsteps. The British School in Rome negotiated access for me to the terrace of the Instituto Nazionale di Studi Romani and permission to photograph the view as it is today.
Turner made hundreds of sketches in Rome in 1819, and one strong impression given by the sketchbooks of that year is how systematically he walked around the city looking for panoramas. He seems to have taken in the Aventine at least twice.
One excursion is documented in the Rome and Florence sketchbook (TB CXCI) recording a walk south from the old city, stopping at Tiber Island and taking views down the river past the island to the Aventine (2, 3, 4) and the port quay of the Ripa Grande on the right bank (5, 5a), working his way south looking for a panorama of the city. In passing along the riverside below the Aventine he stopped to make a sketch of the view back to the Ponte Rotto, Temple of Hercules Victor (called ‘Temple of Vesta’ by Turner and until recently) and the Capitol from more-or-less exactly the same angle of view as in the painting (4a), but rather more restricted in its scope because of the lower angle of view.
Click on any image below to open a gallery of drawings from the Rome and Florence sketchbook (TB CXCI):
J.M.W.Turner Isola Tiberina, Rome, with the Ponte Cestio, 1819 From the Rome and Florence sketchbook, TB CXCI 2 Page size, 113 x 189 mm Photo courtesy of Tate Click on the image to enlarge To see the image in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest, click on the following link, and press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:
The Isola Tiberina, Rome, from the Ponte Garibaldi Photograph by David Hill, taken 12 April 2015, 14.12 GMT To the left is the Ponte Fabricus, the oldest surviving bridge in Rome, and to the rights is the Ponte Cestio. The latter was rebuilt with three even arches in the 1880s. Beyond it is the campanile of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, with, just to the left, the circular so-called Temple of Vesta, now identified as the Temple of Hercules Victor. Turner’s sketches were taken from the left bank of the river for the Ponte Garibaldi was built much later in 1884-88. The new bridge was part of an extensive programme of embankment and flood defences during which the old riverside mills shown in Turner’s sketches were removed.
The Ponte Rotto and Ponte Palatino from the Ponte Fabricus, Rome Photograph by David Hill taken 12 April 2015, 15.00 GMT At the end of the Isola Tiberina is the one remaining arch of the Ponte Rotto, and beyond that the Pomte Palatino built 1886-90 backed by Mount Aventine. The photograph is taken from exactly the same viewpoint as Turner’s sketch TB CXCI 4, but the campanile of Santa Maria in Cosmemdin and the circular Temple of Hercules Victor are hidden behind spring foliage beyond the left abutment of the Ponte Palatino.
A second excursion in the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook (TB CLXXXII) documents Turner walking out of the old city past Mount Aventine, again looking for a panorama over the city. On this occasion he started with a sketch of the Temple of Hercules Victor (37a), continued with a view from the end of the Ponte Rotto, looking up the Tiber to the Ponte Cestio (41), and made detailed sketches from the southern foot of the Aventine along the river with the Ripa to the right and the Temple of Hercules Victor and Capitoline in the distance (41a) before taking the view from a more elevated vantage point on the northern slopes of the Aventine (42a-43,44). Turner’s exact viewpoint is halfway up the Clivo di Rocca Savella which climbs up the northern slope of the Aventine from the river. At this time this was the only publically accessible viewpoint on the Aventine. Today a much better vantage point is offered in the Giardino degli Arancio at the top of the hill. This only became a public park, however in 1937, so Turner had to make do with the lower viewpoint. The cobbled street is flanked by walls but it is still possible to appreciate how the view opens up St Peter’s to the left with the whole of the old city and the distant crest of Monte Mario across the Ponte Rotto to close with the Capitoline Hill and the Torre Milizie to the right. He laid this down with quite some care, certainly sufficiently so to provide him with the basis of a finished composition had he found the occasion.
Click on any image below to open a gallery of drawings from the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook (TB CLXXXI):
The Temple of Portunus, Campanile of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and Temple of Hercules Victor, Rome. Photograph by David Hill taken 12 April 2015, 14.41 GMT Taken from the same viewpoint as Turner’s sketch TB CLXXXII 37a. It is not the most obvious view in the vicinity today, as the temples are somewhat hemmed in by shrubbery. Turner would no doubt have enjoyed the bathetic detail of workmens’ facilities in the foreground.
The Temple of Hercules Victor, Rome Photograph by David Hill taken 12 April 2015, 14.42 GMT This circular temple is a landmark in many of Turner’s sketches in the Aventine area. In Turner’s day (and until recent years) it was called the ‘Temple of Vesta’, and was depicted by very many artists as an archetypal Roman structure. Today it is stranded on an island between half a dozen lanes of streaming traffic.
Looking up the river Tiber over the Ponte Rotto to Tiber Island from the Ponte Palatino, Rome Photograph by David Hill taken 12 April 2015, 14.44 GMT Taken from the same line of sight as Turner’s sketch TB CLXXXII 41. Turner’s actual viewpoint is at the end of the Ponte Rotto, but is not accessible today. It is noteworthy that Turner restricted himself to the Ponte Cestio in his sketch, when the Ponte Fabricus is as much a feature from this viewpoint. The Ponte Rotto obscures the Ponte Cestio in this shot, which opens to view to the left of the Ponte Rotto in the next photograph.
The Ponte Cestio from the Ponte Palatino, Rome. Photograph by David Hill taken 12 April 2015, 14.49 GMT This photograph shows more-or –less the same field of view as Turner’s sketch TB CLXXX!! 41. The Ponte Cestio was rebuilt in the 1880s in its present form. Turner’s sketch was actually taken from the end of the Ponte Rotto, which is slightly further left but the exact viewpoint is no longer accessible
J.M.W.Turner The Porto di Ripa Grande, Rome, 1819 From the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook, TB CLXXXI 41a Page size, 113 x 189 mm Photo courtesy of Tate Click on the image to enlarge To see the image in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest, click on the following link, and press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-the-porto-di-ripa-grande-rome-d15373
The Ripa Grande, River Tiber and Mount Aventine from the Ponte Sublicio, Rome. Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 April 2015, 15.42 GMT Turner’s sketch TB CLXXXI 41a was taken from the left bank of the Tiber, for the campanile of the Palazzo del Senatore on the Capitoline Hill can only be seen from there. When I visited the view of the Capitoline was obscured by spring leaves. In Turner’s day there was no bridge. The present Ponte Sublicio was built in 1918.
The Clivo di Rocca Savella, Rome Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 April 2015, 16.15 GMT This street leads up the northern scar of Mount Aventine from the river. In Turner’s day it appears to have been the only publically accessible elevated view over Rome from this area.
Rome from the Giardino degli Aranci, Mount Aventine Photograph by David Hill taken 11 April 2015, 16.21 GMT The Giardino degli Aranci, or Parco Savello as it is also called, was created as a public park and belvedere in 1937. It commands one of the best panoramas in modern Rome and provides a calm retreat under its orange trees. In Turner’s day there was no public access to these gardens and he had to be content with sketching the view in TB CLXXXI 42a-43, 44 from the cobbled roadway below, the Clivo di Rocca Savella. At the centre of this photograph the domes of San Carlo Catinari (nearer) and Santa Andrea della Valle (further away) are directly in line, with San Carlo perfectly hiding Santa Andrea. In Turner’s sketch Santa Andrea comes out slightly to the right. In his later sketch from Santa Alessio, (see below) Santa Andrea comes out clear to the left.
Yet another group of sketches in the area can be found in the St Peter’s sketchbook (TB CLXXXVIII). This includes a repeat sketch of the Isolo Tiberina (51), two careful sketches of the Ponte Rotto (52, 52a), a careful study looking up to the cliff-top churches of the Aventine from the right bank of the Tiber (56) and a series of sketches again exploring the distant view of the city from the south (54a et seq). Click on any image below to open a gallery of drawings from the St Peter’s sketchbook (TB CLXXXVIII):
J.M.W.Turner Ponte Rotto, Rome, 1819 From the St Peter’s sketchbook, TB CLXXXVIII 52a Page size, 114 x 189 mm Photo courtesy of Tate Click on the image to enlarge To see the image in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest, click on the following link, and press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-ponte-rotto-rome-d16250
Mount Aventine from the Ponte Palatino, Rome Photograph by David Hill, taken 12 April 2015, 16.20 GMT Turner seems to have been scanning the mount for possible viewpoints. His final viewpoint is on the terrace to the right, under the umbrella pines.
One final sketch in the area is a study in the Rome: C Studies sketchbook, TB CXC 37, recording the view from the Ponte Cestio, looking down the Tiber to the Ponte Rotto, with Palatine Hill beyond.
So when Turner returned to Rome in 1828 he brought with him a thorough prior knowledge of the Mount Aventine area, already filed away in a stock of excellent sketches. In revisiting the area, his first thought was to retrace his own earlier footsteps. These sketches were not recognised as Rome in the original catalogue of the Turner Bequest, and although correct identifications will no doubt be made independently when Nicola Moorby’s survey of the 1828 material appears in the Tate’s new online catalogue of Turner’s sketches and drawings, it is worth giving them a first airing here since they demonstrate the informed consciousness with which he approached the Aventine in 1828.
One of the sketchbooks that Turner used in 1828 is a small marbled notebook with a red leather spine cloth called the Rimini to Rome sketchbook (TB CLXXVIII). He filled this on his way south with sketches at (for example) Bologna, Rimini and Loreto, but in a quite a loose way, leaving numerous blank pages. So when he arrived in Rome he started from the back to work his way through the book filling up the blank versos. His first thought was for the Aventine, and he made his way towards it from the old city pausing at several of his previous viewpoints as he went.
His first sketch was of the Ponte Cestio, looking up the Tiber from the end of the Ponte Rotto (55-54a) which he had sketched in 1819 (TB CLXXXII 41). Secondly he sketched the view to the Aventine from near the Temple of Vesta (54-53a) again returning close to the viewpoint of an 1819 sketch (TB CLXXXVIII 56). Thirdly he sketched the view up the Tiber with the Ripa Grande to the left, from the corner of the terrace of the Chapel of the Knights of Malta (53-52a), finding a more inclusive view on this occasion than on his previous visit in 1819 (TB CXCI 5a). Next he sketched the view up the Tiber from the riverside below the Aventine (52-51a) finding a better angle than his earlier treatment TB CLXXXII 41a, moving a few yards further to the right so as to open up the view of the Ponte Rotto. He continued reacquainting himself with the area by sketching on the Ripa Grande, looking up to the Aventine (51-50a), revisiting the neighbourhood of an 1819 sketch TB CLXXXVIII 56, but from further down the quay, nearer to the Lighthouse built in 1814-15, which appears to the right of the sketch. He finished his survey with an overview of the Aventine and Ripa Grande from the south (49-48a), not quite so far back as the distant sketches that he had made in 1819 (eg TB CLXXXVIII 54a). Click on any image below to open a gallery of drawings from the Rimini to Rome sketchbook (TB CLXXVIII):
J.M.W.Turner View up the Tiber to the Ponte Cestio and Isola Tiberina, from the end of the Ponte Rotto, 1828 From the Rimini to Rome sketchbook, TB CLXXVIII 54a, hitherto called ‘Bridge, with Town’ Page size, 97 x 132 mm Photo courtesy of Tate Click on the image to enlarge To see the image in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest, click on the following link, and press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-bridge-with-town-d14930
The Ponte Cestio from the Ponte Palatino, Rome. Photograph by David Hill taken 12 April 2015, 14.49 GMT This photograph shows more-or –less the same field of view as Turner’s sketch TB CLXXX!! 41. The Ponte Cestio was rebuilt in the 1880s in its present form. Turner’s sketch was actually taken from the end of the Ponte Rotto, which is slightly further left but the exact viewpoint is no longer accessible
J.M.W.Turner View down the Tiber to Mount Aventine, 1828 From the Rimini to Rome sketchbook, TB CLXXVIII 54, hitherto called ‘Harbour, with Town on Hill’ Page size, 97 x 132 mm Photo courtesy of Tate Click on the image to enlarge To see the image in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest, click on the following link, and press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-harbour-with-town-on-hill-d14929
Mount Aventine from the Ponte Palatino, Rome Photograph by David Hill, taken 12 April 2015, 16.20 GMT Turner seems to have been scanning the mount for possible viewpoints. His final viewpoint is on the terrace to the right, under the umbrella pines.
J.M.W.Turner Rome and the Ripa Grande from Mount Aventine, in front of the Chapel of the Knights of Malta, 1828 From the Rimini to Rome sketchbook, TB CLXXVIII 53-52a, hitherto called ‘Harbour, with Town on Hill’ Page size, 97 x 132 mm Photo courtesy of Tate Click on the image to enlarge To see the image in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest, click on the following link, and press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-harbour-with-town-on-hill-d14927
Chapel of the Knights of Malta, from Ponte Sublico, Rome Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 April 2015, 15.43 GMT Turner was obviously trying to work out some way of getting a view from the terraces of the Aventine. It is quite frustrating from this angle. All of the terraces in Turner’s day were private (most still are) and there is in any case no direct access up onto the Aventine from this corner.
J.M.W.Turner The Ponte Rotto, Rome and the Capitoline Hill, from below Mount Aventine, 1828 From the Rimini to Rome sketchbook, TB CLXXVIII 52-51a, hitherto called ‘Views of Town. Rimini [Turner]’ Page size, 97 x 132 mm Photo courtesy of Tate Click on the image to enlarge To see the image in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest, click on the following link, and press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-views-of-town-rimini-turner-d14925
Towards the Ponte Rotto from beneath Mount Aventine Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 April 2015, 16.10 GMT
J.M.W.Turner Mount Aventine from the Ripa Grande, 1828 From the Rimini to Rome sketchbook, TB CLXXVIII 51-50a, hitherto called ‘Town on Hill’ Page size, 97 x 132 mm Photo courtesy of Tate Click on the image to enlarge To see the image in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest, click on the following link, and press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-town-on-hill-d14923
J.M.W.Turner Mount Aventine from downstream of the Ripa Grande, 1828 From the Rimini to Rome sketchbook, TB CLXXVIII 49-48a, hitherto called ‘Town’ Page size, 97 x 132 mm Photo courtesy of Tate Click on the image to enlarge To see the image in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest, click on the following link, and press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-town-d14919
Turner’s research allowed him to work out that the best panorama of Rome would be from the string of churches that occupied the cliff edge of the Aventine. From north to south these are Santa Sabina, Santi Alessio e Boniface and the Chapel of the Knights of Malta. It seems plain that he was working out his optimal viewpoint in the sketches from below such as TB CLXXVIII 51-50a, where the Campanile of Santi Alessio and Boniface stands on the centre skyline of the left-hand page, with the apse of the church immediately to the right, and the terrace gardens of the monastery between that and the Chapel of the Knights of Malta which stands proud towards the right. Turner’s determined viewpoint is on the terrace of Sant Alessio, more-or-less between the two masts that piece the skyline in the sketch.
He must have negotiated special permission (as today) to enter the private gardens of Sant Alessio. It might be this that his friend Charles Lock Eastlake remembered when he said that he was surprised how much trouble Turner took to obtain the views that he required. Access is still restricted – the gardens of Santa Sabina, Sant Alessio and the Knights of Malta, are all private. I am grateful to the British School in Rome for negotiating with the Instituto di Studi Romani who now occupy the monastery of Sant Alessio for me to be able to see the view. Very likely Turner would have been obliged to use his contacts – Eastlake was a long-time resident of Rome, and a lynchpin of Roman artistic society – to secure admission.
