Coronavirus restrictions have forced many of us to find imaginative room in small things, but last week I received a pleasant reminder of previous excursions to sublimity on the grand scale. The British Art specialists Lowell Libson and Jonny Harker sent me a link to their new online exhibition ‘Good Prospects’. The selection includes a Ruskin watercolour that I have long known, but only from a century-old reproduction, and it took me back to blithe times over twenty years when I made a photographic expedition to more-or-less exactly the same spot.
John Ruskin The Aiguilles of Chamonix from below Les Houches, 1842
Watercolour and pencil heightened with white on grey wove paper, 13 × 18 ⅛ inches, 330 × 462 mm
With Lowell Libson & Jonny Harker, 2020
Provenance: Robert Ellis Cunliffe of The Croft, Ambleside, d.1902; Mrs Cunliffe (1912); Private collection, Australia; Private collection, UK, from whom purchased 2007 by Lowell Libson, to 2020 when exhibited by Lowell Libson & Jonny Harker in virtual exhibition ‘Good Prospects’ April 2020 as ‘Aiguilles of Chamonix near Les Houches, 1842’, repr colour; £45,000.
Ruskin’s viewpoint is a little way down the Arve valley from the village of Les Houches. We can see the river towards the left and the spire of Les Houches church to the right. The viewpoint provides one of the most comprehensive panoramas of the line of Aiguilles towering over the Chamonix valley. From left to right we see the Aiguilles Verte, Charmoz, Blaitiere, Plan, and Midi (above the church spire) culminating at the right with the peak of Mont Blanc de Tacul. The summit of Mont Blanc itself stands beyond the top right corner of the composition and the village of Chamonix is just hidden in the distance behind the bluff to the left.
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In actual fact my photograph is taken from a viewpoint very slightly higher and further right than Ruskin’s view. Ruskin’s exact position can be plotted by the intersection of the crest of the Cretes du Taconnaz with the summit ridge of Mont Blanc to Tacul, and the bead of the church spire on the Aiguille du Midi. Work on the ‘Route Blanche’ motorway to Chamonix, completed in 1990, altered the foreground detail from Ruskin’s time. The bluff that occupies the centre of Ruskin’s watercolour was blasted, backfilled and almost completely obliterated by the new carriageway.
The re-emergence of the watercolour reminds me that I have a good deal of unfinished business with Ruskin. I have planned all manner of grand projects on Ruskin’s Alpine drawings but only a few things have seen the light of day. There are a few articles on http://www.sublimesites.co [click here] and back in 2012 I wrote up a wonderful Ruskin letter for the British Art Journal (‘Perfection, I should call it’: John Ruskin’s Personalised Guide to Switzerland, 1843’, Vol.13, no.1, pp.54-67). Over the years I have been compiling a database of Ruskin in the Alps, and now count eight hundred and fifty-eight items, plus scores more that I haven’t got round to entering. One day, maybe.
I knew of this subject from its black and white reproduction in the Library Edition of The Works of John Ruskin (Vol.35, pl.20).
Ruskin himself dated the watercolour to 1842 in a list of sixty-four Chamonix drawings made in his diary for 1854 (Works 5/xxi-xxii). It is no.14 as ‘Aiguilles of Chamouni, from Les Ouches 1842’.
Its first private owner appears to have been Robert E Cunliffe, a Manchester solicitor who retired to ‘The Croft’ at Ambleside in the last year of the nineteenth century.
Following Ruskin’s death in 1900, numerous works came onto the market and Cunliffe managed to assemble a significant group before his own death in 1902. His collection descended in the family and was exhibited at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal in 1969. At that time James S Dearden published a study of the collection “The Cunliffe Collection of Ruskin Drawings” in The Connoisseur. 171.690 (August 1969) pp. 237–40. After 1981 the collection was divided up. The largest part went to Abbot Hall but seven particularly fine examples were bequeathed to King’s College, Cambridge. In 2014 I started to write up the King’s drawings in detail one by one [click here] and so far have completed four. I had hoped to raise support for that work, but without success. Perhaps working on this drawing of Les Houches might prompt me to resume work on the final three.
To return to our present theme: In 1842 Ruskin was twenty-three years old, just graduated from Oxford, and making his third visit to Chamonix. In 1833 his first sight of the Alps had fixed in him a sense of where his true calling was to be found. At Chamonix in 1842 he found his vocation to explore the most profound knowledge of nature, especially as it was embodied in the art of J.M.W.Turner. On the way home he began to compose ‘Modern Painters’, the first volume of which was published in May of 1843.
His diary for this year is at Yale University Library and, although kept inconsistently, it does provide valuable documentation of his activity during his tour to the Alps. He travelled with his parents, although they are rarely mentioned, and their route took them from Calais through France to Geneva. They arrived in Chamonix by the 17th June and stayed four weeks.
They put up at the Hotel de l’Union , now disappeared, but built in 1816 and the first of the grand hotels to be built in Chamonix. In the 1830s Murray’s Handbook, p. 291 considered the Londres to be one of the finest hotels in the Alps, so standards at the Union must have been exceptional for the Ruskins to have made it their preferred base.
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By anybody’s standards the valley of Chamonix is a place of epic scale. The floor of the valley lies at over 3000 feet, the first shoulder over 6000, the crest of the Aiguilles about 12,000, and the summit of Mont Blanc at 15774. It is indeed a place against which to test one’s strength.
Ruskin started gingerly enough, recording on 17 June that he climbed half way up the Tapia. This is the glacier-strewn slope that extends from the foot of the aiguilles to the top of the shoulder, so even only half-way to the shoulder involves a climb of 1500 feet. Sensibly, he came down for fear of becoming tired.
The following day he climbed to the Montanvers at 6276 feet and ventured onto the ice of the Mer de Glace [see here]. At the age of twenty-three he quickly acclimatised and a week later on the 24th he climbed to the Flegere a point at 6158 feet on the north side of the valley that gives a spectacular view into the valley of the Mer de Glace opposite, and then climbed a thousand or 1500 feet further. On the 27th he went up to the Col de Balme at 7201 feet: On the 29th to within 300 feet of the top of the Brevent, which towers over Chamomix from the north at 8284 feet. On 30th to the Tapia, 1 July to the Montanvers again and on 11 July he made it to the summit of the Brevent.
By the standards of contemporary twenty-somethings at Chamonix, this might not seem altogether adventurous. In any case he might not have accomplished all of this on foot. On 4 July he records that he went up to the Pavilion de Belle Vue, a climb of 2591 feet from Les Houches, but the same entry records that he ‘rode down’ about 2.00. All the same, we can certainly say that he threw himself into the landscape with some physical vigour and could legitimately feel in the vanguard of Alpine afficionados.
Ruskin later said that he did very little drawing at Chamonix in 1842, but this is not borne out by the evidence. There are references in the diary to drawings made towards Argentiere, at Chamonix and of a Tadpole Stream on the road towards Servoz, plus a specific reference on 12 July to the present view: ‘Tuesday, down to.. Servoz. View of aiguilles just below Les Ouches, decidedly finest in valley.’ Surprisingly this subject is the only one of 1842 that is listed in the 1854 list, but I have collected records of seven others for the database. Why then did Ruskin list only one in 1854? It seems most likely that those listed were the drawings that actually had to hand. He continually gave drawings as gifts to friends and family.
My database includes the following;
The Aiguille du Dru seen over the Glacier du Bois from the floor of the Valley of Chamonix, sold Sotheby’s, 8 July 1982 no.154 as ‘The Matterhorn’, repr colour, est £2500-4000.
Rocks and Stream, Chamonix, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal.
Mont Banc from the Prieure, Chamonix, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, USA
Mont Blanc with the Glaciers des Bossons and Taconnay, seen across the Arve valley from the pool of Les Galliards, below Chamonix, sold Sotheby’s 8 July 1982 no.155 as ‘An Alpine Valley’, repr colour, est £4-6000
Glacier des Bois and Aiguille Bouchard near Les Tines, Lancaster Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, RF894
Mont Blanc with the Aiguilles, from above Les Tines, reproduced in the Library edition as Vol.4, frontispiece, when in the collection of Sir John Simon.