In Rome Turner had to work hard for his views. One of the enduring impressions left by my recent visit is of how jealously it guards its privacy. Cyclopean palace walls, gargantuan gate piers and massive doorways bar access to its sanctuaries. The whole city is a device to exercise power and patronage, inclusion and exclusion. It is everything to belong, to be allowed in. Even on the Janiculum, Rome’s earliest established vantage-point, attempting a view over St Peter’s from its northern reaches (as one might reasonably expect) leads merely to bafflement and rebuff. Unless that is, one happens to be a member of the Pontificia Universita Urbaniana.
Getting onto the terrace of Sant Alessio was somewhat like threading the Labyrinth. First I joined the British School in Rome [no bad thing, at all!] in order to take advantage of their permissions negotiation service. This secured a letter of invitation from the director of the Instituto. Finding the entrance to the Instituto requires initiation. Having presented myself at the gate to Sant Alessio church I discovered that this was reserved for the Padre Somachi who minister there. I was directed to an inconspicuous gate in a wall down the street. Inside the gate a concierge at a subterranean window demanded to know my business. With my letter I was admitted to a courtyard, where another door gave entrance to the cloister. Another challenge, another explanation and directions to the office of the director. A grand staircase, massive wooden doors, an office door ajar and a warm welcome. Directions back the cloister, an oasis of light and calm, two more massive doors, and then out under the portico and umbrella pines, to dewy grass (take care for the re-seeded patches) and morning sunlight opening the entire panorama of the city. So much, so privileged, and two hours completely undisturbed. Afterwards exiting to the street, where a hundred yards to the right a hundred and fifty tourists In the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta queued in line to take turns to squint through a keyhole in the gate, to catch a glimpse of St Peter’s between some trees.
He turned to a sequence of blank pages of his Rimini to Rome sketchbook (Tate Britain; TB CLXXVIII 4a-5, 5a-6, 7) to make his study of the view. We can locate this sketch precisely on the terrace of Santi Alessio e Boniface, by the angle of view on the lighthouse of the Ripa Grande to the left – with the campanile of San Pietro in Montorio directly beyond, the line of sight of the Dome of Il Gesu over the middle span of the Ponte Rotto, and to the right the aligned Campaniles of the distant Chiesa dei Santi Domenico e Sisto over the nearer Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The relation of these sketches to the painting was established by Cecilia Powell in Turner in the South. Powell does say, however that the panorama synthesises a variety of viewpoints on the Aventine. In fact the panorama is specifically from this terrace, although Turner did, it is apparent utilise its entire length.
The original page size of the Rimini to Rome sketchbook is a modest 3 7/8 x 5 3/16 inches, or 97 x 132 mm, but into that space Turner has crammed an extraordinary amount of detail, and it is fascinating to immerse oneself in that. There are one or two economies, especially with regard to the regular repeating façade of the Ospizio di San Michele on the Ripa Grande to the left, but Turner has set down every bell-tower, dome and distinguishable building exactly as it presents itself to the eye from this point of view. The reader will no doubt prefer to scan across the landmarks for themselves, rather than wade through a lengthy prose listing. Please click on the images below to enlarge. Suffice it to say this sketch is as patient, thorough, and obviously enjoyed a survey that Turner ever set down.
Here are the sketches with detailed identifications of the various landmarks: The text will be more easily readable if you click on the image so as to enlarge it to full size:
We may even note in passing that he distinguishes between the ‘twin’ domes of Sant’ Andrea della Valle and San Carlo ai Catinari in the left centre mid-distance. They are not quite alike, Sant’ Andre has twin pilasters supporting the dome, San Carlo single ones, and although Turner recognised that, he does not quite draw the literal fact, rather he differentiates the effect.
So the sketches are a topographic tour de force and Turner studied the exact form, character, position and alignment of every significant building in the whole field of view. To come to the nub, then, it seems more than a little perplexing that he took very little account of that storehouse of reference, except in the most general terms, in his painting of the scene.
Let’s start with the bridge…
The bridge in the middle distance is the Ponte Rotto or Ponte Emilio as it was properly named. This was an originally Roman bridge of seven arches built in the 2nd C BC. It was periodically damaged by floods and rebuilt especially in 1230 and 1557, until in 1575 and 1598 the whole eastern half was washed away, and it was given up as a lost cause. After that two main arches and a slightly smaller arch abutting the bank stood uselessly – known by the colloquial name ‘Ponte Rotto’ – until 1853 when the gap was respanned with an iron footbridge. That lasted only a few years until 1887, when the whole bridge was condemned and demolished all but one arch. The remaining arch survives, curiously marooned in mid-river, and a new bridge, the Ponte Palatine has been built immediately downstream.
Turner knew the bridge well, and had made close-up studies of it in 1819, and sketched it correctly as seen from the Aventine in 1828 so it is provoking that he transfigures it in the painting. We can see four spans, rather than three; the bridge appears to reach the far bank, whereas it stopped well short in mid-river, and the shape and detail of the arches is altered. This is doubly strange since not only did Turner know the form of the Ponte Rotto, so also would anyone with any pretence to knowing Rome. Oddly, Turner made this picture for a patron, who evidently called for a ‘copy’ rather than an idealisation, and might well have been expected to object to the discrepancy, or to suffer having it pointed out by those that saw it.
Given the investment that Turner had made in recording its correct form, it is unthinkable that he simply forgot; or didn’t care. Quite the reverse, the discrepancy must have been made wilfully and intentionally. It is perhaps all the more remarkable that no-one has ever noticed. Though surely that cannot have been his intent?!?
Click on any of the images below to open gallery of three details of treatment of the Ponte Rotto:
J.M.W.Turner Rome from Mount Aventine, 1836 Detail of his treatment of the Ponte Rotto
J.M.W.Turner Rome from Mount Aventine, 1828 From the Rimini to Rome sketchbook, TB CLXXVIII 5a Detail of his record of the Ponte Rotto
J.M.W.Turner Ponte Rotto, Rome, 1819 From the St Peter’s sketchbook, TB CLXXXVIII 52a Page size, 114 x 189 mm Photo courtesy of Tate Click on the image to enlarge To see the image in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest, click on the following link, and press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-ponte-rotto-rome-d16250
Quite apart from the number of arches, it is also plain that Turner ignored his own knowledge of the architectural form. The bridge in the painting has niches on each pier framed by pilasters and capped by triangular pediments. The actual bridge had (rather smaller) through-tunnels for floodwater to pass through, flanked by pilasters but without the triangular pediments. The bridge in the painting has large wide arches that reach up almost to the road-bed. The actual bridge was heavier with a deeper parapet. Nonetheless for a bridge two thousand years old when Turner drew it, it exhibits a remarkably open structure, and one to which Neo-classical bridge builders referred as a source of inspiration. Bridges with the apsidal niches and triangular pediments to their piers were by no means common, but Turner did know one of exactly this form.
Click on any image below to open full sized images and captions:
J.M.W.Turner Lancaster Bridge and Castle from the North-East, 1816 From the Yorkshire 5 sketchbook, TB CXLVIII 37 a Page size, 173 x 260 mm Photo courtesy of Tate To see the image in the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest, click on the following link, and press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/sketchbook/yorkshire-5-sketchbook-65790
J.M.W.Turner Lancaster Bridge and Castle from the North-East, 1816 Detail of bridge
J.M.W.Turner Rome from Mount Aventine, 1836 Detail of his treatment of the Ponte Rotto
I’ll take a drive up to Lancaster and take some photographs of my own, but in the meantime here is a link to a good comparison (click on the link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page):
Turner had drawn Thomas Harrison’s 1787 Skerton Bridge over the river Lune at Lancaster in 1816, and had occasion to revisit that material when he included the bridge in his watercolour of Lancaster from the Lune Aqueduct, which was engraved for his series Picturesque View s in England and Wales and published in 1827. I will freely admit that this looks to be an outlandish connection but Harrison’s bridge still stands, and the bridge in Turner’s Rome from Mount Aventine much more resembles it than it does the Ponte Rotto. Turner might have given some thought again to Harrison when he died in 1829 but how a north country subject could be so far-fetched into synthesis with Turner’s imaginings of Rome will require exceedingly ingenious explanation..
And then there’s the Ospizio..
The Ospizio di San Michele a Ripa Grande is the large modern building along the river front to the left. It consists of five five-storey blocks of nine bays connected by four four-bay four-storey blocks. The southern four blocks were built between 1693 and 1714, and the northernmost block was added in the later eighteenth century. It was the largest charitable institution in Rome by the beginning of the nineteenth century, providing work for orphaned or abandoned children, the elderly and unmarried women. Its continuous frontage stretches for over 500 meters and survives intact, its mottled and faded terracotta stucco barely relieving its industrial grimness.
Turner’s sketch recognised its regularity. All Turner had to do was draw the leftmost bay, and he could produce the remaining 34 (8+4+9+4+9) repetitions from that. One might expect that he would have wanted to try and enliven its appearance in the painting. Instead he treats it as one single completely unvaried block. It seems that he chose to emphasise the inflexible regularity of the modern. In that he certainly succeeded for it troubled Turner’s first biographer, Walter Thornbury, sufficiently for him to remark that ‘so faithful, indeed, has the painter been in this beautiful picture, that he has, even at some peril to his success, introduced in the left-hand foreground a long monotonous row of modern houses’. The original architect had at least tried to introduce some variety by alternating four storey blocks with three. Turner clearly intends to emphasise the monotony and the scale. This is a vast uncompromising factory, monotonous and regimented to an extent unrivalled by anything else in the whole scene, including that dating from Imperial Rome. Heaven knows what lives must have been like for those fortunate enough to have enjoyed this Institution’s charity. Turner clearly meant us to give some thought to this most conspicuous contemporary feature in this view of modern Rome.
Not to mention the Castel Sant’Angelo..
We might scan the sketch in vain for any sign of the Castel Sant’Angelo. This famous landmark – a great brick drum built in the second century as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian – stands east of St Peter’s, where the great ceremonial avenue of the Via della Conciliazione meets the river Tiber. From Turner’s viewpoint on the terrace of Santi Alessio e Bonifacio it lies on the line of sight to the highest point of Monte Mario, slightly right of the observatory, but despite the fact that it was once the tallest building in Rome, it cannot be distinguished in the sketch. Only its upper parts are visible, at the foot of the tree-crested Monte Mario, just to the left of the dome of Santa Maria in Valicella. On the other hand it can be fairly readily discovered in the painting. If one works right from the dome of St Peter’s, it appears just beyond the great block of the Vatican. As a matter of fact, it is in the wrong place – to the left of the campanile of St Crisogono in Trastavere, rather than the right. It is quite accurately made out, but even so it takes some finding.
Click image to enlarge:
Panning across the picture we may note constant departures from the sketch and from reality, but the curious thing is that whilst some differences are complete invention, others wilful deviation from his own information and knowledge, some are improvements. The treatment of St Peter’s and the Vatican is rather better than the sketch. Turner, of course, knew the form of the basilica and the adjacent Vatican well, and had studies it from every angle in his 1819 sketches, so the way that the drum and dome sit on the great white marble block of the basilica and are flanked by the buildings of the Vatican is well given and Turner gives the general character and complexity of the buildings, if not quite their exact forms.
Nowhere else in the painting, however, is the detail superior to that of the sketch. This is particularly true of the cluster of Domes in the left middle distance that includes those of Sant Andrea della Valle ad San Carlo ai Catinari, and the Pantheon, all mere ciphers of themselves, and at least one of the domes – that to the left of San Carlo – altogether invented. This is especially striking in the case of Sant Andre and San Carlo where, as we have already noted apropos of the sketch, Turner took some trouble over the appearance of the domes.
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Everywhere, in fact, as Turner proceeded across his painting, he generalised, schematised, and abstracted his specific information. Click image to enlarge:
The critic of Blackwood’s Magazine thought all this an affront to his proper aesthetic standards: ‘A most unpleasant mixture, wherein white gambouge, and raw sienna are, with childish execution, daubed together’. But the truth of Turner’s ‘daubing’ is, that it is anything but childish, in fact it is professorially contrary. The sketch demonstrates that he was fully possessed of information derived from considered sight. Yet not only did he chose not to follow his own information, he wilfully transmuted every detail.
So the big question is why? It appears that a major change occurred in Turner’s approach to topography between the date of the sketch, 1828 and the date of the painting, 1835-6. The sketch seems to be almost the apogee of a trend in his practice to understand and record appearance in a recognisably Cartesian frame. The painting systematically disavows all that, yet might still be said to represent Rome in an extraordinary vivid and convincing way. This clearly warrants further discussion, but for now I’ll post this as it stands. It might take a little while to work through the implications.
Watch this space…
REVISED MAY 2015 WITH PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN FOLLOWING SITE VISIT 10-14 APRIL 2015.
Sponsored by the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation
On 10 July 2014 Christie’s in London will sell a Turner watercolour of Binger Loch and Mausethurm (lot 214, estimate £200,000 – 300,000). This is one of a series of fifty-one* watercolours that Turner made in 1817 when he made a tour of the river Rhine between Cologne and Mainz. On Turner’s return the whole series was bought for 500 guineas by the artist’s Yorkshire patron Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, and celebrated thereafter as a direct and spontaneous encounter with one of the most Romantic areas of all Europe. This article considers the watercolour’s topographical content and the possibility that it might at least have been begun form nature.
The early accounts of the series considered the watercolours to be sketches painted directly from nature. Ruskin said ‘every one… is the almost instantaneous record of an effect of colour or atmosphere, taken strictly from nature, the drawing and the details…being comparatively subordinate’ (note 1). Modern scholarship particularly that of Cecilia Powell, who has treated the tour in detail in her books Turner’s Rivers of Europe (1991) and Turner in Germany (1995) has questioned this. Christie’s catalogue notes review the context and arguments thoroughly drawing on Powell’s work.
The most important objection to the Rhine drawings being sketches from nature is that the watercolours are based upon pencil sketches that Turner made in the bound sketchbooks that Turner had with him. Powell argues that Turner painted the watercolours from these pencil sketches in the autumn of 1817 after his return to England, when he had plenty of time whilst making a tour to County Durham before visiting Farnley Hall (note 2). Powell’s account is detailed and convincing, but begs questions as to why some examples have no relation to pencil sketches, others show significant deviation from their related pencil sketches, and more generally as to why the works have a much more extemporised appearance than his usual studio work – in short they look like sketches – and why in relation to the occasion of their making he would be working on them whilst engaged sketching a completely different landscape, for a completely different project.
Given my avowed primary interest in Turner’s work on site, I do confess to always feeling drawn to the idea of Turner sketching in colour direct from nature. This sometimes in spite of the evidence. Over the last decade or so, however, I have visited and photographed all of Turner’s sites on the Rhine. Most of this was accomplished, I can boast, on a bicycle. The Rhine is splendid cycling terrain, there being a more-or-less dedicated cycling provision along most of its length. A boat might seem more appropriate, but in fact Turner made most of his sketches from the riverside, and the bike, I discovered, had the great advantage (at my rate of propulsion) of going much slower than any boat, so allowed proper time to take things in, and stopped more readily than a boat to allow photographs to be taken. Standing as often as I could on Turner’s exact viewpoints it emerges that the evidence by no means eliminates colouring from the motif. In fact, as at Bingen it suggests a multiplicity of practice. Artists rarely stick to just one method. I remember hearing David Hockney say at the beginning of a recent film that he renounced photography and computing in order to paint direct from nature in Yorkshire. At the end of the film when asked to comment on the fact that he had used cameras, film, computer processing, print and a whole array of practices besides painting, he looked unabashed: ‘Never believe what an artist says; only what they do’ (note 3). In the case of Bingen Turner seems to have done a variety of things, including painting from nature.