Chamouni in Afternoon Sunshine, or On the Road to Chamouni, given by Ruskin to his tutor Osborne Gordon, and reproduced in the Library edition as Vol.3, pl.4, when in the collection of W Pritchard Gordon.
At some stage I might secure an opportunity to write something at length about Ruskin and the Alps. My database includes one hundred and forty-seven subjects with Chamonix in the title, and perhaps as many more in the area of Mont Blanc. Many more no doubt remain to be catalogued. One day some Alpine venue might think of staging what could be a superb exhibition. For the present I’ll content myself with expanding the frame of the present drawing a little more.
In the months before setting out for Chamonix in 1842 Ruskin enjoyed two artistic initiations. Firstly he saw the set of Swiss watercolours and ‘sample studies’ that Turner showed to prospective clients through his dealer Thomas Griffith. Ruskin recognised these as the culminating point of Turner’s knowledge of nature at its most sublime. He even persuaded his father to order two finished examples. He also took lessons in painting from James Duffield Harding. The latter was a very successful drawing master, known for a distinctive sketching style using toned paper and white highlights, but also known as an associate of Turner and capable of producing work of Turnerian effect and grandeur.
Ruskin had already discovered the power of drawing when used as an analytic tool; as a way of entering into understanding; of piercing through prefiguration to glimpse the strangeness of the real. His recent experience at the University of Oxford had engendered an appreciation of the sophistication of academic understanding, but also of its limitations. He saw a fiercely penetrative sense of things embodied most perfectly in Turner, a man of no educational qualification or sophistication, but whose work contained deeper understanding of nature than anyone else had ever achieved in landscape. An understanding achieved through practice.
Drawing became Ruskin’s best and lifelong investigative apparatus and words the attempt to elucidate what he learned through [and embodied in] practice. One of the most superficial things he took from Harding was a certain stylishness of finish, but he learned quickly that finish was an artificial affectation, unless it contributed to the purpose of analysis and understanding.
In a letter to W. H. Harrison from Chamonix dated June 20, 1842 we can see how rapidly the conceits of finish were overwhelmed by experience. Harrison published Ruskin’s early attempts at Poetry in the magazine Friendship’s Offering, and appears to have expressed the hope for some new effusion about Chamonix:
“If I have not followed every suggestion you have made, it is only because I am so occupied in the morning—and so tired at night—with snow and granite, that I cannot bring my mind into a state capable of taking careful cognizance of anything of the kind. I cannot even try the melody of a verse, for the Arve rushes furiously under my window—mixing in my ear with even imaginary sound, and every moment of time is so valuable—between mineralogy and drawing—and getting ideas;—for not an hour, from dawn to moonrise, on any day since I have been in sight of Mont Blanc, has passed without its own peculiar—unreportable—evanescent phenomena, that I can hardly prevail upon myself to snatch a moment for work on verses which I feel persuaded I shall in a year or two almost entirely re-write, as none of them are what I wish, or what I can make them in time.” [Works 2/222]
The uselessness of poetic affectation is significant of what Ruskin came to consider as his proper Chamonix work, in that he set himself to slough off all conceits and conventions of the Alps, and come to know the area through the most painstaking, prosaic programme of study that he could muster, He made diligent records of clouds and weather effects, collections of rocks and minerals, botanical studies and some of the most penetrating and concentrated of all drawing studies of the area. In this drawing we can already see him working through the affectation of Harding’s style to a real appreciation of the distinctive cleavages and underlying dynamics of mountain geomorphology. We can also see the emergence of Ruskin’s lifelong interest in the relationship of macro and micro set out in the relationship of distant, middle distance and foreground forms.
Reflecting on this experience immediately after his return to England, the project gained an adamantine purity. Writing to his college tutor, the Rev. W. L. Brown in August 1842 he observed:
“Chamouni is such a place! There is no sky like its sky. They may talk of Italy as they like. There is no blue of any firmament visible to mortal eye, comparable to the intensity and purity and depth of an Alpine heaven seen from 6000 feet up. The very evaporation from the snow gives it a crystalline, unfathomable depth never elsewhere seen. There is no air like its air. Coming down from Chamouni into the lower world is like coming out of open morning air into an ale-house parlour where people have been sleeping and smoking with the door shut all night; and for its earth, there is not a stick nor a stone in the valley that is not toned with the majestic spirit; there is nothing pretty there, it is all beautiful to its lowest and lightest details, bursting forth below and above with such an inconceivable mixture of love and power—of grace with glory—its dews seem to ennoble, and its storms to bless; and with all the constant sensations of majesty from which you never can escape, there is such infinite variety of manifestation, such eternal mingling of every source of awe, that it never oppresses, though it educates you.’ [Works 2/223].
In beginning my own visit in 1999 I should probably have adopted more of Ruskin’s caution. Far from saving myself from getting tired, I decided that the best way to begin a walking tour of Mont Blanc would be to ascend to the top of the Brevent [on the cable-car, I might add] and then walk down to Les Houches. The first quarter was glorious, the second quarter, sufficient, the third quarter, excessive, and the final quarter a mere blur of cramping calves and jellied quads. In retrospect, attempting one of the longest and most sustained footpath descents in the whole Alps was ill considered.
In the morning descending the stairs to breakfast could only be accomplished in the seated position. Walking over the Col de Vosa, or at least down the other side to Contamines, was simply out of the question. So it was decided to grimace along the level path to Les Houches station, take this photograph along the way, catch the train down to St Gervais, and then take a taxi up to Notre Dame de la Gorge. From there the route headed consistently uphill for two days to the Croix du Bonhomme, and that proved surprisingly comfortable. The descent to Le Chapuieux was accompanied by [how shall I put this] some protestations, but after that normal progress was resumed. Suffice it to say that the person looking through the lens was less sparkling than the scene before him.
This is the fourth in a series of seven articles that will catalogue an important group of drawings by John Ruskin at King’s College, Cambridge. For general notes on the collection see under article #1. I have to admit that progress with the catalogue has been somewhat slow: Part #3 appeared in 2014.
4. The Mer de Glace from the Montanvers Hotel above Chamonix, 1849
Graphite, pen and ink with brown and blue-grey washes, on smooth white wove paper, 12 3/4 x 19 1/4 ins [as measured 12.07.2012 DH, 322 x 493 mm (sight)] in good-quality old washline mount, but not acid-free and wants replacing.
The artist to
Henry Acland (1907);
The Squire Gallery, London ?to
Esmond Morse (whose name is pencilled on the backboard) and so to his daughter
Mrs Guy Barton (1969) by whom given 1981 to
King’s College, Cambridge
Exhibition and Publication:
Exhibited Alpine Club 1907 no.25 as ‘From the Acland Collection’
E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, ‘Catalogue of Ruskin’s Drawings’, in The Works of John Ruskin, 1903-1912, Volume 38, pp. 216-309, no. 441 as Mer de Glace; sepia (12 3/8 x 19). Theodore Dyke Acland. Exh. Alpine Club (1907) 25. . This beautiful drawing was specially made for Sir Henry Acland
Exh Abbot Hall 1969 no.31 as ‘Chamouni, Mer de Glace’, lent by Mrs Guy Barton (nee Morse)
Ruskin newsletter, no.25, Autumn 1981, p.10 as no.3 as ‘Chamouni, Mer de Glace, watercolour, 19 1/4 x 12 3/4 ins. Exhibited Alpine Club 1907 ‘From the Acland Collection’
Examined by DH 12.07.2012
This watercolour is in very good condition, and represents a confident, virtuoso piece of draftsmanship, combining energetic handling, with tight control of detail. The colour was always muted, painted in a combination of sepia and blue-grey washes.
The subject is the famous glacier of the Mer de Glace, a little way -east of the French Savoy alpine resort of Chamonix. The viewpoint is a window in an upstairs room of the old Montanvers Hotel. The view of the glacier is flanked to the left by the les Echellettes, from where the ridge rises to Les Drus (3754m) out of the composition top left, and flanked to the right by the Tete de Trelaporte from where a rocky ridge rises to the summit of the Aiguille des Grands Charmoz (3444m), out of the composition top right. The major peak in the centre distance is the Pointe Walker (4208m) of the Les Grandes Jorasses, and the ridge of the Franco-Italian border peaking over 4000m with the Dome de la Rochefort (4015m) and Aiguille de Rochefort (4001m). The latter stands at the far end of a ridge that rises from the glacier in the centre of the composition via the Aiguille de Tacul (3444m). The drawing is slightly vague to the right of the Aiguille de Rochefort, but just in view from this point of view, is the Aiguille du Geant (4013m) cutting a distinctively sharp triangular silhouette.
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The site became famous following a bivouac there by the English visitors Pockocke and Windham in 1741. They were followed by a steady trickle of visitors, which with the publication of more and more guidebooks became a stream. The first refuge was opened there in 1779 and demand was so great that a proper hotel was built in stone in 1840. That provided Ruskin with his room, and is still standing to this day. Despite the fact that the only access was on foot or on muleback, the old hotel was joined by an exceedingly grand new building in 1880, which still offers great comfort as the ‘Refuge de Niege, Montanvers’. In 1909 a mountain railway was completed to bring visitors up from Chamonix in ease, and today that carries thousands daily in the season.
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The style of the drawing is closest to that of drawings made on Ruskin’s 1849 tour of the Alps. A good comparison is a sepia study of the Glacier des Bossons at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: Link to Ashmolean catalogue entry
Ruskin painted that from the Hotel de l’Union at Chamonix, over several days, and as a result is even more highly developed. Ruskin claims to have been hesitant about using colour, not being able to process form at the same time as colour. He later writes about the contrast between the schools of Greece (form and chiaroscuro) and the Gothic (colour and pattern) in the Oxford lectures, where the dichotomy in his own practice became reified into an educational programme and a history of art.
The Abbot Hall 1969 exhibition label is inscribed with a note: ‘From the collection of Juliet Morse (nee Tylor) a pupil of John Ruskin’. But this is incompatible with the Squire Gallery label that categorically gives it to Acland and the 1907 Alpine Club exhibition.
Rather it appears to have been an Esmond Morse purchase [presumably from Squires], and the note on the Abbot Hall label reflects a mistaken presumption of Mrs Guy Barton (nee Morse). The entry for this study in the catalogue of Ruskin’s drawings in the Library Edition of Ruskin’s Works no.441 refers to the exhibition at the Alpine Club in 1907 and expressly says ‘This beautiful drawing was specially made for Sir Henry Acland’.
Ruskin’s muse in this drawing was the geologist James David Forbes. His great book, ‘Travels in the Alps of Savoy’, first published in 1843, was by far one of the most scientifically important studies of the Alps. This book was the first to properly describe the true nature of the motion and agency of glaciers. If that were not important enough, it also proposed a conception of the ebb and flow of glaciers over deep time. He was already well-known by the time Ruskin began to cultivate serious Alpine ambitions of his own. Forbes had done most of his fieldwork for the book on the Mer de Glace in 1842. Ruskin was himself at Chamonix in 1842, but might not have been aware of Forbes’s work at that time, but he was certainly aware of his reputation when their paths crossed at the Simplon Pass inn in 1844, and Ruskin was starstruck and not a little embarrassed when his parents inveighed the great man to look at their talented son’s own Alpine work.
Forbes had a not-altogether-welcome advisory role in Ruskin’s visit to Chamonix in 1846. A letter to George Richmond from Lucerne of 30 August gives important material on Chamonix for that year (Works 36/62-63):
‘I wonder you did not give up everything when you found yourself overworked and come out with Acland—or at least make an appointment with him somewhere. I had the good fortune to meet with him at Chamouni, and we had one day together—Mrs. Acland giving him up for a glacier ramble, and waiting for us at the edge of the ice, to make tea in the most benevolent and delightful way conceivable, and then walking, or to speak more correctly, skimming, down the hill with us like a swallow; but they professed themselves obliged to go away the next day. I did not like to press them to stay, and I think perhaps they had some notions which on my account prevented their staying, when they could; however, away they went, much to my sorrow, for Acland had unluckily met with Forbes the day before, and Forbes had set him on a nasty, useless, ugly, bothering glacier walk—in which we lost our day—and I couldn’t take him to any of the noble places. We found some beasts in the ice, however, which pleased him, and perhaps for practical purposes he learned as much upon it as he could anywhere, but he got no conception of Chamouni. I was only there four days myself. I didn’t want to go at first, because it always gives me too much vexation to leave it. But we went because it was said some rocks were bared on the Mont Blanc in unusual places. All newspaper—the Mont Blanc is as changeless as the blue sky above it; but though we had wretched weather, I never thought Chamouni so unearthly—it is quite awful, and quite alone—nothing that I have yet seen can be compared with it in any wise; its inexhaustibleness and perpetual freshness to me I am truly thankful for—other scenery palls. I never entered it with so much wonder, nor left it with so strong regret.’
Acland’s connection with this watercolour is made even more compelling (and poignant) by Ruskin’s reminiscence of Acland in Praeterita (Works 35/197-98): They first met when Ruskin went up to Oxford to begin his studies at Christ Church College:
‘Henry Acland, by about a year and a half my senior, chose me; saw what helpless possibilities were in me, and took me affectionately in hand. His rooms, next the gate on the north side of Canterbury [quad], were within fifty yards of mine, and became to me the only place where I was happy. He quietly showed me the manner of life of English youth of good sense, good family, and enlarged education; we both of us already lived in elements far external to the college quadrangle. He told me of the plains of Troy; a year or two afterwards I showed him, on his marriage journey , the path up the Montanvert; and the friendship between us has never changed, but by deepening, to this day.
The 1846 walk on the glacier with Acland might almost provide an occasion for this study, except for the fact that in that year Ruskin was only at Chamonix for four days, and the documentation proves that, apart from the excursion to the Mer de Glace with Acland, he was rained off or otherwise engaged. We do not know how or when the watercolour passed to Acland; nonetheless their shared exploration of the subject certainly must have given it special significance.
The principal documentation for Ruskin’s Alpine travels, apart from drawings and letters, is the diaries and notebooks kept by Ruskin himself, mostly at the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster, and also in the case of tours of 1846, 1848 and 1849 a diary kept by his valet, personal assistant and general factotum, John Thomas Hobbs, now at the Morgan Library, New York.
Ruskin was at Chamonix three times in 1849, and both his and Hobbs’s diaries contain copious detail. Sifting through it, however, it is clear that Ruskin’s main work was on the Tapia, the extensive sloping area of moraine, glacier and rubble that stretches between the foot of the aiguilles and the forest above the valley from the Montanvers to Plan de l’Aiguille. His main objectives were to try and understand the true forms of the aiguilles and the proper character of their geology. I hope to find opportunities to continue exploration of the work of 1849, but the Mer de Glace and the Montanvers remained somewhat peripheral until the end of Ruskin’s third visit of that summer to Chamonix, 15-30 August when the opportunity arose to make the present watercolour.
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Unfortunately Hobbs’s diary finishes on 18 August. Presumably it must have been continued in a separate volume as yet undiscovered, but by way of some compensation the Morgan Library volume does close with a pressed Alpine Gentian, collected on the Tapia on that final day.
Ruskin’s Diaries, however, are exceptionally detailed for this period. We discover that he was walking up to the Tapia from Chamonix almost daily – a climb of over 1000m, and then often the best part of another 1000m up to the foot of the aiguilles. At thirty years of age, he must have been in the best physical shape of his whole life, but even so, he decided to reduce the labour for a few days by staying at the hotel at the Montanvers for three nights, 22-25 August. The interlude came as a revelation: On 22nd he wrote ‘I think I never enjoyed any evening so much as this in my life.. I had no idea what this place was, until I sat at the window quietly today, watching the sunset and the vast flow of the ice, swelling down the gorge – a dark and billowy river – yet with the mountainous swell and lifted crests that the iron rocks have all round it..