Powell’s most developed treatment of this specific subject is in Turner’s Rivers of Europe (1991) where a pencil sketch of the subject (Tate, TB CLX 71v-72r, see repr. above) was exhibited and reproduced as no.2, and the watercolour as no.11, and Powell states that the watercolour was based directly on the sketch. Comparison of sketch and watercolour confirms an obvious relationship, but it is my purpose here to loosen the directness of that relationship, and create some room for the watercolour to at least have been begun from the motif.
Since there will be no disagreement that the pencil sketch was done from nature, let us consider that first. Powell establishes that it was made from a boat on 27 August 1817 as Turner sailed downstream from to Bingen from St Goar. The viewpoint is midstream immediately below Rudesheim, looking west downstream with (from left to right) Burg Klopp, the spire of Bingen Church, the riverside crane of Bingen, the Mausethurm in distant mid-river and Burg Ehrenfels closing the view to the right. Individual buildings have since been restored or rebuilt – Burg Klopp and the Mausethurm particularly, but the positioning of everything in the sketch is perfectly naturalistic and all of the elements are easily identifiable to this day.
There are numerous differences, however, between the sketch and the watercolour. The most obvious and perhaps significant deviation is that the watercolour appears to be taken from a different viewpoint, rather nearer to Burg Ehrenfels. For the castle towers to appear against the sky as in the watercolour, one needs to be nearer the mouth of the river Nahe as in the photograph above. For it to still appear on the shoulder of the curve of that bank, however, one cannot be any further downstream. Even by the time one arrives at the downstream end of Bingen quay, where it meets the Nahe, the castle drops below the horizon of its bank. In fact the view of Ehrenfels shown in the watercolour is exclusive to a line of sight running from Bingen quay a hundred meters or so upstream of the confluence with the Nahe.
It has to be admitted that the comparison also presents difficulties for the plein-air argument. The pencil sketch accurately records Bingen Klopp, Bingen Church and Bingen Crane from its mid-river viewpoint. They are far less accurately depicted in the watercolour, and most problematically of all, the fact that they are included at all is incompatible with the apparent viewpoint on Burg Ehrenfels, since on that line of sight, Bingen and Burg Klopp are out of scope to the left.
The main point of painting from nature would be to record an effect, so it is perhaps worth giving some consideration to that aspect. The watercolour puts the sun to the left, shining brightly on Burg Ehrenfels and its slopes, and illuminating the spire and roof of Bingen Church to the left and the Mausethurm in mid-river. As a perusal of the many photographs of this view on the internet will reveal, the way in which the sun strikes Burg Ehrenfels and its steep vine-clad slopes is one of the site’s distinguishing visual characteristics. Its lack rendered dull my photograph taken in the later afternoon, but brings to life a second photo taken in the morning. The same effect forms the raison d’etre of the watercolour, and Turner has gone to quite some lengths to give the effect of the vines in working up the texture of those sunlight slopes. The most specific phenomenon of all in the watercolour, moreover, is the peculiarly-shaped shadow on the slopes below the castle. This suggests the passing of a cloud, but at the same time does more. Its peculiarity is the product of the two bars at its top right. Comparison with the photographs quite readily suggests their significance; they represent the terraced roadways that cross the slopes, and which characterise the site to this day. There is no sign whatsoever of these in the pencil sketch.
Again some objection to this might be admitted. Turner’s viewpoint here is due west, so the light is to the south. Although the effect is generally consistent with the orientation, the sharpness of the contrast suggests a low angle of incidence more typical of early morning or evening than the middle of the day. It is probably worth noting here that when the watercolour was listed in a manuscript catalogue of the Farnley Hall collection compiled in 1850, it was described as ‘Sketches on the Rhine (in a case) no.9, Bingen Loch & Mausethurm N. 12 3/8 x 8’ (note 4). The list was compiled by the son of Turner’s patron, Francis Hawksworth Fawkes, working presumably from old notes and inscriptions, and was shown to Turner for his approval (note 5). It is perhaps significant that the description assumes that the view was looking to the north. This has a certain logic – the Rhine flows generally to the north, but it twists and turns in this stretch so much that it is easy to confuse one’s bearings. If the mistake originated with Turner, then it would explain him thinking that a low light was appropriate for his highlights.
So whilst there seems to be sufficient observed particularity in the watercolour to suggest that it records some things quite independently of the pencil sketch, there are equally things in it, particularly the whole of the left middle distance comprising of Bingen Klopp and Bingen church, that cannot have been observed from the viewpoint of the watercolour, and must have been brought in from the sketch. Although this is complicated, and perhaps untidily equivocal, it is perhaps inherently more likely than a simple either/or scenario. My surmise from this is that Turner began the watercolour from nature, independently of the sketch, but worked it up later to give it a degree of finish so that it might be made presentable. When this working-up was done is impossible to say. Some work might have been done in his rooms as he progressed along the tour, some back in London, some in County Durham and some even (and perhaps most likely of all) after Fawkes had indicated an interest in the group whilst Turner was staying at Farnley Hall in the Autumn of 1817.
Beyond this point the river narrows to the dangerous passage called the Binger Loch between the Mausethurm and Ehrenfels. This stretch of river was beset by swift currents, jutting rocks and submerged reefs and was one of the most notoriously dangerous stretches of the whole Rhine. The castles of Bingen and Ehrenfels and the Mausethurm had grown up to control the passage, and to provide pilotage and extract tolls. The river was largely unimproved in 1817, remained so until two narrow channels were cleared in the 1830’s, and the main channels not finally cleared until as recently as the 1970s. Powell 1991 (repeated in Christie’s catalogue notes) very well describes how Turner develops this theme by contrasting the light, width and peace of the foreground, with the cold confines of the Loch, presaged by protruding rocks at the left and presided over by the haloed tower of Ehrenfels. The ripples around this rock are brilliantly repeated in the light glittering from the disturbed waters in the distance. It is typical of Turner’s practice that there is such specific and imaginative topographical and phenomenal content in this picture, and indeed in each one of the Rhine series watercolours. We may indeed question some of the details of the story told of the Rhine drawings by Walter Thornbury, but he was was certainly right when he called them ‘miracles of skill, genius and industry’. Further, he added: ‘These Rhenish drawings are most exquisite for sad tenderness, purity, twilight, poetry, truth, and perfection of harmony. They are to the eye what the finest verse of Tennyson are to the ear; and they do what so few things on earth do: they completely satisfy the mind’ (note 6).
I am grateful to Harriet Drummond and Rosy Temple at Christie’s, London for an image of the watercolour and permission to reproduce.
*The number is slightly controversial, Cecilia Powell (Turner in Germany, 1995, p.26 and Cat. no.17) prefers fifty. Despite the arguments the principal source must be the Farnley Hall catalogue of the collection in 1850 (see note 4), which Turner approved (see note 5), and which lists the Rhine drawings as a group of fifty-one.
1 In his pamphlet ‘Pre-Raphaelitism’, published in 1851, and written around the Turner works that he had seen at Farnley Hall; in E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin, Library Edition, 1903-12, Volume 12, p. 376-7. The reference is worth reading in its original context. Ruskin’s core idea is that Turner’s study of exceptional phenomena on this tour to the Rhine liberated him into the colour and effect of his later career.
2 See C. Powell, Turner’s Rivers of Europe, Tate, 1991, especially ‘Waterloo and the Rhineland 1817’ p.20-36, and Turner in Germany, Tate, 1995, especially ‘The First Visit to the Rhine, 1817’, pp. 20-29.
3 Bruno Wollheim, David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, Coluga Pictures, 2007.
4 ‘A Catalogue of the Oil Paintings and Watercolour drawings and Sketches in Watercolours by J M W Turner RA in the possession of F H Fawkes Esqre of Farnley Hall, Otley, Yorkshire, A.D. 1850’, National Art Library, V&A Museum; a later copy is at Bradford Central Libraries. No transcript of this catalogue has been published.
5 See John Gage, Collected Correspondence of J M W Turner, 1980, no.318: ‘Your catalogue is capital yet I could wish to see the Total number even in writing even at the end.’
6 Walter Thornbury, The Life and Correspondence of J M W Turner, (1862) 1877 edition, p. 238.
And finally I ought to mention my fellow cyclists in 2006; Robert Waterhouse, Eric Howell and Ken Guest, together with the pedestrian Philip Morris, who put up with the constant stoppages for ‘Turnering’, occasionally feigned some interest and behaved with commendable but uncharacteristic decorum at the ‘Rhinelust’ in Boppard.
This article is the third to explore Turner’s Sisteron subjects in the light of my recent visit to the site. Here I focus on a watercolour in the collection of the Museum of Rhode Island School of Design that records the view of the Pont du Buech from the west. The bridge spans the river Buech to the north of the citadel at Sisteron, and carries the historic route north from Aix and Provence towards Gap and Grenoble. It is celebrated as part of the Route Napoleon, by which, following the Emperor’s return from Elba in 1814, he made his way north from Cannes to Grenoble and onwards to Paris.
The subject remained unidentified until 2006 when I related it to a group of Turner studies of Sisteron. Before that the subject was described as ‘Pont de Buset’, ‘Busel’ and ‘Buzet’ in various misreadings of the inscription. I wrote up my preliminary findings in a letter for the museum’s files and the identification has since found its way into at least one publication; Ian Warrell’s notes to the watercolour of Sisteron from the North-West sold at Christie’s on 5 November 2013 (lot 149). That watercolour was the subject of one of the first articles in SublimeSites; ‘The Implications of Moonlight: Turner at Sisteron’ posted on 8 November 2013. Finally, nearly a decade on from my initial interest in the subject, the opportunity finally came around for me to make a site visit, make a photograph, and write up some notes grounded in observation of the subject.
The view is best seen today from the road to St Geniez in the village of La Baume on the left bank of the Durance about half-way between the Pont de la Baume and the Dominican Convent. The spectacularity of many of Turner’s sites has prompted development that now obscures the view except for the few. Here it is rather the opposite. A small park has been built to take permanent public advantage of the site and equipped with a fountain, benches and ornamental shrubs. The local authority should possibly even make some feature of Turner’s treatment of the view. With the Montagne de l’Ubac lined up over the left abutment of the Pont du Buech, however, the bridge is currently obscured by riverbank trees, so the photograph above is taken from a little further to the right where the bridge fully opens into view. The panorama below gives a broader idea of the site.
Standing at the site with an image of Turner’s watercolour in hand proves that Turner’s actual viewpoint was on the right bank of the Buech, near the modern EcoMusee. Tree growth frustrates exact comparison today, but such a position brings the bridge into greater proximity as the watercolour shows, puts the Montagne de l’Ubac directly over the left end of the bridge, and brings the spur of the citadel above left into precipitous relation as in the watercolour. The Google Earth image below marks the exact viewpoints of my photograph and of Turner’s sketch.
Exploring the site raised significant considerations of difference and similarity. One obvious difference is that the Pont de Buech is now backed by a railway viaduct built in 1874. It is also clear that in the watercolour individual elements present themselves to attention more directly than in the photograph; the Montagne de l’Ubec for example, occupies a much greater proportion of the field of view, and other mountains are supressed or elided altogether.
A consideration of details of the Montagne de l’Ubec suggests that Turner was not at all mindful of its exact form. On the other hand the light effect is consistent and evidently observed from nature. My photographs were taken a few minutes before noon local time (GMT +2hrs) and Turner has registered consistent particularities of the way in which the later morning light picks out relief across the landscape. In addition Turner has registered the particularity of the bridge in that the right arch is wider than the -other two. Had you noticed? I suspect not, and Turner’s attentiveness might be emphasised to the reader by a question: did you register how many arches of the railway bridge are visible in the photograph? The answer is five, with three more of a total of eleven hidden to the right by trees.
Click on either image to enlarge and toggle between:
Montagne de l’Ubac over the Pont du Buech
Sisteron: Pont du Buech from La Baume (detail)
This is somewhat contradictory. The bridge and the specificity of effect suggest immediate reference to the motif, but the mountain and the sketchy buildings to the right suggest that he was working from an imperfectly stocked memory. This contradiction characterises many of Turner’s coloured sketches. Whilst their size and sketchiness makes it obvious to think of them as being made on the spot, some details seem to relate to direct reference and others suggest some degree of remove. It seems as if he must be working on the spot, but for much of the time not actually looking at his subject. This may not be such an outlandish idea as it might as first seem.
As anyone who has tried it will know, working direct from nature is a lot harder than might be assumed. The most obvious problem is that you cannot look at the subject and draw or paint it at the same time. In order to control the pencil or brush one has to concentrate on the paper. In fact (and certainly in my experience) if one is to make anything at all credible, one has to concentrate much more on the paper than on the subject. Looking away to the subject becomes more of a hindrance than a help. There are only certain things in any case that one can pay attention to. The number and form of arches in a bridge might be one thing – especially where it is the central motif – but the number of stone courses of which it is composed, still less the number of trees on that slope. So working from the motif is of necessity a selective process. I have watched artists at work in the landscape who will quite deliberately turn their back on a scene in order to concentrate on the work whilst nevertheless remaining focused on the specifics exclusive to being there.
It seems clear that by the time of this drawing – he was sixty-three in 1838 – Turner felt quite able to operate freely in this space between motif and making, and to synthesise more particularities into the work, especially spatially, than any other artist. This sketch is a very good example. Standing on the terrace of the EcoMuseum at Sisteron it is hard quite to fathom how Turner has managed to call so much into play from his field of view. The growth of trees makes it impossible to see all the elements at once, but in any case it would be impossible to photograph. One cannot have both apparent distance to the road, and the proximity of the bridge in the same perspectival frame. But nonetheless the steeply falling perspective of the citadel puts us on that spot, and Turner is actively synthesising his sense of where is into the one small frame that has to hold all this.
The truth is that artists do whatever they like, or need, to make the work as they see fit. What matters most of all is the aesthetic effect; what it seems to be. And here it most certainly seems to be a sketch from nature. It is painted quickly on a small, torn-edged piece of coloured paper. The handling is as deft as might be expected from an artist with fifty years practice in the most advanced technical and bravura handling of the medium. Nonetheless this is memorandum-making rather than fine crafting; it is a work that eschews ‘finish’. It seems extemporal in direct relation to specifics of time and place; a field note from a journey of exploration. It is inscribed with a note of its site of observation. More unusually of field notes, it is also made to be viewed. There is a bravura of mark-making – and a sense of filling the sheet, that makes it seem outward-facing. It might be process, but process made visible. Turner’s sketches had always had an interested audience in friends and patrons, but from mid-career he sketched in colour more overtly with a sense of their having a public.