His principal work continued up at the foot of the Aiguilles Charmoz and Blaitiere, but on the final day, the 25th, he makes an explicit reference to this watercolour:
I have certainly not lately nor often in old times, felt stronger emotion than in watching the dawn from the Montanvert these three mornings past. Yesterday I saw it when it was still very dark and Orion burning beyond the Grandes Jorasses, and the whole river of heaven, between the hills, full of stars; and again later, when, as I was watching the increase of the serene, clear, cold morning light, a beacon intensely flashed out on the summit of the Dru. It was the morning star. I was up early to-day, and drew the Aiguille Charmoz before breakfast; then worked on glacier; then took a little ramble among the myrtilles on the hill-side: came in again and finished glacier, and [afterwards] descended to Source of Arveron [and thence back to Chamonix].
Whilst Ruskin was drawing and making geological observations, his assistant John Hobbs (or ‘George’ as Ruskin called him) was working on a parallel project of equal, if not even greater significance. In 1845 Ruskin had become interested in the new photographic process of daguerreotype. In 1839 Louis Daguerre sold his patent to the French government and in 1841 a British patent was bought by Richard Beard in London. Briefly, the process involved a copper plate with a coat of polished silver being sensitised to light with fumes of iodine and bromine. The image could be developed with mercury fumes, and fixed with a salt and soda solution. Despite the complexity and uncertainly, not to mention toxicity, of the process, daguerreotyping was rapidly improved and commercialised, and the equipment produced in sufficient quantity for ‘home’ use. Ruskin invested in his own equipment and Hobbs trained in its use. The diaries of 1849 feature a variety of references to Hobbs lugging the equipment around and carrying it on his back up lengthy climbs sometimes made arduous, even delirious, by hot weather and thirst. From the references it is plain that Hobbs attempted a significant number of daguerreotypes for Ruskin. The fallibility of the process mean that many of his effort resulted in disappointment,, but there were also several moments of exhilaration. After John Hobbs moved on from Ruskin’s service in the early 1850s, Ruskin trained a subsequent assistant Frederick Crawley from 1853 to make many more. A large number of daguerreotypes survive, many at the Ruskin Library and another large collection with Ken and Jenny Jacobson. In 2015 the Jacobsons published a complete catalogue of all those surviving in a splendid book, ‘Carrying Off the Palaces: Ruskin’s Lost Daguerreotypes’.
Thus Ruskin and Hobbs were in the avant-garde of Alpine photography. Ruskin even claimed that Hobbs took the very first photograph of the Matterhorn when they were at Zermatt in 1849. That might actually be the case, and in any event Ruskin and Hobbs were most certainly at the cutting edge of representational technology and philosophy. A daguerreotype of exactly this view of the Mer de Glace survives at the Ruskin Library, Lancaster (RF Dag 75) and although it is given to Crawley and dated 1854 by both the Jacobsons and the catalogue of the Ruskin Library, it seems almost certain that Hobbs must have taken the subject during his stay at the Montanvers in August 1849. Were it not for the attribution by the Jacobsons and the Ruskin Library, it would seem an straightforward conclusion that the two views were taken at the same time.
The comparison of photograph and drawing illustrates the capabilities and limitations of each practice. The perspective of the photograph is entirely dictated by the optical specification of the lens. The perspective, scope and movement of the drawing is dictated by living conception and perception. The photograph mechanically records, within the limits of its resolution and its orthography, the forms of every detail. The drawing on the other hand transmutes that detail into rhythm and relation. If I am correct about the date of the drawing, then it was made towards the end of one of the most sustained and intense periods of scrutiny of rock and mountain form every undertaken by any artist. Drawing is an accumulative and assimilative process. Every drawing enters into an understanding of the subject, every understanding deepens and shapes perception. Over this summer Ruskin had entered more deeply than anyone into the nature of the ice-moulded and shattered rock form of the Mont Blanc massif. Though the drawing registers the outline and spatial contours of its subject, its draughtsmanship transmits a sense of the transmutation of material across time. One wonders what he would have thought of the hoard of visitors today, who come up on the train, wielding every kind of photographic apparatus from phones to high-end cameras, 4k video, or even (and I do so much want one) a drone (!).
Throughout the tour of 1849 Ruskin used Forbes’s Travels in the Alps as a guidebook. Not only did Forbes’s insights shape what Ruskin looked for, and what he saw, but so Ruskin’s observations illuminated what he read in Forbes, and established an amplifying loop. Ruskin later gave a terrific account of viewing the Mer de Glace for the first time in the light of Forbes in Fors Clavigera (Letter 34, October 1873) Works 27/639-40):
‘In 1843 [Forbes] solved the problem of glacier motion for ever, – announcing, to everybody’s astonishment, and to the extreme disgust and mortification of all glacier students, – including my poor self (not the least envious, I fancy, though with as little right to be envious as any one), – that glaciers were not solid bodies at all, but semi-liquid ones, and ran down in their beds like so much treacle.
“Cela saute aux yeux,” we all said, as soon as we were told; and I well remember the intense mortification of first looking down on the dirt bands of the Mer de Glace, from the foot of the Little Charmoz, after I had read Principal Forbes’ book. That we never should have seen them before! – so palpable, so inevitable now, with every inch of the ice’s motion kept record of, in them, for centuries, and every curve pencilled in dark, so that no river eddies, no festooned fall of sweeping cascade, could be more conclusive in proof of the flowing current. And of course it flowed; how else could it have moved but by a series of catastrophes? Everything explained, now, by one shrewd and clear-sighted man’s work for a couple of summer months; and what asses we had all been!’
Given how large the Mer de Glace figured in Forbes’s research it is perhaps surprising that it features relatively infrequently in Ruskin’s work. There are numerous other subjects in the locality, but his generally looked in other directions or for alternative locations. It is perhaps the case that after Forbes had made so much of it, Ruskin viewed the Mer de Glace as exhausted in terms of its personal potential.
He did, however, return to this exact subject in 1874 in a watercolour of The Mer de Glace from the Montanvers above Chamonix at the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster (RF 1996P1206). This returns to the classic view of the Mer de Glace from the Montanvers, and looks to have been painted direct from nature, and very likely from a room in the Montanvers Hotel.
This drawing is dated 1874 in the catalogue in Ruskin’s Works, but in the recent literature has most frequently been dated to 1849. It currently stand thus in the online catalogue of the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster. This drawing, however, is surely that documented in a letter dated 14 October 1874 to Mrs Simon from Chamonix (Works 37/145) in which Ruskin mentions going up to the Montanvers to make a drawing of the dirt bands from the window of the cabane for his forthcoming Oxford lectures. Works speculates that this might be the Lancaster drawing. Ruskin’s Diary for 17 October 1874 records that he spent the morning finishing his glacier drawing.
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The comparison with the King’s College drawing is illuminating. The handling of the Lancaster drawing is subtly developed and refined. Whilst on the one hand more relaxed, it is also equally as observant; the treatment of the Aiguille du Tacul in the centre, being both more deft and better assimilated. The use of colour to infuse the scholarly content with imaginative depth is also extremely marked, and a significant degree of development in Ruskin’s artistic power becomes evident albeit employed with considerable restraint and subtlety.
It is interesting to compare the state of ice in the Lancaster drawing with that recorded in that at King’s. It seems clear from the glacier edges to the left and right that the ice is lower in the later drawing by three or four metres at least. It is now perhaps thirty metres lower still, and in the summer a slew of rocky debris. The glaciers around Chamonix reached their peak in recent history in 1822, so were in retreat during Ruskin’s entire career. He was one of the first to sound the alarm about climate change. By the 1870s, to him it was yet more evidence of the onset of an era of corruption and debasement. He would not be at all surprised by the continued trend of the last 150 years.
One of the Turner highlights of 2016 was Ian Warrell’s splendid exhibition of ‘Turner et la Couleur’ which showed at the Hotel de Caumont, Centre d’Art at Aix en Provence 4 May to 18 September, and then as J M W Turner: Adventures in Colour’ [and STILL, FOR ONE MORE WEEK ONLY] at Turner Contemporary, Margate, 8 October – 8 January 2017].