There is not time here to do give any more than a very preliminary sketch of this trajectory, but it is the theme that underpins the Turner material in Sublimesites, and will hopefully be drawn together one day in a book. The first major campaign appears to be the sketches that he made on the Thames in 1805. These are the subject of my book Turner on the Thames published in 1993. Later comes a series of fifty watercolour sketches of subjects on the Rhine that he made in 1817 for his Yorkshire patron Walter Fawkes. After that is the large number of colour studies that he made in Italy in 1819. Later in the 1820s he deliberately developed two series of small coloured sketches to represent tours to the Seine and Loire. After that come large groups of coloured sketches recording tours to Venice in 1833 and the Mont Blanc and Val d’Aosta area in 1836. In the last, especially, Turner is developing a distinct trend to the synthetic alongside the analytic, and that trend is evident in the present sketch and its group. This includes subjects at Genoa and the French Riviera as well as several of Sisteron and Grenoble, which I am now suggesting might date to 1838. This trend is even more developed and the colour used more freely in a tour to the Meuse and Mosel of 1839, and this culminated in large numbers of sketches in Venice and the Alps in the 1840s. Besides these are significant groups of British subjects. Turner’s sketches at Petworth in Sussex are famous, but there are many others on the south coast, particularly around Margate. A few of the late Alpine subjects have already been considered here, but as time permits I hope to add material relating to all areas of Turner’s sketching from nature.
The watercolour was owned by John Ruskin, although it is not clear how and when it acquired it. He exhibited it at the Fine Art Society in 1878 as no.52 ‘Pont de Busel’. The most scholarly catalogue entry for it to date is by Malcolm Cormack in his ‘Catalogue of the British Watercolours and Drawings from the Museum’s Collection’ published in the Bulletin of Rhode Island School of Design: Museum Notes in April 1972. There it is also no.52 as ‘Pont de Burzet(?) in the Ardeche’. The watercolour is listed in the ‘Turner Worldwide’ section of the Tate online catalogue of Turner’s Work (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-pont-de-buzet-tw1275) as ‘Pont de Buzet ?1835-40’, but there is no image and the watercolour is unaccountably given as ‘Collection: no information given’ [at least as accessed 1 May 2014].
The study belongs to a group of Sisteron subjects, all on buff paper of a similar size. The series wants properly researching but Andrew Wilton’s nos. 1011, 1012, and 1013 belong to the group, and are correctly identified – his 1010, however, is now known to show Luxembourg. Another of the group was sold at Christie’s, London, on 17 November 2005 no.97, and although inconclusively identified there, in fact shows the Pont de la Baume at Sisteron. There are several other examples certainly belong to the same tour, but these mostly record other sites and need further research.
The tour itself is recorded in a sketchbook in the Turner Bequest at the Tate, TB CCXCV, Genoa to Grenoble sketchbook. This records an itinerary that takes him by ship from Genoa to Nice and Antibes, and then north through the Alps via Sisteron and Gap to Grenoble. There are several sketches of Sisteron starting at p.94a. None record the same view as the present watercolour – in fact I would argue that all the watercolours were sketched direct from nature, since they all appear to be views distinct from the pencil sketches. One pencil sketch (p. 96a) is taken from the citadel ridge to the west, and looks down on the Pont du Buech at the left – albeit from the opposite direction to the present watercolour and from a much higher viewpoint.
Turner’s pencil sketches at Sisteron were comprehensively covered by Roland Courtot in his 2004 article ‘Turner a Sisteron’ (available online at http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/medit_0025-8296_2004_num_102_1_3351)
My own site exploration found a little room to be more specific about some of the viewpoints, so I will review those in a future article. Courtot only discusses two watercolours, and several more have been identified since, so at the same time I will pull together a review of all the watercolour subjects (and reproduce them subject to permissions), and show photographs of the sites.
This article extends the exploration of Turner’s Sisteron subjects in the light of a recent visit 12-14 April. In particular I focus on a watercolour of Sisteron from the North-West that was sold at Christie’s, New York, on 5 November 2013. This was the occasion of my earlier article ‘Moonlight and its implications: Turner at Sisteron’ posted on 8 November 2013. The watercolour was sold under the description of ‘with a Low Sun’ but the subject is in fact a nocturne.
About an hour after sunset on 12 April 2014 I took the picture below.
Actually that’s not quite true; the picture I took in fact was this:
As you can immediately see, the top picture is the product of some skulduggery with Photoshop. Reflecting on the photograph that I actually took, I just could not resign myself to the fact that the position of the moon did not exactly match that of the Turner. I have mixed feelings about my intervention. One part of me is delighted that the moon is now in the right place, but the other cries ‘lies and deceit’. The mediator in all this thinks that here is a really interesting dilemma, and wonders what might actually be at stake. If the photos cannot be relied upon, what might that imply for the Turner?
In the first article ‘Moonlight and its Implications’ I speculated that the Christie’s watercolour might have been made in sequence with another in a private collection in Mexico that shows pretty much exactly the same view but at sunset . [The Mexico picture is the subject of a previous instalment of Sisteron observations posted on 21 April 2014.]
Private Collection, Mexico
Christie’s, New York 5.11.2013
This might be the case, but they cannot be true of the same day. Both watercolours show the moon in the same place, but as my (unadulterated) photographs show the moon moved quite some distance across the sky in the interval of about an hour that separates them.
The effect that Turner shows is, however, perfectly true, and two days later at the same time the moon would have been in just the right part of the sky. The moon shown in the first photograph is two days before full. So to venture into territory familiar to astronomers and navigators, but nowadays to hardly anyone else: On each succeeding day the moon progressively rises an hour later and 6° further right (i.e. south). So whilst on 12 April by the time that it seemed properly dark the moon was above the citadel, a couple of days later, had I been able to return that evening, it would have been exactly where required. So Turner could have painted these watercolours with complete phenomenological fidelity, but necessarily a couple of days apart.
Many of you may possibly have concluded that a simpler explanation might be that Turner simply painted what he wanted. After establishing the accuracy of the sunset shadow picture, and arguing the plausibility of the Christie’s moonlight, I am loathe to agree with that, but I do have to admit that there are some compelling reasons for doubting that Turner can have painted the present subject from nature.
The first is fairly obvious: In such conditions there was insufficient light to paint. Even under the modern road lights he would have struggled. The watercolour is so full of subtle tonal effects and nuances of colour that it must have been painted in good light, and not just good light but daylight.
This is not, however, to deny the particularity of the effect. By the time that he painted this watercolour he had forty-five years practice of depicting moonlit landscapes. He knew how to make out every variety of effect that might be witnessed and knew how to understand every phenomenon in pictorial terms. He would have had no difficulty in registering the specifics of what he saw, or in conceiving of the methods by which to transmute his perceptions into paint.
Further, there is direct evidence that it was made away from the motif. The tonal differentiation is slight, but Turner does show the Pont de la Baume in the bottom of the valley beneath the moon. The bridge is in the centre of the detail, blue against the warmer colours of the background:
In fact this is impossible. As can be seen from the Google Earth image the Pont de la Baume is not visible from anywhere near the Pont du Buech. It is hidden round the right-angled corner where the Buech joins the Durance.
In reality Turner would have had to move quite some distance to the left, right along to the banks of the river Durance, to bring the Pont de la Baume at all into view. Turner did actually record that view in a watercolour now at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester (note 1).
The inclusion of the Pont de la Baume is synthetic rather than analytic. As we shall also see in due course, there is another clear instance of Turner adopting a synthetic approach in his sketches of Sisteron. It is not by any means the norm in his sketches at the site as we shall see, but distinctive enough for it to stand out from his general practice during this period as a significant and developing aspect.
This article furthers the discussion begun in the article ‘Moonlight and its Implications: Turner at Sisteron’, posted on 8 November 2013. This follows a visit to the site on 12-14 April to verify the phenomenon depicted in a Turner watercolour of ‘Sisteron from the North-West’.
The effect in this watercolour is that of the setting sun casting the shadow of the citadel of Sisteron onto the facing rock wall of the Rocher de la Baume. Surprisingly this has never occasioned any notice, nor have I managed to discover any other artistic or even photographic representations. If readers know of any, or indeed have taken any themselves, I would be happy to see them.
Although it seems unlikely that Turner can be the only one to have ever noticed, the effect is not by any means a constant phenomenon at Sisteron. The shadow requires the sun to set in a specific part of the sky due west or very slightly either side. This occurs around the spring and autumn equinoxes, so mid-March to early April, or September to early October. The shadow is at its largest when the sun is at its lowest, and at its brightest just at the point before the disc makes contact with the horizon. Given that the western horizon at Sisteron is quite hilly, the optimal moment is when the sun sets in the dip immediately north of the Montagne de l’Ubac. Google Earth allows us to visualise the effect on 29 September.
Turner’s effect, however is more particular than even that, for it is conjoined with the nearly full moon rising in the south-east. When writing the first article I worked out using ‘Stellarium’ astronomical software that this conjunction might be observed around the 12th of April 2014. So with incautious trust in my calculations; still more in the likelihood of it being clear enough to see anything, flights were booked from Liverpool to Nice, car hire arranged and hotels reserved. My wife meanwhile looked upon the enterprise as implausibly eccentric and inevitably doomed.
So even she could see some justification for my astonishment when we arrived on site overlooking the Pont du Buech at 19.30 to find the sun sloping towards the western horizon and the nearly full moon rising in the gap between the Rocher de la Baume and the citadel of Sisteron, petty much exactly as shown by Turner. Still more so when fifteen minutes later the sun dipped low enough to raise the shadow of the citadel into view.
Almost as soon as the shadow became well defined, it began to fade. Within a minute it had gone. Click on any image below to enlarge and play sequence.
We were not the only ones about, but seemed to be the only ones with any interest in the event. We were the only ones with a camera and tripod, and I was the only one animatedly gesticulating.
The visit prompts a few ruminations. The first, and readers are bound to have noticed, is that my elation at photographing the effect appears exaggerated. The shadow, one might justifiably complain, is barely visible, and the moon hardly more than a dot. Enlarging the image helps a little, but quite plainly Turner shows both shadow and moon as more satisfactorily visible objects. In fact I would completely admit that the Turner is altogether more satisfactory a representation of the phenomenon than is the photograph. If one could perhaps enlarge the photograph so as to be as much in the scene as in reality then one might feel differently, but perception in reality is altogether more dynamic and active an experience than can be captured (except perhaps in singularities) by the photograph. So in reality the moon dominates the sky and the shadow the attention in exactly the way shown by Turner.
It seems hard to imagine that Turner spent much time in astronomical calculation, as diverting an activity as that assuredly is. On the other hand we may wonder that he just happened to come upon an effect that lasts barely ten minutes and only at certain times of year. It is possible that he was directed to it locally, but more likely that his routine method was such that being there at the right time, he was highly likely to discover it. We know that he visited Sisteron in late September. There is a sketchbook that records an itinerary from Genoa to Grenoble (TB CCXCV, labelled by Turner ‘Genoa to Grenoble’), and sketches at Nice earlier in the sequence (ff. 62a, 64) are dated 9 and 10 September. It was always his practice to look for special effects of light and shadow, particularly at dawn and sunset, and is was his regular routine to use all the hours of daylight – and sometimes of night – for work when was touring. It was also his regular habit to quarter the compass at his sites and to pay acute attention to the direction of light and its specificities. He might not have calculated such a phenomenon, but he was always abroad, alert and in position to witness any effects that might occur.
As much as we know that Turner made a journey via Sisteron in September, we do not yet know the year. Engagement with matters astronomical, might, however facilitate some speculation. We have already noted that the shadow of the citadel on the Rocher de la Baume is particular to a period around the equinoxes. We might next consider the position of the moon. The moon in Turner’s watercolour is lower than the summit of the Rocher de la Baume and in the south-east. For this to be the case, the time needs to be a few days before full, in its ‘gibbous’ (or brightening) phase. So assuming that Turner passed through Sisteron a couple of weeks after making his sketches in Nice, then we would be looking for a year when the full moon occurred towards the end of September or the first days of October. In the 1830s the years 1833 (28 Sept), 1836 (24th), 1838 (3 October) and 1839 (22 September) fit the bill; the later in the month the better. One of the dated sketches at Nice is more specific: It reads ‘Lunedi 10 September’ (TB CCXCV 64). Turner’s handwriting allows room for some uncertainty of reading, unfortunately, but Mondays fell on 10 September in 1832 and 1838. In the latter year the phase of the moon would have fitted perfectly with the shadow at its most optimal.
Note: Ian Warrell and I have chatted through the possibilities of dating this tour to Sisteron on several occasions, and considered 1838 as a possibility. I discounted 1836 in my exhibition catalogue Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta (Aosta 2000) on the grounds that the Fort Bard sketchbook clearly shows Turner head north from Turin via the Mont Cenis pass to Chambery. It seems highly unlikely that he would then have looped south from Chambery to Genoa. Various scholars have considered a possible link with the 1836 tour on the grounds that the style of the sketches and the work in watercolour is quite close. I would say that both pencil work and watercolour tends here to be freer, and a date of 1838 looks a very good fit in stylistic terms. There seems to be no impediment in terms of the documentation. A J Finberg (Life of J.M.W.Turner, 1939, p.370) established that ‘Turner was absent from all Academy meetings between August 6 and October 20’, which suggested that he was out of London at this time. Finberg surmised that he was at Margate, but this is based on the evidence of a dubious sighting on 23 September and a story that he witnessed the Fighting Temeraire being tugged to its last berth on 6 September. Neither contention has much solidity, and it seems a far more likely explanation for such a significant absence from London that he was making a continental trip as was his annual habit.
[Updated 30.12.2016, with colour reproduction of ‘Sisteron from the North West]
Regular readers (!?) may be thinking that this site is becoming overly sublunary. This is the third article to follow Turner’s footsteps into the night. I ought to confess that I do have at least one other article to write on the theme, but that may wait a little. This one, however, follows hard on the heels of my recent discussion of Turner’s Lucerne by Moonlight at the British Museum (note 1), to fulfil the promise made there to offer a topographic consideration of a watercolour at the Art Institute of Chicago. This has been known during recent decades as Lucerne, but does in fact show Zurich.
The identification of this remarkably vigorous late colour study has never been quite settled. When Ruskin was asked to authenticate it in 1880 he wrote on the bottom ‘I don’t know the place./ J Ruskin 1880/ JMWT Late Time/ and very bad f(for him)’. Twenty years later, it was exhibited by B B Macgeorge in the Glasgow International exhibition in 1901 (no.819) identified as ‘Sketch – Zurich’. The following year it was catalogued by Walter Armstrong in his monumental study of Turner with a query: “Zurich (?)”. Sketch. [B Macgeorge, Esq. (Glasgow, 1901), ex Ruskin Collection]’ quoting an inscription on the mount by Ruskin in which he observed that it was “More like Lucerne.” The Zurich identification remained in place, however, down to its sale at Morrison McLeary in Glasgow on16 May 1958 no.85, as ‘Zurich’, and in 1960 it was given as Zurich by Margaret Mower to the Art Institute of Chicago in memory of her mother, Elsa Durand Mower.