The exhibition included one item of particular interest to me. My first post on 5 November 2013 was ‘Moonlight and its implications: Turner at Sisteron’ and I followed up on that on 20 April 2014 with an article entitled ‘Turner at Sisteron: Further Observations’. One of my principal interests in these articles was a watercolour in a private collection of ‘Sisteron from the North West’ that featured a rather remarkable, and very specific effect of the castle casting its shadow on the Rocher de la Baume. At that time there was no colour reproduction of the watercolour available, so I had to be content with a scan of an old black and white image. So it was a particular pleasure to see it included in the selection for the exhibition and reproduced at high quality in the catalogue for the exhibition (no.90 in the French edition).
A few days ago, Ian Warrell very kindly sent me a digital image of the watercolour, with the owner’s permission to publish it on Submimesites.co. I am grateful to him, and to the anonymous owner, and have now updated the original article to feature the new image. It is remarkable that the shadow is even more dramatically apparent in the colour reproduction that it was in black and white.
This is the third article in an occasional series exploring Normandy subjects in the Cotman collection at Leeds Art Gallery. In September 2016 I spent the month travelling through Normandy and visited all the sites represented at Leeds. Cotman’s port of landing on his first visit to Normandy in 1817 was Dieppe. In the first article I explored Cotman’s depictions of the Church of St Jacques, the second of Dieppe castle and harbour and here I follow him to the nearby Castle of Arques-la-Bataille, albeit in mostly torrential rain.
Cotman landed at Dieppe on 20 June 1817 and put up at the Hotel de Londres on the harbour front. His letters record that the weather was very hot and on the 21st he made Arques-la-Bataille, an hour to an hour and a half’s walk and of his very first sketching objective in France.
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Cotman’s letters of 1817 give a splendidly vivid account of his activities. A local official, Monsieur Gaillon, put himself at Cotman’s service, and at six a.m. on Friday 21st June – his first day proper on French soil – ‘did me the favour of accompanying me to the Chateau d’Arques, a very fine ruin of immense size, & not totally unlike Conway or Harlech, but four times their size & Thickness, – many of the Towers going to a great depth below y outward base of the vaults – which are of frightful depth, and are seen in various places open on the hill – ‘
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‘I have several sketches of it. We breakfasted in y bourg at a small Inn – upon Wine, Eggs & Tea, – accompanied with smiles, no beauty, two pocket knives that wd not open or shut, two four-pronged pewter forks, – no tea-spoons, bad bread, good butter, – a very clean table cloth, a napkin for each – y latter certainly an extra from the orders of M. Gallion – all this was at 10 o’clock & I ate most heartily – the room had but one chair, which was placed for me but I am now a Frenchman, therefore took a stool from y many about. Mr G’s attentions were delicate in every point. Two large folding windows that opened from top to bottom; a Table, mess stools, one chair & three barometers, made up y furniture of the room. – Our return was dreadful; we made the circuit of y valley, saw the most elegant church of d’Arques, which I shall return to sketch, – and arrived at my Hotel at 3 o’clock perfectly exhausted from Heat, having been obliged to lay down several times on y road, – refreshed myself with wine, eggs &c, & took to my couch – & slept till six o’clock.’ It seems plain that Cotman travelled the road of many first time visitors to France. It does not seem to have occurred to him that there might have been a connection between him drinking wine for breakfast and lying in the road in the middle of the afternoon.
The main objective of the expedition was to sketch the huge castle mouldering along the ridge above the modern village. Given its impressive bulk from close up, the castle does not present itself that prominently from most of the contemporary routes of arrival. Its access looks most unlikely up a narrow, winding, and badly surfaced road signposted from the main square in the town but perseverance will be rewarded once the goal is attained. The castle was built by the uncle of William the Conqueror, but was captured by the nephew in 1053. It reached its full size during the early sixteenth century, when the massive walls moat, bank and bastions that form the present subject were built.
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Cotman recorded his first impression of the castle gateway flanked by massive round towers, with the rest of the building seen in sharply receding perspective, surrounded by a moat and bank. His original sketch of the subject is lost, but he developed a fine sepia watercolour of the subject dated 1818 now at the British Museum (1902,0514.51).
The principal purpose of his tour of Normandy was to collect subjects to turn into etchings to be included in a fine folio set to be published under the title of ‘Architectural Antiquities of Normandy’. The complete series of one hundred etchings was published at intervals up to its completion in 1822. The gateway to the Castle of Arques was not only one of the first subjects that Cotman sketched in Normandy, but it also took its place as the first plate and point of entry into the published series.
Leeds has an impression of the published etching. The impression is lettered in upper plate margin, right ‘Pl.1’, and in the lower plate margin, left; ‘Drawn & Etched by J S Cotman’ and right, ‘London, Published 1st Oct. 1819 by J & A Arch, Cornhill’ and titled in centre ‘Castle of Arques/ principal entrance’. The plate was drawn and etched by John Sell Cotman and editioned by J & A Arch in London on 1 October 1819 as the first plate of his ‘Architectural Antiquities of Normandy’, published in 1822. The remains are somewhat dilapidated and in the foreground are the crumbling piers of a former drawbridge, dwarfing a figure working in the moat. There are glimpses of a wooded landscape beyond the banks on either side. Cotman exactly captures the mouldering character of the ruins, and the fascinating variegation of its surfaces. The latter called for some his finest hieroglyphics and the etching is worth examining with a magnifying glass to appreciate the inventiveness and originality of his drawing with the burin.
It is remarkable how unchanged are the ruins from Cotman’s time, despite various attempts at depredation (see http://www.normandythenandnow.com/on-being-a-normandy-castle-at-arques-la-bataille/). Cotman’s composition does not quite do justice to the extent of the ruins, which take a good fifteen to twenty minutes to walk around along the top of the bank. It may be noted that the drawbridge piers have disappeared under a modern ramp at the entrance, and that the entrance itself appears to have acquired an outer wall masking the semi-circular-headed opening shown by Cotman. It was pleasing to note, however, on a rainy visit to the site in September 2016, that the glimpses of trees over the banks at either side are perfectly observed. The castle gate, however, was firmly locked, for despite several hundred thousand Euros recently being spent on shoring up walls, the interior is too unstable to permit public entry. It was some compensation to see a small figure working his way along the bottom of the moat – initially in exactly the same spot as Cotman’s. On investigation he turned out to be collecting snails.
None of Cotman’s on-the spot sketches at Arques la Bataille are now known. Miklos Rajnai in his catalogue of Cotman’s Normandy subjects at the Castle Museum, Norwich published in 1975, under no.6 gives a comprehensive account of the known subjects. Besides the present subject Cotman also drew an oblique view of the towers in the east curtain – to the left of the present subject (Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford), which was not used in ‘Architectural Antiquities’ but supplied the idea of the small figure that appears in the present etching.
Tower on the East side of the Castle of Arques la Bataille Photograph by David Hill, taken 5 September 2016, 13.02 GMT
John Sell Cotman Tower on the East side of the Castle of Arques la Bataille, near Dieppe, 1818 Graphite and sepia wash on paper, 255 x 200 mm Bedford, Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (P.451) Image repr. Evelyn Joll, ‘Watercolours and Drawings at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford’, 2002, p.72.
There are also drawings of part of the keep (Horne Collection, Florence), the inner gateway (untraced, but known through a copy by Elizabeth Turner), and treatments in pencil and sepia of the panoramic view from the east (Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1967.624 and NWHCM : 1951.235.169; Rajnai 1975 nos.7, 6). The latter are interesting for being landscape subjects more than architectural and antiquarian, and offer evidence, as with his drawing of ‘Dieppe from the Heights’ discussed in part 2 of this series, that on his first trip to Normandy in 1817, Cotman had still not settled on an exclusively architectural focus for his Normandy work. Once again he let the Turner’s etch his drawing and publish it in their ‘Tour of Normandy’. One can at least say that when Cotman himself got round to etching such prospects himself, the results were somewhat superior.
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Having done what he could in the heat of the 21st, and resting up on the road on his way home, he spent the next couple of days sketching in Dieppe before returning on the 24th to Arques la Bataille to sketch the church. Cotman’s drawing of the church is now lost, but once more (four full-page plates in the first forty pages of Volume 1) Cotman allowed his work to be etched and published by the Turners in their ‘Tour of Normandy’.
In addition the Norwich Castle Museum has two later drawings, probably made by Miles Edmund Cotman for the series of drawings used by Cotman for teaching when he was Master of Drawing at King’s College School, London, from 1834 onwards (NWHCM : 1918.104.22.168/14). These testify to the importance that the site retained for him right up to the end of his career. The castle of Arques la Bataille was his first subject in France, and the first plate of his great work of the ‘Architectural Antiquities of Normandy’. It is plain that he invested especial care and graphic expressiveness into the etching. It is doubly appropriate in the context that the subject is an entrance and it seems plain too, that like the diminutive figure in the moat, he sensed that he had an imposing work before him.
This is the second of an occasional series of articles that I will post as I work through Cotman’s Normandy subjects at Leeds Art Gallery. In September 2016 I had the opportunity to spend the month travelling through Normandy and visited the sites of all of the subjects represented at Leeds. Dieppe was his port of landing on his first visit to Normandy in 1817. In the first article I explored Cotman’s depictions of the Church of St Jacques and here I follow in his footsteps around the castle and harbour.
He landed in Dieppe on 20 June 1817 and put up at the Hotel de Londres on the harbour front. His letters record that the weather was very hot and he sketched at nearby Arques-la-Bataille on the 21st (see LEEAG.1949.0009.0744 – the subject of a future article), Dieppe Castle ‘from two points’ on the 22nd, and the Church of St Jacques on the 23rd. The latter was the subject of the first article and ‘an undertaking of some magnitude’.
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Very little survives of Cotman’s on-the-spot sketches at Dieppe. Leeds has a drawing of one of the towers of the castle (LEEAG.1949.0009.0507) – which we will consider here – and Norwich Castle Museum has a sketch of the view over the harbour and town (NWHCM : L1967.9.45). Such records as he did make, however, furnished him with the subjects of three engravings for his Architectural Antiquities of Normandy published in 1822. Plate 36 is of the East End of the Church of St Jacques, Plate 35 shows the West Front and Plate 34 is an expansive view of the Castle from the beach. We will look at the beach view here, and in addition see further treatments of the castle from the south. Finally we will climb up the cliff to the north of the harbour to take the view over the whole scene as recorded in the sketch at the Castle Museum that provided the basis of two fine at the Victoria and Albert Museum (3013-1876 and P26-1934).
This is a careful soft graphite drawing of the Saint Remy Tower of the Castle at Dieppe as seen from below to the south. The tower is today very much mutilated, and the subject is recognisable only with some difficulty. A figure is kneeling in the foreground, perhaps drawing water or washing at a stream, and to the left is a glimpse of the drawbridge across the moat leading to the principal entrance to the castle in the west range. The subject is surrounded by a pencil framing line. In the 1937 typescript lists of the works in his collection (Kitson archive, Leeds Art Gallery) Sydney Kitson noted the inscription ‘J.S.Cotman’ on the verso, but this is not visible in the present mounting and remains unverified.
The bridge to the left in the present drawing is that of the drawbridge to principal entrance in the west range. From that we may infer Cotman’s exact viewpoint somewhere on the narrow road that leads up to the contemporary main entrance on the east side. Apart from the fact that the Saint Remy tower is but a stump of its former self, the route is now hemmed in, and it is impossible to take a photograph that includes the drawbridge. When the Google Earth Streetview camera came up here, however, a gate to a private yard was open, sufficient to give a glimpse of the relationship of the drawing to the site.
It may be admitted that the present composition is a less than obvious treatment of the castle. As with his treatment of the East End of the church of St Jacques Cotman seems to have very deliberately sought out a difficult, underprivileged angle, that cramped the perspective, prioritised the incidental, and generally contrived to be the very opposite of what most people would have expected in an approach to representing such a major landmark. Obscurity, if not downright contrariness, was something in which Cotman pursued as an entirely positive aesthetic. It is perhaps just as well that his other treatments took a more recognisable approach.
Cotman’s Dieppe subjects were comprehensively surveyed by Miklos Rajnai in his catalogue of Cotman’s Normandy subjects at the Norwich Castle Museum that was published in 1975. Rajnai’s catalogues of the Norwich collection, are, by the way, some of the best art-historical scholarship that I have ever worked with – and serve constantly as the aspirational model for my own work for Leeds.
Cotman made two more conventional treatments of this part of the castle. The first is a view of the drawbridge and gate on the west range. The drawbridge can be seen at the left of the Leeds drawing. This is known in various versions. The first is a studio watercolour in pencil and sepia washes at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (AL6858). Cotman adopted this monochrome style for works intended for etching, and it seems likely that the subject was intended for inclusion in Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, but failed to make the final selection. The Victoria and Albert Museum have not yet published an image of the watercolour, but the composition is repeated in an untraced watercolour known through a photograph at the Witt Library in London (mentioned by Rajnai 1975) and a watercolour copy by John Charles Denham at the Tate (T10449).
My day at Dieppe was eventually rained off, so I failed to take a photograph of my own. Cotman would I’m sure have sympathised, but not Turner, who would have carried on even with the water pouring off the brim of his hat onto the page. Nonetheless an almost exact photographic comparison can be found at: http://egypte06.over-blog.com/article-chateau-medieval-de-dieppe-112445593.html
Kitson’s 1937 catalogue entry for the Leeds drawing also notes: ‘An etching after a drawing by Cotman (1817) is in Dawson Turner’s A Tour in Normandy. This was etched by the wife of Cotman’s patron Dawson Turner, or perhaps one of his daughters, all of whom contributed plates.
Cotman was private tutor to Mrs Dawson Turner and her daughters, and virtually a full-time retainer after 1811. He taught them drawing and etching, and directed and supervised their work on making drawings of Norfolk, and latterly Normandy antiquities. Their interest was principally antiquarian, and served Dawson Turner’s interest in the Romanesque. It seems very likely that the Victoria and Albert Museum watercolour was made for them. Quite what Cotman must have thought in private of them taking his work, etching it, and publishing it in their own ‘Tour of Normandy’, two years before his own project could come to fruition is unknown. It is possible that he thought the superiority of his own etching – and the much finer specification – would prevail. All one can say is that he lived to be frequently disappointed by the public taste.
In addition to these, the British Museum has a drawing, inscribed ‘Dieppe Castle from the road to Arques’ (1902.0514.236),which shows the St Remy Tower, Castle and drawbridge from a similar angle, but much greater distance. Rajnai 1975 notes that the present drawing shows a similar aspect of the castle but from a closer viewpoint. The direct road to Arques runs south-east along the Rue de la Republique, more-or-less from the foot of the St Remy tower, but the area is now so completely built up that even a glimpse of the castle is hard to obtain.
The Saint Remy tower can be seen to the left of a rather more expansive and characteristic treatment of Dieppe by Cotman in an etching published as plate 34 of his Architectural Antiquities of Normandy in 1822. Neither on-the-spot sketch nor studio drawing survive in relation to this composition, but the etching is one of his finest essays in space, rhythm and visual echoes. It is remarkable how completely the ensemble survives today, and standing on the spot it is striking how deliberately Cotman has cropped the composition, especially at the right, where the view recedes down a particularly fine line of cliffs, and at least when I was there, the surf was foaming in an arc of jade and opal. It is a classic case of less is more. Cotman retains sufficient of a panorama to give the composition a sense of space and light, but concentrates it sufficiently for the repetitions of cones, triangles and sea-facing fronts to enter into complex dialogue with the horizontals. As with all of Cotman’s etchings, it is worth examining the print closely with a magnifying glass. There is always interest in the quality of his line, and often its idiosyncrasy, but also usually in the fine detail. Here a group of soldiers is beautifully made out exercising rifle drill on the beach. Perhaps not the best time for a stroll!
Cotman’s culminating treatment of Dieppe is a view of the harbour and town taken from the still-splendid vantage point on the cliff of La Pollet, immediately to the north east.