At the 1966 exhibition of Imagination and Reality at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Lawrence Gowing retitled it as ‘Lucerne, c.1835’ (note 2), without offering any argument or rationale for the change. This was followed by Joe Goldyne in his catalogue for the Turner exhibition at Berkeley in 1975 (note 3) and by Andrew Wilton in his 1976 book, Turner and Switzerland p.97, but when Wilton came to catalogue Turner’s watercolours in 1979 (no.1471) he cast doubt on the Lucerne title: ‘The identification of the view was given by Gowing (1966, p.62) and followed by me in Turner in Switzerland (1976, p.97) but Ruskin’s uncertainty seems justified. This is clearly not the same scene as that recorded in TB CCCLXIV 324 and worked up in 1843.. (note 2) The distant towers on the left suggest Bellinzona, but in other respects this seems to be a view in a town on the Rhine’.
Wilton did not consider that the original identification might in fact have been correct, but the subject can here be positively confirmed as Zurich. The sketch records the view up the river Limmat towards the lake of Zurich from somewhere near the present Rudolf Brun Brucke. In the middle distance is the Rathausbrucke, and in the left background the twin towers of the Grossmunster and in the right background the spire of the Fraumunster.
The background elements are readily identifiable, but it has to be admitted that Turner’s approach is so free that it is difficult to read the exact form of the Rathausbrucke in the centre distance. Most commentators have read this as a covered bridge like the Kapellbrucke at Lucerne. The Rathausbrucke, however, was (and is) a flat deck wide enough to serve as a market-place. In the sketch here, it appears that the middle of the three tiers represents the shade at water level, and the lower tier the reflection of the upper.
Today there is no sign on the river Limmat of the weirs that we can see to the left here, but until well into the twentieth century this stretch of the Limmat was the industrial heart of Zurich. One particularly striking feature of the outflows of Swiss Lakes, here as at Geneva (Rhone) or Lucerne (Reuss) or Constance (Rhine) is the constantly prodigious flow. Millions of tons of clear water slide by every hour, and at Zurich in Turner’s day the Limmat was crowded with mills. Weirs had been built to create a head of water, and two lines of mill buildings had been built out across the river.
The mills in the early nineteenth century can be seen in an engraving by Franz Hegi after the artist Heinrich Maurer (1774-1822) at the British Museum, and in their fully developed form in a remarkable engraved panorama dating from 1863 by the Paris-based artist Michel Charles Ficot (1817-1903). An aerial photograph shows the mills still in position in 1910, but all trace of them has now been removed. Turner’s exact viewpoint appears to have been on the left bank of the Limmat towards the upper left of the 1910 photograph opposite the western end of the ‘Uber Mule Steg’, or the upper line of mills, where there was a weir that answers to Turner’s and from where he would have has a clear line of sight up the river to the Rathausbrucke and churches.
Turner visited Zurich more than once in the 1840s. It is not yet possible to be entirely certain about the chronology, but we can infer a visit in 1841, another in 1842 and perhaps another in 1844. There are several sketches of Zurich subjects already identified in the Turner Bequest (click on the following link and enter ‘Zurich’, and then press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:) http://www.tate.org.uk/art
A definitive list of Zurich subjects awaits a systematic trawl through the large number of late sketches in the Turner Bequest. It is significant enough, however to note that as things stand, no comparative pencil sketch by Turner has been found that records the same material. So this does appear to be a distinctive record and given its phenomenal specificity possibly at least begun from the motif.
Most commentators have observed that this sketch is related to a colour study in the Turner Bequest, TB CCCLXIV 324.
This is usually described as a sample study made c.1842-3 for a watercolour of Lucerne by Moonlight at the British Museum. As my article on that watercolour observes the watercolour is more closely related topographically speaking to a pencil sketch (Tate TB CCCXXIX 7r), and the colour beginning is sufficiently unlike either the watercolour or Lucerne itself as to admit the possibility that it might show somewhere altogether different. This remains unresolved, but it is worth observing that the colour study and this watercolour sketch are very close in stylistic terms. The treatment of the boatman setting fishing baskets into the river is almost exactly the same; and certainly close enough to suggest that they might date from the same campaign. The comparison shows that the Turner Bequest subject is more highly wrought with its suffused layers of colour and fine stippling, entirely in keeping with the idea that it was developed as a sample study to form part of a demonstrative series designed to attract commissions for finished subjects. The comparison does little to dispel my suspicion, however, that the Turner Bequest subject may not show Lucerne at all.
However that may be, the present sketch certainly does show Zurich, and has all the properties that one might expect of a work begun, and perhaps largely executed from the motif. It is worth giving some consideration as to whether he had some supplementary light such as a lamp, to work by. From the vigour of the workmanship one suspects not, and to judge from the brightness of the effect there might easily have been sufficient natural light to work by. This still begs some consideration of the circumstances. Consulting Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, which had been published in 1838, and which Turner certainly used on his later Alpine tours, we may read that the recommended hotel in Zurich was the ‘Schwerdt (or Epee) – overlooking the Limmat, close to the broad wooden bridge which serves as a market-place’.
Murray’s Handbook does caution that it was ‘neither very good nor clean’, it does add that it was something of a Hobson’s choice, commenting that: ‘The inns at Zurich are notoriously dirty, high priced and ill-attended’ (note 5). Turner had travelled sufficiently to be phlegmatic in his expectations, but the attraction of a hotel with rooms that gave directly out onto the principal sublime assets of a place would have been a powerful inducement. It seems altogether plausible to imagine him enjoying the moonlight on the river outside his room, and thinking it worth the effort of going out to record it from a viewpoint close by.
1 See ‘Turner and Switzerland #2: Lucerne by Moonlight’, Sublimesites.co, 18 February 2014
2 L Gowing, Turner: Imagination and Reality, catalogue of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art New York, 1966, p.62, where repr.
3 Joe Goldyne, J.M.W.Turner: Works on Paper in American Collections, catalogue of the exhibition at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, California, 1975, no.45, repr. colour as pl.VIII.
4 TB CCCLXIV 324 is traditionally called Lucerne and dated 1842-3 but see my discussion in the SublimeSites article ‘Turner and Switzerland #2 (op cit), where both identification and date are queried.
5 John Murray, Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, 1838, p.24. To be fair I ought to say that whilst Zurich might still have a similar reputation for expense, the quality of the best is quite superlative (reportedly).
This article seeks to give some consideration to a well-known, but relatively-little-discussed watercolour by Turner, Lucerne by Moonlight at the British Museum, London (note 1). Given that it is widely considered to be one of the most important of a great late series of Swiss subjects from the 1840s, when Turner was in the last decade of his life, it is perhaps surprising that no-one has ever sought to ground the picture in his visits to the site.
Not since A.J.Finberg published his inventory of the Turner Bequest in 1909 has anyone made a systematic examination of Turner’s sketches of Lucerne. Finberg worked across the whole multitude of near 40,000 individual drawings, so he can be excused for having failed to recognise a significant number showing Lucerne, or for having described the subjects only in very general terms. I was prompted to look into these by my recent article on Turner’s watercolour of Lungern (note 2) and consequent interest in Turner’s Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook (Tate, TB CCCXXIX) which contains sketches of the Lungernsee, but begins with an extended sequence of studies at Lucerne. This in turn prompted a more extended search for Lucerne material in the Turner Bequest. This may well result in further articles but here I will focus on sketches that record the view from the Reussbrucke towards the Lake of Lucerne with the Kapellbrucke and Wasserturm as the main landmarks.
Given my avowed interest in the topographic content of Turner’s work, and my manifesto on the value of proper consideration of the subject through fieldwork investigation (see ‘Introduction’), this watercolour proves rather problematic. My greatest pleasure is to put Turner on the spot with colours and paper in hand, setting down phenomena so particular that they can only have been recorded direct from observation. In this case, the topographic content of the watercolour, and of a related colour study in watercolour (Tate D36182; TB CCCLXIV 324), turns out to be less than straightforward.
The article finally turns to give some thought to the figures depicted by Turner in the watercolour. These appear to have been completely overlooked by previous commentators. I do not pretend to be even close to offering a definitive interpretation of them; but I can say that they proved to be more puzzling than I anticipated.
Turner visited Lucerne probably on several occasions in the 1840s. He stayed at the Swan Hotel which had opened in 1835 and was the only hotel right on the lake front. It stood on the far side of the buildings in the centre of this composition. His room looked directly out onto the Hofkirche, the lake and Mont Rigi, and he used it as a vantage point to make numerous colour studies of the view, in particular of the Rigi under ever changing conditions of light and weather. The room would also have provided an excellent vantage point to observe the moon rising over the Hofkirche and the lake.
Across his visits, Turner made many sketches at Lucerne and several that record this specific material. It is not yet possible to be quite certain of the exact chronology, but the earliest of his sketches in stylistic terms appears to be a pencil sketch on a loose sheet of grey paper in the Turner Bequest (Tate D34107; TB CCCXLI 384), showing the Wasserturm and Kapellbrucke from the Reussbrucke, with the Clock Tower to the left. The drawing is by far the most naturalistic of all of Turner’s sketches at this site. The still-present oriel window is that of a building at the south end of the Reussbrucke, and from here the Jesuitenkirche, which appears in most of the other sketches, is hidden around the corner to the right.
Turner also made a very scrappy and hasty sketch of the view from the Reussbrucke in the Lucerne and Berne sketchbook TB CCCXXVIII 2v (note 3). Truly, this has been drawn with such rapidity that it verges on the careless. We can only assume that it was done to observe some effect or as an idea for a composition. On site it is plain that Turner has assembled the whole out of several constituent parts. The general view is that of the mouth of the Reuss as seen from the Reussbrucke, but Turner synthesises the sketch from several discrete viewpoints. The intersection of the Wasserthurm and Mont Rigi places us towards the right (south) end of the bridge. The angle on the Jesuitenkirche to the right, however, places us at a viewpoint further left towards the north end of the bridge. The angle on the Clock Tower and Rathaus to the right, by contrast, places us at the extreme south end of the bridge, or on the walkway connecting the bridge to the quay of the Jesuitenkirche. Even here it is not possible to see the tower that stands at the left end of the Kapellbrucke as Turner shows it here. This is the still-standing Tour Baghard, part of the Haus Zur Gilgen (note 4), but in fact from the Reussbrucke it is hidden behind the buildings of the Rathausquai to the left, and in fact does not present itself to view until one is outside the Jesuitenkirche. It seems very much as if Turner made this sketch whilst continually on the move, which perhaps explains the hastiness of the hand. A final complication is that the intersection of the Wasserthurm and Rigi, whilst on the line of the right end of the bridge, implies a rather higher viewpoint than any of the other details. But no obvious vantage point presents itself and it seems most likely that Turner simply reordered his material on the hoof to increase the dramatic effect. The internal evidence of this sketchbook – it includes a sketch for a watercolour called Lucerne from the Walls (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) which is usually dated to 1842 – points to a date of 1841 for this sketchbook, but conclusive foundations for dating are as yet unestablished (note 5).
Turner’s most intensive study of study of the site is spread over two sides of a page in the Lake of Zug and Goldau sketchbook TB CCCXXXI 28r, 28v, in which he recorded views up and downstream from the Reussbrucke. At the top of 28r is the view of the Wasserturm and Jesuitenkirche, with a detail of the Jesuitenkirche above in the top left corner of the page. This viewpoint is specifically at the northern end of the Reussbrucke, for it is only there that the Rigi can be seen directly behind the Wasserturm. In the third and fourth registers of f 28r is a two-part sketch that records the panorama from the Clock tower to the Jesuitenkirche. Turner’s viewpoint in this case is towards the southern end of the Reussbrucke, for it is only from there that the view is opened up of the clock tower. The viewpoint is in fact almost exactly the same as that of the Lucerne and Berne sketch above. Strangely, given the very hasty nature of that, its quality of detail is better than in the present sketch. The forms of the buildings here, especially that of the Jesuitenkirche are generalised and their forms merely suggested through a process of hatching, rather than being noted in any specific architectural detail. The implication appears to be that Turner knew he had sufficient information recorded elsewhere.
On 28v the top sketch records the view from the Bahnhofstrasse looking past the Wasserturm to the twin spires of the Hofkirche. This view is continued below to include the Rigi. It is significant to note here that the Hofkirche is not at all visible from the Reussbrucke. It only becomes visible in the vicinity of the Jesuitenkirche as one progresses along the Bahnhofquai towards the Kapellbrucke. In this sketch before the Wasserturm a small boat is coming to shore, evidently crewed by two women. This appears to be the germ of an idea that resurfaces in the finished watercolour. It is perhaps also worth noting in passing that two sketches on 28r, which record the view downstream from the Reussbrucke also record the sun in the sky as it begins to set along the length of the river. Albeit the sun rather than the moon, the idea of an orb reflected in the river, might have provided the germ of an idea for a moonlight. These sketches can be dated to 1842 by virtue of the fact that the sketchbook is bound with endpapers from an Almanac for 1842, and because a number of subjects in that book provided subjects that Turner developed in the winter of 1842-3 (note 6).
Turner’s last sketches in the vicinity of the Reussbrucke appear to be two rapid sketches in the Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook (TB CCCXXIX 1r,7r). The first records the Wasserturm and Hofkirche from a similar viewpoint to the sketch in the Lake Zug and Goldau sketchbook (reproduced above), except from a little further right in order to open up the Tour Baghard and tower of St Peter’s Chapel.
The second records the view looking upstream from the Reussbrucke, with from left to right, the Zytturm, Clock Tower, Kapellbrucke, Wasserturm and Jesuitenkirche. At first sight this appears to be unproblematic, but the material cannot be seen from any single point of view. The Zytturm may just be glimpsed from a viewpoint immediately downstream of the Reussbrucke on the left bank, but to see it above the intervening buildings so clearly as in this sketch would require a viewpoint several stories above ground level. Likewise the way in which the Rigi appears above the Wasserturm would require an elevated point of view. Yet this is inconsistent with the general angle of view which appears otherwise to be all at ground level. The view of the Zytturm, Clock Tower, Wasserturm and Rigi are all taken from a point of view at the south end of the Reussbrucke, but the view of the Jesuitenkirche is from the north end of the bridge. From the line of view at the south end of the bridge it is either seen very obliquely, or is hidden altogether. There seem to be some grounds for assigning this sketchbook to 1844 in that it contains sketches (7) for a watercolour called Lucerne from the Lake (Morgan Library, New York) that was painted in 1844-45.
So Turner laid down a thorough stock of material recording the topography around the Reussbrucke and Kapellbrucke, and when he came to paint his watercolour of Lucerne: Moonlight, he did so with plenty of reference material to hand, and with a distinct idea of its setting. The various points of reference enable us to be quite specific about its topography. To the left is the clock tower of the Rathaus, then successively over the Kapellbrucke we see the tower of St Peter’s Chapel, the distant twin spires of the Hofkirche, the tour Baghard and the Wasserturm. Our viewpoint is the left bank of the Reuss and the angle of intersection of the Hofkirche and the Tour Baghard situates us quite precisely at the landing steps to the Jesuitenkirche. It is not, however, possible to actually see the Hofkirche in quite this relation to the Tour Baghard, at least from ground level. As one moves from the Kapellbrucke down the Bahnhofstrasse towards this point, both are eclipsed behind the houses at the end of the Rathausquai (see photos). Nor indeed is it possible to see the tower of St Peter’s Chapel until one is quite past the Wasserturm. The watercolour is rather constructed from elements whose relations Turner understood from his explorations, but brought together synthetically in the watercolour to specifically represent the view from the Jesuitenkirche.