Cotman’s sketch of the subject called Dieppe from the Heights is at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : L1967.9.45). Miklos Rajnai’s discussion of it in his 1975 catalogue of Cotman’s Normandy drawings at Norwich included a comprehensive survey of his Dieppe subjects and their various versions. The sketch is one of the few on-the-spot landscape studies to survive from his tours of Normandy. It was among the very first sketches that he made on French soil, for he landed on 20 June 1817, went to Arques la Bataille on the 21st and on Sunday 22 June wrote to his wife to describe this prospect with some enthusiasm:
‘The Town of Dieppe is built on both side of a River & almost surrounded by Cliffs as high again as those at Cromer, nearly perpendicular – from either of these cliffs you see over the town & Church & Castle, the Sea and distant cliffs for 20 miles, & up a lovely vale beyond Chateau d’arques which terminates in an amphitheatre of hills, between all, the harbour like a lake in y centre filled with vessels – & such colouring. Oh had I fortune & time beyond the limits of mortal man what might be done!!! – Nothing even as to colour can be seen in England like it.’ (Letters, I, p.98)
The view looks south west, so the time of day is late afternoon with the light on the far quays contre-jour. The general effect is similar to that in my photograph taken at 17.20 local time (15.20 GMT) on 31 August 2012. His hotel, the Hotel du Londres stands at the far end of the quay to the right, the castle and cliffs can be made out beyond that, and the cupola of the Church of St Jacques can be made out in the centre.
The sketch is the basis of two large watercolours at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Disconcertingly, Rajnai was impressed by neither, and considered both to be copies. The first, bequeathed by Lady Powell in 1934 (P.26-1934) he thought had ‘excessive scraping peculiar to a number of drawings inscribed with this date . Their attribution, at least in a number of cases, is open to doubt.’ The second was bequeathed by William Smith in 1876 but Rajnai dismisses that altogether: ‘Whilst the Lady Powell version has some merit, this is an obvious copy with complete lack of quality’. He goes on to imply that the Smith version might even be identifiable as by Mary Ann Turner that was in the Dawson Turner sale in 1853, no.811: ‘Turner (M.A.) Large View of the Town and Harbour of Dieppe, in colours, fine’.
Subsequent scholars have differed. Andrew Wilton exhibited the Lady Powell version in the exhibition The Great Age of British Watercolours at the Royal Academy in 1993, no.56, with the clear implication that it was, with everything else in the selection, a masterwork for the artist and Timothy Wilcox exhibited that version ex-catalogue at Dulwich in 2012. For what it is worth, I looked at both in 2012 and again more recently and can see no reason to doubt either.
Cotman exhibited the subject three times in quick succession. The first was at the Norwich Society of Artists in 1823 no.163 as ‘Dieppe, from the Heights to the east of the Port, looking down upon the Harbour, Castle, Churches of St Jacques and St Remi, and along the coast to St Vallery.’ The second was the following year at the Norwich Society of Artists, no.75 as ‘Dieppe, from the Heights to the east of the Port, looking down upon the Harbour, Castle, Churches of St Jacques and St Remi, and along the coast to St Vallery. Painted for J Brightwen, Esq.’ These must have been different versions of the same subject,, and presumably the second was painted for Brightwen on the basis of the first. One might expect them to have been different treatments albeit of the same view, for it would have been repetitious of Cotman to have shown similar material twice in successive years, unless there was an obvious and substantial difference between them. The third exhibit was at the Old Watercolour Society, London, 1825 no.104 as ‘Dieppe from the Heights to the East of the Port, looking down upon the Harbour, Churches of St Jacques and St Remi, and along the coast towards St Vallery’. Rajnai offers evidence that this last was the 1824 exhibit loaned by John Brightwen on the basis of a letter from Cotman to John Brightwen of 4 March 1825. The Norfolk Chronicle reported that all three of his OWCS exhibits had been sold at the private view, and Rajnai mentions that Paul Oppe discovered that the OWCS books show that deposits on the pictures were placed by a J Webster. If Cotman honoured those orders, he must presumably have produced a replica for Webster; either way in this case it looks as if we might be looking for three separate versions of the composition.
The complications of all this are more than a little boggling, and until some other version altogether emerges, there is plenty to occupy us in the two V&A pictures.
Let us start with the Lady Powell picture, for that is signed and dated 1823. The first impression is of the grandeur of the sweep, richness of the colour and the tumult of detail that it presents. It is the exact visual equivalent of his description. We might wonder, however, where all the detail of the quayside buildings comes from, for it is most certainly not in the pencil sketch. The truth of course must be that he largely made up the fine detail, and concentrated on giving the principal buildings and landmarks with reasonable accuracy. To have drawn all this accurately would have been completely impractical. That said, he does give the general character and style of the quayside buildings very well, and there are indications of fine-focused specifics, such as the presence of ground floor arcades in many of the buildings on the far quay.
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The Harbour and Town of Dieppe Photograph by David Hill, 31 August 2012, 15.20 GMT
John Sell Cotman Dieppe, from the Heights Detail of buildings on the far quay: Smith version
It looks as if Cotman has drawn in the finest detail – of the fenestration, distant figures, and boats with a pen dipped in watercolour, but the rest, the distant landscape, the foreground, the water and the foreground figures, he has treated as painting, using solid colour and painterly texture. Really, Rajnai’s faint praise, ‘has some merit’ seems extraordinarily begrudging. The foreground figures are wonderful, and the richness of working suggests that he might well have had a grand essay in oils in mind.
The Smith picture re-enacts all that detail with extraordinary care and precision. It is without doubt the secondary composition, but lack very little anywhere in quality. There are occasional tiny economies; one will need strong eyes of a magnifying glass to find it but the little sentry box on the sunlit quay to distant left of centre lacks the shadow that Cotman gives it in the Lady Powell version.
In fact the more one looks the more impressive is the accuracy of the copying, sustained into the toniest and most trivial detail. This is truly the work of a craftsman at the very peak of his powers of accurate transcription, honed by twelve years or more of meticulous work on the etching plate. That said the Smith version has much more to offer than just copying. It remakes the painterly areas of the Lady Powell picture in terms of drawing. The figures are especially fine, and demonstrate his consummate economy as a draftsman. In many ways the foreground figures are better than those of the Lady Powell version, being crisper, more sharply delineated, and better defined in terms of shapes. The dog is especially deft.
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John Sell Cotman Dieppe, from the Heights Detail of figures: Lady Powell version
John Sell Cotman Dieppe, from the Heights Detail of figures: Smith version
Looking back at the subjects that he did include in the Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, it seems a shame that his did not also manage to publish the view of the harbour and town from the heights. It would have served to give the other subjects context and location. And to communicate a vivid sense of his being there and his approach to his subjects. He was plainly drawn to doing that. His letters are full of the incidents, colours, tastes, incidentals and tribulations of travel. The pencil sketch for this subject was one of the first, and clearly represents that artist’s imagination bleeding through into his ostensible task. Many of the drawings in the Leeds collection show him truanting from his ostensible task; particularly to notice the human landscape through which he passed. Such matter often finds its way into even the most academic of the Normandy drawings from time to time, and the unfolding project saw Cotman deliberately expand the picturesque aspects. In 1823, however, and in these pictures, he was clearly proclaiming that he was back to trusting his native artistic judgement.
This is the first of an occasional series of articles that I will post as I work through Cotman’s Normandy subjects at Leeds Art Gallery. I am now in the latter stages of cataloguing all of the eight hundred (or more) works in the collection. In September 2016 I had the opportunity to spend the month travelling through Normandy and visited the sites of all of the subjects represented at Leeds, and as much else as I could fit in besides. I am currently working through the considerable quantity of material that I accumulated, and writing up the entries for the relevant works at Leeds. It seems a good opportunity to post some of this to SublimeSites to give a flavour of what the full catalogue – which we hope to publish online in September 2017 – will contain.
This is an impression of an etching by Cotman of part of a highly decorated church seen from a close angle, with buttresses to the left, an open square to the right, a ramshackle lean-to building against the walls in front, and in the foreground two women driving a donkey loaded with panniers of laundry. The impression is lettered in the upper plate margin, right, ‘Pl.36’, and in the lower plate margin, left; ‘Drawn & Etched by J S Cotman’ and right, ‘London, Published 1st April 1820 by J & A Arch, Cornhill, & J S Cotman, Yarmouth’ and titled in the centre, below, ‘Church of St Jacques at Dieppe/ East end’.