There is no conclusive evidence by which to precisely date the watercolour. The customarily accepted date of 1843 originates from John Ruskin. Writing an epilogue to his published notes to the exhibition of his Turners at the Fine Art Society in 1878, he gave an account of the origin of the late Swiss watercolours. He gives quite a detailed account of their beginning in 1842. Turner produced a series of sample studies in order to attract commissions for finished versions. The venture was only a qualified success – commissions coming rather hesitantly – but Ruskin thought that the work was among the best of Turner’s career. Ruskin gives a rather briefer account of subsequent years, Of 1843 he says: ‘[Turner] offered, in the next year (1843) to do ten more on the same terms. But now only five commissions could be got. My father allowed me to give two: Munro of Novar took three. Nobody would take any more. Turner was angry; and partly ill, drawing near the end, you perceive. He did the five, but said it was lucky there were no more to do. The five were: 1 Kussnacht. Munro of Novar. 2 ZUG. (No.64) Munro of Novar. 3. (I forget at this moment Munro’s third.) I think it was the Zurich by moonlight, level over the rippling Limmat; a noble drawing, but not up to the mark of the rest. 4 GOLDAU. (No.65) J.R. 5 ST GOTHARD (No.66) J.R.. Mr Munro thought the Zug too blue, and let me have it. So three are here (64, 65, and 66).’ It has to be said that Ruskin’s memory was hazy with regard to the Lucerne. He clearly remembers a moonlit subject of this kind, although he calls it Zurich, and the fact that it was in Munro’s collection, but it ought to be sufficient caution not to rely on this as conclusive evidence for a date (note 8).
Quite a lot of potential significance may be attached to the relationship between the finished watercolour and a coloured sketch in the Turner Bequest (Tate D36182; TB CCCLXIV 324), on which it is traditionally said to have been based. Turner produced a group of fifteen of these studies in 1841-2, another ten in 1842-3, none in 1843-4, and then another group in 1844-5. The most scholarly analysis of these groupings is that by Ian Warrell published in his Through Switzerland with Turner of 1995, in which he assigns the colour sketch to the second group of 1842-3. There is, however some reason to doubt that. It does not seem to have been previously considered that it might belong to the first series made in 1841-2. My reasoning here is that it is marked on the verso with a number in red chalk (‘46’). The same red chalk numbers appear on the versos of sample studies that were certainly included in the 1841-2 series, those e.g. of Splugen, TB CCCLXIV 277 (‘10’) or those for the Blue and Red Rigi, CCCLXIV 330 (‘17’) and 275 (‘15’). In all, in compiling his list of 1841-2 sample studies, Warrell 1995, p.149-50 notes red chalk numbers on nine out of his first ten subjects. The correlation is striking enough to seem almost diagnostic of membership of this set. The 1842-3 series, it is worth mentioning here has a different diagnostic form of inscription that gives a title, a number in the form ‘No.(nn)’ a reference in the form ‘x(nn)’, then perhaps another number and the name of the commissioner of the finished work. It would be interesting to make a complete collation of these marks. I give a list below (Appendix 1) of those of the 1842-3 series that I have collected from Warrell 1995 and elsewhere. In relation to the sample study of ‘Lucerne’ being discussed here, I might tentatively propose its membership of the 1841-2 series, and suggest that there might be sufficient room to wonder a little about how securely it might be identified as Lucerne at all (note 9).
As much as the watercolour plays with topographical detail, it is much closer to reality than the colour study. We might recognise in the latter some generic elements of Lucerne – the towers of the Musegg wall to the right; miscellaneous spires and turrets as do indeed typify the city, the twin spires of the Hofkirche in the distance, and a tower on a wooden bridge over the water. But the Wasserturm is much grander than the squat structure in the colour study, and stands towards the southern (i.e. right) end of the Kapellbrucke, not the northern end as given in the study. There is sufficient difference between the colour study and the finished watercolour to introduce some doubt into their relationship as the traditionally assumed, or at least to its directness. There is no doubt that the effect of the finished watercolour is derived closely from the colour study, but the topographical content has been improved. It seems very likely that the colour study was done from memory, and principally for the effect, but the finished version informed itself from the material gathered in the sketches.
Moonlight was a regular study for Turner. Another article on SublimeSites.co discusses this in relation to a watercolour of Sisteron (note 10). In the 1840s, with Turner in his later 60s, the subject began to take on increasingly elegiac associations. There are several moonlights amongst his Alpine sketches from this period, but this is one of the few finished watercolours in the Swiss series to have made it a core theme. Here Turner deploys the full weight of a lifetime’s understanding of complex atmospheric effects. He might certainly have observed the moon shining over the lake and into the Reuss as here. In 1844, for example, the 60% moon passed through ENE at an elevation of 10° at about 23.00 (GMT) on 3 September. One does not need to be so specific, however, to say that Turner was certainly a regular witness to moonlight, and had unmatched knowledge of its effects and variations, but it is significant enough to note that the specific effect depicted here is characteristic of the site.
It may not, however, always be quite so spectacular. Here, the air over the lake has thickened sufficiently to obscure the moon and the distant hills, including the distinctive wedge shape of the Rigi. The moon is heaving itself into the clearer atmosphere above, but the moisture is sufficient to diffuse the light across the lake surface, and clear enough above for us to be able to make out the moonlight catching high ridges of cirrus. Below, the variety of light is reflected and refracted amongst the shades of buildings and lights from windows into a myriad of glints and sparkles. The variety of mark and the material complexity of Turner’s workmanship gives the picture a sense of energy, as if the materials were chemically and physically dynamic; as much in active physical process as the living stuff of the world.
So far we have discussed topography and phenomena, and these are, indeed, rich and deep themes in Turner. But there is a human dimension in this picture that has yet to be considered. Despite the fact that the watercolour is in a well-known public collection, and that it has been exhibited, reproduced and commented upon on a number of occasions, it is, I believe, the case that no-one before has properly noted, let alone considered and discussed, the human incident that it contains (note 11).
To the left a raft of logs is passing by. Cutting timber in the forests around Lake Lucerne was an important economic activity, and the logs were tied into rafts and floated into the river Reuss, and down to the Rhine and as far as Germany and Holland.(12) The timbermen lived on the rafts all the way down to their destination and cooked and slept on board. Drifting across the lake towards Lucerne would be relatively peaceful and uneventful, but once in the river the raft would need constant vigilance and such steerage as could be managed. At Lucerne the raft was just entering into its long journey to the north and whether by sun or moon the crew will have to take watch and retain control at all times. The raft reminds the viewer of the constant endeavour that links this environment to ours. The timber might easily have been processed at Dordrecht or Rotterdam and shipped onwards to England (note 13).
On the opposite side of the composition is an altogether more puzzling tableau. Two women are carrying a recumbent third up onto the quay from a boat. Quite what significance this could have is far from clear. There are, however a few things that we might note. We have two women carrying a third who is completely incapacitated. The women are bare-headed, and have no shawls over their shoulders – this is obviously hard work. All give the impression of being of matrimonial age; are dressed in peasant costume, and we might have to admit a decided emphasis of their upper torso, particularly (and actually rather extraordinarily) in the figure to the left. So what can possibly be happening here? We cannot know anything for certain, but we might wonder about the circumstances of their arrival and of their destination. The fact they have arrived by boat suggests that they have come in from an outlying settlement on the lake, and that they are coming urgently – arriving at night. Clearly the patient is being brought for remedy or at least for succour. The exclusively female grouping, the nocturnal occasion and the conspicuous female attributes might suggest a complication in a confinement but clearly serious and incapacitating. We might thus think about where they could be headed. It is clear from the details of the watercolour that the quay at which they are landing is that of the Jesuitenkirche. It may be that the patient is being delivered to seek ministry from the community stationed there.
This introduces a new and specifically sectarian element. Lucerne was a major centre of Catholicism in Switzerland. This was the source of unrest and upheaval throughout the period of Turner’s association with the city. In 1835 government and education was secularised, monasteries closed and the Papal Nuncio, normally resident in Lucerne, was sent into exile at Schwytz. Following elections in 1841 the Catholic peasant leader Joseph Leu formed a new Catholic administration, and in 1844 Leu’s government recalled the Jesuits to the city. This led to a period of period of sectarian violence culminating in Leu’s assassination on 20 July 1845. Civil War followed in 1846 culminating in the rout of the Catholic armies and the introduction of a new secular constitution for the Swiss federation in 1848.
When Turner was in Lucerne in 1844 he seems actually to have had no inkling of the political turbulence around him. Writing in a letter of 28 December 1844 he remarked: ‘Now for myself.. I went.. to Lucerne and Switzerland, little thinking such a cauldron of squabbling, political or religious, I was walking over (note 14). It seems apparent that he was now much more fully appraised of the particulars. The open question remains how all this might be resolved in some kind of explanation. The women are peasant women, and from the lake, as we may infer. There might be something about their profession and the nature of the indisposition but we cannot quite construe that yet. There does seem to be a Catholic implication, related to the fact that they are arriving at the Jesuitenkirche and the Jesuits were a major issue in Lucerne in the 1840s. The fact is that the deepest Catholic roots were out amongst the peasantry in the villages and small towns, and it seems plausible to infer that it is the Catholic institution of the Jesuitenkirche that draws them here. At the very least we might say that there is an unrelenting play of matters of Faith, Necessity, Wellbeing, Mortality, Community acted out here in as urgently a sublime circumstance as might be conceived.
Quite how the specific details might be resolved remains unresolved, but the difficulty is surely part of the picture’s intention. Right from the very first, making drawings to be engraved for the Oxford Almanac in the 1790s, Turner had produced compositions that would stand and resist repeated scrutiny and consideration. At the very least we can say that here at Lucerne Turner intended to unsettle our more contented enjoyment of the topographic and phenomenal. He interferes with that by introducing elements that obtrude into consciousness to disrupt indulgence and enjoyment. Turner, we might say – even the matter will obviously take more prolonged consideration to resolve – intends to disrupt our consumption of Lucerne as a sight. Rather he establishes it as a site; a place in which things occur in both phenomenal and human dimensions that are rather more complex and even conflicted than might be envisioned by established forms or familiar tropes.
1) The original version of this essay was posted on 18 February 2014. Following a site visit to Lucerne in May it has been possible to include some of the author’s own photographs and to refine some of the subject descriptions. The principal prior treatments of Lucerne by Moonlight are by Andrew Wilton in Turner in the British Museum, 1975, no.292, and the same author in Turner and Switzerland, 1976, pp. 97-99, and Turner Abroad, 1982, nos. 109, 110. The most recent treatment and review is by Kim Sloan in J.M.W.Turner: Watercolours from the R.W.Lloyd Bequest, 1998, no.47.
2) David Hill, ‘Turner in Switzerland #1: The Lungernsee and Brunig Pass’, Sublimesites.co, 1 February 2014.
3) A J Finberg, Inventory of the Turner Bequest, 1909, for TB CCCXXVII 2v gives ‘Lucerne, with Pilatus’, mistaking the distant mountain for the Rigi. The title has remained in use until the present.
4) The tower is infrequently identified in Lucerne maps and literature, and there is nothing to identify it on site. It is called the Zier-Gilgen tower by Ian Warrell in Through Switzerland with Turner, Tate 1995, under no.36. Strictly speaking the tower is the medieval Tour Baghard, part of the original city defences and the house is the Haus Zur-Gilgen, built in 1507-1510, both named after prominent Lucerne families.
5) Given the similarity in format of the Lucerne and Berne sketchbook to that of the Lake of Zug and Goldau sketchbook, one might prefer the think that they were used on the same tour.
6) Subjects figured in the Lake of Zug and Goldau sketchbook that provide watercolours made in 1842-3 include Goldau, Kussnacht and the Lake of Zug, cf. Warrell 1995, pp.151-52.
7) Sketches for Lucerne from the Lake in the Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook include TB CCCCXXIX 3r and (especially) 3v.
8) For the record, Ruskin was very clearly aware of this watercolour nearer the time. In January 1852 Ruskin was in Venice and thinking about the consequences of Turner’s death a month earlier. He wrote several letters to his father preparing for purchases should any work come on the market. On 23rd January he produced a list of his top priorities. In a group of eleven works: ‘Those which I would give anything in reason for’ he included as number two: ‘Monro’s Lucerne, by moonlight – from the river’, clearly this picture (J.L. Bradley: Ruskin’s Letters from Venice, 1851-2, 1955, p.146). Munro consistently called it Lucerne, and exhibited it as such at the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition in 1858 (no.378), catalogued it as such in a privately printed catalogue of his collection in 1865 (no.37) and sold it as such at his sale at Christie’s on 2 June 1877 No.34). Warrell 1995, p.152 quotes a letter from Ruskin to his father of January 1852 in which he remembers being offered a ‘beautiful Lake Lucerne now Munro’s’. Warrell infers a date of 1843 for the reference, but following the logic of the letter, Ruskin situates it after June 1845 when he bought three watercolours from Turner, and in the winter of 1845-6 when he was still hopeful of getting Turner to do some new commissions. It seems to me doubtful that the reference relates to the present watercolour – hardly best described as the ‘Lake of Lucerne’, but if it is relevant testimony, then it points to quite a late date for Lucerne by Moonlight. Warrell 1995 says that even if it was made in 1843, it may not have been sold until 1844.
9) By-the bye, many commentors (Wilton, 1976, followed by Sloan 1998), cite a similar watercolour study of a moonlight effect over a river at the Art Institute of Chicago, This was called ‘Zurich’ in time past, but was reidentified as Lucerne by Wilton, producing from the present watercol9ur and TB CCCLXIV 324. The Chicago study can here be confirmed as a sketch of Zurich. I will endeavour to illustrate this as soon as possible in a short separate article on SublimeSites.
10) David Hill, ‘Moonlight and its implications: Turner at Sisteron’, Sublimesites.co, 8 November 2013
11) I can find only two references to the figures at all. The privately printed catalogue of H.A.J. Munro’s collection of 1865 (no.37) described it as ‘LUCERNE. Moonlight; City to left; Wooden Bridge, centre, mid-distance; Two Girls on Walls, with Drapery, right foreground; Men in Red Vest, on Point of Land, left; Black Pitchkettle on Fire, etc’., and Walter Armstrong’s catalogue of Turner’s work in his 1902 book, Turner, (p.263) describes it as ‘Looking up the Reuss toward the covered bridge, town chiefly on the left. Women by quay in right centre. Blue drawing.’ Neither seem to have seen the particular interest of the group at the right.
12) John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, 1838, p.57 gives an entertaining account of the ‘Taper of Alpnach’ – on the Brunig Pass route from Lucerne to Brienz, the precise route recorded in the Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook, TB CCCXXIX – of the extraordinary investment of an immense wooden chute, built to slide wooden logs from high up on the mountain, down to the lake.
13) A watercolour of 1842 of Konstanz (called ‘Constance’) (York City Art Gallery), includes a similar detail of a log raft beginning its journey north. It also features an atmospheric effect even more complex than that in the present watercolour. I have material on that subject for a future article, if opportunity allows.
14) John Gage, Collected Correspondence of J.M.W.Turner, Oxford U.P., 1980, no.275.
Collation of Turner ‘sample studies’ from the Swiss series of 1842-3, based on the inscriptions on their versos:
A watercolour at the Fitzwilliam Museum (W.1499) shows the Devil’s Bridge – the old bridge still standing but by-passed by a new bridge built during the early 1830s. Warrell 1995, p.152 lists this under the sample drawings for 1843-4, but this is to ignore the inscription, which seems to conform to the pattern of those belonging to the group of 1842-3 ie with title, a number, and some other numerals usually including an x. The form of the 1842-3 inscriptions was first discussed in any detail by Cormack 1975 under his no. 43 and also as an appendix pp.79-82. Warrell 1995 no. 74 TB CCCLXIV, called The Via Mala looking towards Thusis, is not dissimilar to the Devil’s bridge in terms of style, and might, instead show Pfeffers, looking across the Tamina gorge to the castle of Warterstein. Warrell loc cit also gives the watercolour of Hospenthal (ie Andermatt) W.1501 to the 1843-4 group, but the inscription (No.5) in the numbered sequence also suggests that it was one of the 1842-3 group.
The inscriptions in numerical order are: Nos 1, 3, 4, 6 and 13 remain to be accounted for. The spelling as as given in the inscription:
2 Kusnacht and Tells Church and Gesler Castle/ Lake of Lucern/ No.2 x 99 6 Mr Munro’ TB CCCLXIV 208 (Warrell 1995 no.29)
5 Hospital N St Gothard/ No.5 X 014 (W.1501 Fitzwilliam Museum)
7 Goldau – Rigi – and Lake of Zug/ No.7 and x o5 TB CCCLXIV 281 Warrell no.27
8 Devil’s Bridge No.8 04 X 20 (W.1499 Fitzwilliam Museum)
9 Art Lake of Zug No.9 x s 10 Mr Munro TB CCCCLXIV 280 Warrell 1995 no.28
10 Bellinzona No.10 W.1457 Indianapolis Museum of Art
11 Bellinzona No.11 Manchester City Art Galleries W.1489
Sotheby’s London sale of Impressionist and Modern Art on 6 February 2014 included as lot 140 a Turner watercolour identified as ‘Swiss lake scene, possibly Brienz, c.1848’ (1). This article can now offer an exact identification of the subject as the Lungernsee (2) and also propose a more precise date, relating it to Turner’s last tour to Switzerland in 1844, and to provide a context that gives it a key role in Turner’s last testimony to his explorations of Switzerland.
This article is the first of what will hopefully grow to be a series exploring Switzerland more widely. The article itself will probably also grow in parts. The focus here is on the watercolour at Sotheby’s in 2014, and a related studio version of the composition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Future parts will the immediately related depictions of the Lungernsee and the Brunig Pass, and, later, further subjects sketched by Turner in 1844 on his route from Lucerne to Thun.
The view is taken from the right (eastern) bank of the Lungernsee, near its northern end, and looks north-north-east over the lake foot to the low limestone ridge that dams the lake at this point. The Lungernsee lies on the Brunig Pass route that connects Lucerne with the Haslithal, Brienz, Interlaken and Thun. This watercolour records the view down the valley towards Lucerne. The ridge in the far distance is an intermediate ridge that descends towards the Lake of Sarnen, but its interest from this particular point of view is that it reveals, towards its right-hand end, a glimpse of the peak of Mont Pilatus above Lucerne.
So far as can be documented at present, Turner made the crossing of the Brunig only once in 1844. He filled the Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook (Tate Britain, Turner Bequest, CCCXXIX) with drawings on the passage including one (f.24) taken from almost exactly the same viewpoint as this, but looking in the opposite direction south towards the Brunig Pass and the Bernese Alps.
To view this work on the Tate’s online catalogue of the Turner Bequest click on the following link, and then click on your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.
The Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbook contains no other sketches of the Lungernsee, and it does look as if Turner was making quick pencil notes in the sketchbook, and working in colour on larger sheets. A few very slight sketches and inscriptions in the Grindelwald sketchbook, e.g. TB CCCXLVIII 3, also put him in the area, but none of the sketches in that sketchbook appear to record this view.
The Lungernsee itself was of particular, and topical, interest at this time. In 1836 after fifty years of planning and experiment, its level had been lowered by a hair-raising mining operation to dig a tunnel from lower down the valley up to (and underneath) the lake bed to break through at the desired new level. As might be imagined this was an extremely high risk operation, and became ever more so as the tunnel worked its way up to within a few feet of the lake bed, not knowing – except for the judgement of the surveyor – quite how much (or little) rock remained to prevent the water breaking through. John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland published in 1838 gives a detailed and entertainingly graphic account of the operation (3). The project was designed to claim new land from the lake for grazing and cultivation, and succeeded to a degree, but as Murray pointed out, much of the ground revealed was steep, all of it muddy and rank, much of it prone to slump and collapse, and it took quite a few years for anything much to be made of it. The effects were still fresh for Turner to see in his sketches, and in some respects – Murray bemoans the fact that the lake in former days had extremely beautifully wooded shores – it is quite a surprise that he recorded it at all. Such human endeavour did, however, routinely interest him, but it may be significant that in 1844 Turner may have been travelling in the company of William Brockedon (4). He was responsible for about half of Murray’s Handbook to Switzerland, so would have known the stories told in the book very well. Turner and he would no doubt have reflected deeply on the lengths, risks, privations and labours that the inhabitants of these mountains were prepared to endure for the sake of improvement. As it turns out the endeavour was nullified. In 1921 the lake was newly dammed for hydro electricity generation, and the water level set significantly higher than it had been originally. In total the water level in Turner’s day was something like 28metres (92 feet!) lower than it is today (5).
This study provided the basis of a larger studio watercolour at the Victoria and Albert Museum (6). This was begun in 1848 as one of a series of larger watercolours of Swiss subjects, but in the event (as with a number of others) was left unfinished, possibly due to his waning strength.
The same trip yielded at least two other Lungernsee watercolour studies of similar size and style. The first is a study at the South African National Gallery (7). that records the view from the north end of the lake looking north to the Brunig Pass and Bernese Oberland. This likewise formed the basis of a large late watercolour in a private collection that was begun about 1848 and also left unfinished (8). These were known as ‘Lake Nemi’ until recent times when identified by the present author before their exhibition together at Essen in 2001 (9). The third study in this series, which has not been exhibited since its appearance at Leger Galleries in London in 1968 (10) records the view of the Brunig Pass itself from the head of the lake at Lungern. This also provided the basis of a large late watercolour begun in 1848, but in this instance carried to completion in one of the most celebrated of Turner’s last watercolours, The Brunig Pass (11).
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 on the remains of the lake below. It must have seemed quite a shock to anyone journeying up into the upper reaches of the valley expecting to find sequestered peace and a land that time forgot. All of a sudden the traveller was plunged into one of the most dramatic civil engineering projects in Europe. The age-softened shores were now a slew of naked rock and mud, and the shrunken lake appears not quite able yet to assimilate itself to its new condition. The modern equivalent might be to set off for a walk across some flower-filled Alpine meadow, turn the corner and find some huge motorway or High-Speed train construction project in full swing. Turner often took cognisance of contemporary developments in the world, but whilst such interest might explain his recording of the subject in a sketch, the completion of two colour studies, and the commencement of two finished watercolours does suggest that the subject struck a poetic chord.
Turner was sixty-five in 1840 and spent the next five summers exploring the length and breadth of the Alps. In the process he made thousands of sketches and watercolour studies. The project was obviously urgent; to cram into remaining time as much experience as possible of the world at its most vital and sublime. In 1844 he was applying himself to the task with as much, if not more, vigour than at the outset. He went away at the end of July and returned at the beginning of October. There is an oft-quoted letter to F H Fawkes of 28 December 1844 (12): ‘Now for myself.. I went.. to Lucerne and Switzerland, little thinking such a cauldron of squabbling, political or religious, I was walking over.(13) The rains came on early so I could not cross the Alps, twice I tried, was set back with a wet jacket and worn-out boots and after getting them heel-tapped I marched up some of the small valleys of the Rhine and found them more interesting than I expected.’ From this we can infer that he did most of his exploration on foot, and covered enough distance to wear out his boots. He seems to have been unaware until after his return of the political turbulence around Lucerne while he was there, but must have read about it in the papers after his return. Despite his efforts, however he does seem eventually to have been beaten by bad weather. For a man in his sixty-ninth year this was by any measure an impressive performance, he must have walked several hundred miles in the course of the tour. The effort took its toll, and in the same letter he confesses: ‘the rigours of winter begin to tell upon me, rough and cold and more acted upon by changes of weather than when we used to trot about at Farnley, (14) but it must be borne with all the thanks due for such a lengthened period.’ As it turned out, this was the last occasion on which he was able to visit the Alps.
Turner adopted a rather novel way of producing work from these tours. At home in the winter of 1841-2 he made a selection from the coloured sketches that he had to hand and worked these up as a series. These were shown to collectors by his agent Thomas Griffith, and finished versions of their compositions offered at 80gns each.(15) The results of this process, such as the famous Blue Rigi at Tate Britain (16) include some of the most beautiful and profound work of Turner’s career. Not that his clients seemed to have been altogether aware that they were the beneficiaries of a major artistic crescendo. Quite the reverse, they complained about the price, bickered over the subjects that they wanted, felt uneasy about Turner’s developing style, and affected reluctance, truculence and resistance. In the end the series was only completed by Griffith having to take one of the pictures in lieu of his commission. With friends and supporters like these, Turner must have felt distinctly under-encouraged.
John Ruskin was one of the regular buyers, and although sales became even more sluggish as new series emerged, Turner persevered with his subjects up until 1845. Then there was something of a lull but in 1847 Turner offered to make a new series. It was at that point that he turned to his sketches of the Lungernsee to provide a focal point among the subjects. It is not at all clear what the full set of sketches consisted of, but Ruskin recalled that he asked Turner for ten subjects at 100 guineas each (17), but in the event only two, The Brunig Pass (Private Collection, see note 11) and The Descent of the St. Gotthard (18) were finished. The present sketch provided the basis for one of the others, a watercolour known as ‘Lake with hills (?Brienz)’ (Victoria and Albert Museum, see note 6) but in fact developing the same view as here of The Lungernsee, going up to the Brunig Pass, looking north-north-east. The beginning was never carried to completion. Turner’s health seems to have been on the wane. He seems to have taken six months to bring the two finished examples to completion and an exchange with John James Ruskin (John Ruskin’s father) over delivery of the watercolours in July 1848 indicates that Turner had injured himself in a fall: ‘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’. (19) He does not seem to have got about very much after this, up to his death three years later in 1851.
It is perhaps not surprising that Ruskin should have selected this as a subject. He had crossed the Brunig Pass via the Lungernsee on 22 August 1835 when a young man of sixteen and travelling on the continent with his parents. His Diary contains a delighted description of the journey: ‘Morning very fine. Passed by the valley and lake of Sarnen, the valley luxuriant, lake with little variety. Then climbed a long hill with magnificent limestone cliffs on the right. It is amazing what beautiful forms the Alpine limestone assumes, in the Jungfrau rising twelve thousand eight hundred feet above the sea, and even in lower mountains breaking into a variety of peaks, which render limestone scenery the finest, with the exception of granite, among the Alps. Here the peak on the right is of a beautiful form, and finely wooded with dark pines. From the top of this hill [the Kaiserstuhl, leading up to the Lungernsee] the Wetterhorns are seen rising, with their triple crest and precipice side, above the beautiful woods of the Brunig, and beneath, the small lake of Lungren [sic], blue, or green, or of a very beautiful between colour shadowed by the steep hills which hang over it, but with a verdant shadow, and emerald reflection, set like a transparent jewel among raised work of mountains chased with forest.’ (20)
It seems obvious that Ruskin saw his 1835 memories reflected in Turner’s sketches, and he would certainly have been appalled by the Lungernsee’s re-engineering of 1836. One wonders whether Turner was playing some game with Ruskin. There is a well-known incident in one of the Swiss commissions – a watercolour called Storm in a Swiss Pass (‘First Bridge above Altdorf’) (21) – which Ruskin commissioned in 1845. Somewhat ruefully Ruskin commented that he had admired the trees in the original sketch, but ‘he cut all the pines down by way of jest, and left only the bared red ground under them.’ (22) Turner appears to have been trying to teach Ruskin not to follow his preferences and tastes quite so self-indulgently. The experience of the world required a wider receptiveness than that. He might well have heard Ruskin wax lyrical about the Lungernsee in ignorance of the real strife and extraordinary measures that were being adopted there. As it transpired Ruskin did not pass this way again until 16 June 1866, by which time the lake shores would have reclothed themselves sufficiently for the work to be no longer obvious.
Jest with Ruskin or not, we can be sure that Turner selected the subject for poetic reasons of his own. The time of day is morning. The sun illuminates the little hillock 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. We can imagine an early start, a healthy pull up the hill to the lake, and now a brief dip into the chill of the valley. In the studio version Turner obviously remembers the rain suffused skies under which he travelled and the blinking in and out of the fitful sun. He also remembered the drained lake, with its ‘verdant shadow, and emerald reflection’ like some reservoir of elixir. But he also recalls being surprised to look over into its basin, shocked to find, as the figures in this sketch, that its stock had incontrovertibly shrunk, and its possibility of replenishment, despite the pending rain, rendered null.
1 The watercolour was first discovered to modern scholarship at Agnew’s in 1978 when it was offered as no.70 as ‘A Swiss Lake, c.1845, priced at £24,000. It was bought by the Swiss art dealer and collector Jan Krugier (d.2008) and appeared with the rest of his astonishing collection of drawings at Sotheby’s, 6 February 2014, lot 140 as a ‘A SWISS LAKE SCENE, POSSIBLY BRIENZ, c.1848’, repr. colour, est. 300,000-500,000 GBP. There is a link to the catalogue entry on their website under the image. It was catalogued by Andrew Wilton in his 1979 catalogue of Turner’s drawings and watercolours as no.1564 ‘Swiss lake scene, 272 x 388 mm, c.1848’, repr. b/w. His dimensions are mistaken.
2 The identification of the subject at the Lungernsee was first proposed by the present writer in correspondence with Andrew Wilton in 2001, but has remained unpublished until being offered for the first time here.
3 John Murray, Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, 1838, pp. 59-61.
4 A sketch in the Grindelwald sketchbook, Turner Bequest CCCXLVIII 17 a, Tate D35102, is inscribed ‘No matter what bef[ell] Hannibel – WB and JMWT […] passed the alps Setr 3 1844’. The ‘WB’ is usually taken to be William Brockedon. To see this sketch on the Tate online catalogue of the Turner Bequest click on the following link, and then click the back button on your web browser to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-mountains-d35102
5 According to the Dictionnaire Historique de la Suisse, the original level was 675m, lowered in 1836 to 657m. The current, post-1921 level fluctuates between 692 m (max) and 667.5m (min). Given a normal level today of about 685m, the water level in Turner’s watercolour was some 28m (92 feet) lower than at present, and the lake must have been considerably smaller. 170 hectares were recovered in the 1836 operation. [cf.: http://www.hls-dhs-dss.ch/textes/f/F8676.php].
6 The Lungernsee, going up to the Brunig Pass, looking north-north-east. Called ‘Lake with hills (?Brienz)’, c.1848. London, Victoria and Albert Museum (124-1894). Watercolour, 353 x 527 mm, 14 x 20 3/4 ins. Wilton 1979, no.1563 as ‘Lake with hills (?Brienz), c.1848-50’, repr. b/w.
7 The Lungernsee, Switzerland, looking south-south-west towards the Brunig Pass, evening. Called ‘A Lake in a Swiss Pass’ and ‘Lake Nemi’, 1844? Watercolour, 229 x 320 mm, 9 x 12 1/2 ins, South Africa, South African National Gallery, Cape Town (1517); Wilton 1979, No.1561 as ‘A Swiss subject (Lake Nemi)’, 1844?, repro b/w.
8 The Lungernsee, Switzerland, looking south-south-west towards the Brunig Pass, evening. Sometimes called Lake Nemi, c.1848, Watercolour over pencil on white wove paper WM ‘J Whatman 1846’, 369 x 540 mm, 14 x 21 ins, Sotheby’s 4 July 2007 no.4 as ‘A Swiss Lake, Lungernsee’, repr. colour, est. £2-3m, sold for £3,604,000 to US private collector; Wilton 1979, No.1560 as ‘Lake Nemi, c.1848-50’, repr. b/w.
9 Andrew Wilton, William Turner: Licht und Farbe, catalogue of the exhibition at Essen, Germany, 2001, nos.186-187
10 The Brunig Pass from Lungern, looking south west to the Brunig pass with the Bernese Oberland Mountains in the distance, 1844? Called ‘The Brunig Pass, from Meiringen’, watercolour, 252 x 362 mm, 10 x 14 1/4 ins, exh. Leger Galleries, London, 1968 no.37 as ‘Brunig Pass, Switzerland, c.1830, 9 3/4 x 13 3/4 ins’, repr. in advert in the Burlington Magazine, Dec 1968 as ‘Brunig Pass from Meiringen. Wilton 1979, no. 1551 as ‘Brunig Pass (from Meiringen), ?1844, ?Private collection, USA’, repr. b/w.
11 The Brunig Pass from Lungern, Switzerland, looking south west. Called The Brunig Pass, from Meiringen, 1848. Pen and red ink [or watercolour] on lightweight white wove writing paper, 318 x 527 mm, 12 1/2 x 20 3/4 ins. Private Collection; Christie’s, New York, 28 January 2009 no. 37 as ‘The Brunig Pass from Meiringen, Switzerland’, repr. colour, est. $1,500,000-2,500,000, sold for $1,082,500. Wilton 1979, no.1550 as ‘The Brunig Pass, from Meiringen, 1847-8’, repr. Colour
12 John Gage, Collected Correspondence of J.M.W.Turner, Oxford U.P., 1980, no.275.
13 In the 1840s the area around Lucerne was mired in age-old disputes between factions of Catholics, Protestants and Liberals. In 1844 the Conservatives formed a government in Lucerne and appointed Jesuits to train the priesthood. Things got progressively worse and descended three years later in to open civil war. The liberals prevailed and in 1848 a New Constitution for Switzerland was agreed.
14 Farnley Hall. The Yorkshire home of his early patron Walter Fawkes (d.1825). I have written about this relationship in Turner in Yorkshire (1980), In Turner’s Footsteps (1984) and Turner and Leeds (2009). Francis Hawksworth Fawkes was the eldest son, and remained in contact with Turner until the artist’s death,
15 A number of scholars have written about Turner’s Alpine series of the 1840s, but the most comprehensive treatment is Ian Warrell’s Through Switzerland with Turner, catalogue of the exhibition at the Tate, London, 1995
16 The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne, sunrise, ie Mont Rigi from Lucerne, 1842, Watercolour on white wove paper WM ‘J Whatman/ Turkey Mill’, 297 x 450 mm, 11 3/4 x 17 3/4 ins, Tate T12336. Sold at Christie’s 5 June 2006 no.53, as ‘The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne, sunrise’, repr colour, est £2m+, sold to Private collector for £5,832,000 and subsequently bt by the Tate Gallery following a public appeal.
17 Cf. Warrell, 1995, p.155.
18 The Descent of the St. Gotthard, above Airolo, looking down the Ticino towards the Dazio Grande and Faido. Called ‘The Pass of St Gothard and Splugen Pass, 1848. Japan, Koriyama Museum of Art. Watercolour, 318 x 527 mm, 12 1/2 x 20 5/8 ins. Wilton 1979, No.1552 as ‘The Descent of the St. Gothard (Valley of the Ticino), 1847-8’, repr. b/w.
19 Gage 1980 no.310 National Library of Scotland MS 590 fo.1631 of Midsummer day 1848. The watercolours are first mentioned in letter dated 13 January 1848; -Gage 1980, no.308.
20 Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse (eds), The Diaries of John Ruskin, Oxford U.P., 1956, Vol.1, pp. 45-46
21 Storm in a Swiss Pass (‘First Bridge above Altdorf’, 1845. Watercolour, 290 x 470 11 1/2 x 18 1/2 ins. Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery (D.23.1937); Wilton 1979, No.1546 as ‘Storm in a Swiss pass (‘First bridge above Altdorf’), 1845′, repr. b/w.
My friends tell me that it’s not real work, not proper research; all this trotting off to places Turner might have been. It’s a bit like Richard Long expecting to make a living out of walking and camping holidays. My unappreciative chums may have a point, but I want to argue here that ‘real’ work is constituted in acquiescence to a system most often blinded to everything but what it thinks it wants. In receiving service contrary to its demands then it might it be given a glimpse of a less predetermined destination.
In his book, The Truth in Painting, Jacques Derrida develops the idea of the parergon (note 1). His discussion spreads across one hundred and twenty eight pages of extremely demanding reading. In a nutshell [if that’s at all possible] ‘Parergon’ means ‘by-work’ (Greek: ‘Ergon’ = work; ‘Para’ = besides; by). Derrida develops a conceptual model in which meanings (= the work) are constantly renegotiated by their context. In philosophical terms he shows that any meaning is always constructed in historical social circumstances, but cannot remain stable since such systems are de facto always in process of dynamic change. The work belongs to the system, and the parergon belongs to the process of change. Derrida is reading the work of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, and finding that his mindset is constructed by a particular 18th century system. Derrida discovers a succession of cases in which Kant’s concepts come under pressure from the context (note 2). Another, more literal sense of ‘by-work’, not Derrida’s subject, and now not in general use, is that of a work that is subsidiary to one’s ordinary employment. In this case, I think, the two senses might be productively related.
At the end of September I took a short trip to Arnside in southern Cumbria. I’d never been there before, but Turner had. He visited the area in 1816 on his tour of the north of England.
I published most of his sketches and watercolours in my 1984 bookIn Turner’s Footsteps, and visited every site that he visited, with one exception. Passing from Kendal towards the northern shore of Morecambe Bay, Turner made a southerly detour to Dallam Tower, the early 18th century seat of the Wilson family near the town of Milnthorpe. I discussed the site in the book (note 3), but on my tour, for reasons that now elude me, I managed to by-pass it. So now, between departmental meetings and setting up modules for the new semester, I found a couple of days, booked myself into Arnside Youth Hostel, and resolved to fill in the missing section.
Arnside Youth Hostel is a real treasure (note 4): A big old stone school house covered in red Virginia creeper; more than slightly tatty; full of creaky bunk-beds and extraordinary people. A cyclist who had come from Skipton that day, and the next morning was heading for the high Lakeland passes. Remarkable enough, but especially so in that this was accomplished with one arm. A retired school teacher who was drawn to Arnside several times a year over more than sixty years as a YHA member. Arnside itself with its dainty Edwardian verandas facing the Kent sands, and trains periodically rattling across the viaduct to Grange. The Arnside and Silverdale area of outstanding natural beauty, criss-crossed by paths, including the ‘Fairy Steps’ on the walk from Arnside to Dallam. A steep cleft up a limestone crag. It is lucky, apparently, to ascend without touching the sides, but as I discovered, this is only possible for fairies and four-year olds. Art historians may become wedged. But I digress…
To view this image in the online catalogue of the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain (note 5). Follow the link below and the click on your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/search/D11595
Dallam Tower was Turner’s proper work in 1816. The purpose of the tour was to fulfil a commission to make two hundred watercolours of subjects in the north of England. These had been selected by a committee of gentlemen to illustrate a multi-volume ‘General History of the County of York’ (note 6). Perhaps one of these gentlemen was Rear Admiral George Wilson of Dallam. It is the kind of country-house subject that was well established as a type of art and during the previous twenty years Turner had made many examples of this kind. He generally always liked to get an overview of his subject so he found the most elevated point of the deer-park from where he could survey the house in relation to the estuary with the limestone crag of Whitbarrow Scar on the far side and the high Lakeland fells towards Coniston Old Man in the far distance. It is surprising just how unchanged is the scene: At the top of the slope to the right are the stumps of Scots Pines that Turner saw there, and the park is dotted with large oaks, many of which must be the same specimens as were growing there then. He made one of his most careful and expansive sketches, and obviously laid down the basis for what would have been a splendid picture. The proposed finished work was a casualty of the curtailment of the project. He did manage to complete a few watercolours that were published later, but here is no record of any picture of Dallam. But then, unrecorded Turners still surface quite regularly…
In Turner’s Footsteps fixes the time of day as afternoon: Low tide was at about 3.30 p.m. and the Kent can be seen snaking across the sands. Having taken care of the required work he wandered down to the shore. The path leads out of Dallam Park to a bridge over the river Bela where a view of the estuary opens out. Turner followed a path northwards to the right. The modern path follows the top of a large dyke to reclaim land from the marshes, and it offers superb views all around. There is nothing here but space, sky, air, gulls, dog-walkers, and encompassing light. Turner found himself in a space undefined, exploring on his own account, outside of the demands of the task and in a type of landscape that figuration had not yet recognised, let alone knew how to require.
To view this image in the online catalogue of the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain follow the link below. Click on your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/search/d11500
Half a mile or so beyond the bridge towards Levens he stopped and took stock of the panorama. He had no particular requirement to draw the subject, and certainly not in his best manner, but still felt impelled to set down some memorandum of the situation. He had used his largest and best sketchbook for recording Dallam Tower but here he chose a smaller sketchbook. Its 5 x 8 ins (12.5 x 20.6 cm) pages offered a panoramic format appropriate to the space. He started with the main sketch in the centre looking north-west to Whitbarrow Scar marked by a ‘W’, no doubt to indicate its conspicuous exposure of white limestone. To the left are the high peaks of the Coniston Old Man group and to the right (from left to right) the peaks of Fairfield, Kirkstone Fell and the High Street group, all approaching 20 miles distant. To the right is a squat tower, possibly a lighthouse, and on the sands in the foreground are figures, possibly gathering cockles – still an important activity. That done, he continued with a second sketch on the same page, above, to pan round to the south-west and record the view across Milnthorpe Sands towards the mouth of the Kent, with Arnside Knott in the distance to the left, and the fells above Grange and Lindale towards the right. In the far distance a couple of ships can be seen moored off Sandside. Surprising as it may seem today, Sandside was once an important quay. It had the honour of being the only significant port in the county of Westmorland, and served Kendal and the southern Lakes. Coal and manufactured goods came in and cloth, stone and other produce shipped out. The estuary was also a significant site of shipbuilding, and vessels from here plied around the shores of the Atlantic and all across the northern seas (note 7)
It is a wonderful situation, more notable now for seeming bypassed by the events of the world, and its principal characteristics are those of emptiness and space. Even in 1816 there was nothing in this as a subject that would have provided any interest to the viewer. Yet it is a place into which the imagination can learn to expand without limit or constraint, unconcerned by the exigencies of business. The qualities of such a space might began to register with an alert imagination such as Turner’s, but there was no frame in wider consciousness in which it could be construed. Even Turner had not yet the recognition of it to make it a subject in itself. Yet in the space between the prescribed tasks, his by-work was engaging with emergent possibility. It was to be fourteen years before this kind of subject sufficiently coalesced in Turner’s practice for him to be able to bring a major statement of it before the public. Then it was a different country, but a similar environment, that provided the subject for the painting Calais Sands, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830.
This painting is online as part of the Public Catalogue Foundation hosted by the BBC ‘Your Paintings’. The site offers an extended commentary and an enlargable image. Follow the link below and click your browser’s b’back’ button to return to this site:
The parergon now began to emerge as a work in itself, albeit falteringly. The picture was not much noticed, but one critic, although troubled by its emptiness, did acknowledge a strange aesthetic power: ‘it is literally nothing in labour, but extraordinary in art’ (note 8). Perhaps consciousness was not yet able to see it as unproblematic. The picture did not find a buyer for another fourteen years, and even then the purchaser formed no great attachment to it and moved it on through a few collections without it finding a long-tem home (note 9). Its last private owner was Bury paper-maker Thomas Wrigley who enjoyed it for only eight years up to his death in 1880 after which in 1897 his children made a founding gift of his collection to Bury Art Gallery. Time has steadily clarified its importance. It is now one the star of Bury’s collections and one of Turner’s most internationally admired compositions.
When Turner entered that kind of space on the banks of the river Kent in 1816 it was non-descript. His engagement with the place was superfluous and unrequired, but Turner always allowed the by-work to occupy him as much as the work, and therein found material with which to challenge and refocus the pre-required. Truancy turns out to be work after all, at least when done so attentively.
There is always something to be listened for in the by-work. Walking to Dallam amply justified a visit to the Arnside Chip Shop and afterwards ‘The Albion’. Sitting by the old coastguard station on the way back to the hostel, it fell dark. The lights of Grange came out one by one, reflected in pockets of water. About twenty minutes later quiet turned to commotion, as if a storm had suddenly blown in. It was too dark to see the cause as the reflections turned to black. Only eventually did we begin to connect this with the phenomenon known as the Arnside bore. When the tide turns on Morecambe Bay, it gathers into a wave that pours into the creek. In this instance it was all the more striking for sweeping by so unexpectedly in the dark. When it passed we were left with stunned silence, and early autumn leaves shaken from the trees.
Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Published Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
David Hill, In Turner’s Footsteps, 1984, pp.79-80. I describe the sketches but do not reproduce them. That deficiency is remedied here.
Such a shame that it’s closing. The ‘For Sale’ board hung tolling at the gate. Think again, YHA! Arnside wants money spending on it but it is surely the perfect enactment of YHA’s charitable purpose.
I have catalogued all these sketches for the new online catalogue of the Turner Bequest on the Tate’s website. This is possibly one of the largest catalogue projects ever undertaken in British Art History, comprising something like 40,000 individual sketches, drawings and paintings. The catalogue can be accessed by following the link below, click on your browser’s back button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner. I completed about 2000 entries comprising of Yorkshire and north of England sketches (including those of 1816) and a large group belonging to a tour of the Alps in 1836. I was told in August that they were about to by published on the website, but I have waited in vain anticipation. I hope to live long enough..
Never mind that many of these subjects were in Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland The grand project was curtailed in 1821 by the death of its author, Thomas Dunham Whitaker. Only two volumes comprising An History of Richmondshire were properly published in 1823.
I enjoyed Leonard Smith’s book, Kendal’s Port: A Maritime History of the Creek of Milnthorpe, Kendal, 2009.
The Morning Chronicle, 3 May 1830 quoted in M Butlin and E Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W.Turner, 2 vols, 2nd edition, Yale University Press, London, 1984, no.334
It was eventually sold in 1844 by Turner’s dealer Thomas Griffith for £500. Over the next few years, the buyer, Joseph Gillott, shuffled it on through various hands, before ending up with it on his hands again.