The plate was drawn, etched and editioned 1 April 1820 by John Sell Cotman as plate 36 of his Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, published in 1822. It was based on a sepia watercolour now at the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, USA (B1975.2.563).
The watercolour was originally owned by Sydney Kitson, and formed part of his bequest, the bulk of which was intended for Leeds Art Gallery, but was subsequently allocated, as part of a significant group of architectural subjects, to the Library of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Kitson served as Secretary of the RIBA in 1928. In 1975 the Institute decided to dispose of its Cotman drawings and sold them to Paul Mellon, who in turn left them to the Yale Center for British Art.
Dieppe was Cotman’s port of landing on each of his first two tours of Normandy in 1817 and 1818. On the first visit he stayed at the Hotel de Londres for five days June 20-25, but passed through more quickly on the second, landing on 18 June, and staying only long enough the next day to pass customs formalities, look up previous acquaintances and set off on the first leg of his onward journey.
His sketches in the town and immediate area must all therefore have been made in 1817. His letters record that the weather was very hot and he sketched at nearby Arques-la-Bataille on the 21st (see LEEAG.1949.0009.0744 – the subject of a future article), Dieppe Castle ‘from two points’ on the 22nd, On the 23rd he drew the Church of St Jacques (‘an undertaking of some magnitude’), on the 24th he returned to Arques and on the 25th journeyed on to his next destination, Fecamp (see LEEAG.19949.0009.0801 and LEEAG.1949.0009.0151).
Very little survives of his on-the-spot sketches at Dieppe. Leeds has a drawing of one of the towers of the castle (LEEAG.1949.0009.0507 – discussed separately) and the Norwich Castle Museum has a sketch of the view over the harbour and town (NWHCM : L1967.9.45). Such records as he did make, however, furnished him with the subjects of three engravings for his Architectural Antiquities of Normandy published in 1822. The present subject is Plate 36. Plate 35 shows the west front of the church of St Jacques, and Plate 34 is an expansive view of the Castle from the beach. In addition the sketch over the harbour and town provided the base of at least two fine watercolours of Dieppe Harbour and Town from the Heights (both London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 3013-1876 and P26-1934). Cotman’s treatments of the Castle are discussed separately in relation to the Leeds drawing of the castle.
The church of St Jacques represents the progress of the Gothic from the thirteenth century through to its most flamboyant expression in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Cotman thought it very beautiful, and it seems plain that his interests at the outset of his exploration of Normandy were wide-ranging, and by no means confined to the Romanesque.
The present subject represents Cotman at his most obtuse and idiosyncratic. His viewpoint is in a cramped street at the back of the building, too close for easy sketching (still more for photography!) and almost contriving not to be a sketch of the church at all, so much of it being obscured by the ramshackle lean-to that has been erected against it. The tracery of the windows is blocked up and he seems as interested in the picturesque figures passing in front as he is in the architecture. The difficulty of the viewpoint has led him to rather reduce the height of the structure (designed to provide a soaring effect on the interior, and degree of elevation tor the stained glass in its windows) and (perhaps misinterpreting his original on-the-spot sketches in the studio) to mistake the depiction of the peripheral chapels to the left, and the alignment of the gargoyles along the roofline. That said the glimpse of the peak of the roof is precisely all that can be obtained whilst pressing hard against the constraining walls behind.
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East End of the Church of St Jacques, Dieppe Photograph by David Hill, 5 September 2016, 15.04, GMT Nothing I could do about the little Renault, but it counterpoints Cotman’s donkey!
John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) East End of the Church of St Jacques at Dieppe, 1819 Graphite and brown wash on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper, 11 5/8 × 8 7/8 ins, 295 × 225 mm Inscribed in graphite, lower right: “East End of St. Jacques at Dieppe.”, Collector’s mark: RIBA blind embossed stamp, Signed and dated in graphite, lower left: “J. S. Cotman 1819.” USA, New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.2.563 Cotman sketched this subject on 23 June 1817. His original sketch is lost, and this is a studio work typical of the monochrome drawings that he made as the basis of his etchings for the ‘Architectural Antiquities of Normandy’, published in 1822. Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) East End of the Church of St Jacques at Dieppe, 1822 Etching on thick wove paper, image 290 x 227 mm, on plate 332 x 242 mm Drawn, etched and editioned 1 April 1820 by John Sell Cotman as plate 36 of his Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, published 1822; Leeds Art Gallery, LEEAG.1949.0009.0748 Cotman sketched this subject on 23 June 1817. It is a rather obtuse representation of the church, but such approaches were typical of him. He did, however, also draw it from a more familiar angle (see below). Photo courtesy of Leeds Art Gallery
It must have seemed an odd selection of subject to a more conventionally minded consumer of architectural subjects, but from an artistic point of view it is perfectly in tune with a strong strand in Cotman’s practice to laud the obverse to the conventionally celebrated.
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West Front of the Church of St Jacques, Dieppe Photograph by David Hill, 5 September 2016, 15.14, GMT Looking at the clock, Cotman and I were there at similar times of day. I suspect his light was rather better than mine. From the report of his letters, he was fending off the heat. The weather was not so good here. On the other hand his deteriorated afterwards, and ours improved.
John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) West Front of the Church of St Jacques, Dieppe, 1818 Graphite and brown wash on white wove paper, 292 x 232 mm Inscribed lower left ‘Sketchd June 22/17’ and lower right ‘St Jacques, Dieppe, 1818’ Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery Cotman sketched this subject on 23 June 1817. It is a rather more recognisable treatment of the church than the Leeds impression. When this drawing was exhibited at in the Cotman and Normandy exhibition at Dulwich in 2012, Tim Wilcox pointed out that Cotman has mistaken the side doors for windows. Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery; scanned from Dulwich 2012
The etching of the West Front is based on a drawing now at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, and both represent Cotman at his most antiquarian, and despite the intrinsic interest of the subject, and his evident delight in its intricacy, their effect is comparatively academic. When this drawing was exhibited at in the Cotman and Normandy exhibition at Dulwich in 2012, Tim Wilcox pointed out that Cotman has mistaken the side doors for windows. If so, this might also be an effect of misinterpreting his original on-the-spot sketches when making his studio drawing. In this case, however the etching has a very specific detail above the door, where a lintel carries the inscription ‘D.O.M’, that is not present today, but its appearance in Cotman’s drawing and etching is hard to account for by a simple mistake. The difference in the doors, however, is hard to overlook, especially in a depiction that affects such crisp academic accuracy. If he has indeed mistaken, he has undermined all the evident time and labour that he invested in his sketches and finished work. By contrast, Turner in his mature work – sometimes equally exposed to such criticism – never relied on such a stylistic claim to objective accuracy or laboured so much over the sketching and the delineation. Years before, when working out his artistic direction, Cotman looked at the front of Peterborough Cathedral and declared: ‘Peterbro’ is too perfect for my pencil; every architect can make a better Drawing from that than I can therefore to them I will yield up my claims. – ‘. Cotman seems to have been on the stronger ground, as Turner, when working more to an artistic than an architectural purpose.
SublimeSites.co has been silent for the past few months, but I have not been idle, nor laid low. Some readers even emailed to enquire after my possible demise. I cannot overstate how grateful I am for your concern.
The less dramatic truth is that SublimeSites activities have been pushed to one side by my ongoing research on the Cotman drawings at Leeds Art Gallery. This recently became pressing when we were told that the Art Gallery (closed whilst major work takes place on the roof) will reopen in October 2017, and that an exhibition of the Cotman drawings will be one of the headline re-inaugural events.
The good news is that I have now completed about three-quarters of the cataloguing – more than 600 items so far, and am working on the final 250. Theodore Wilkins and I have drawn up a list of the potential exhibits, and besides the masterpieces in the collection, we are planning to show a veritable blizzard of his sketches. Theodore has been working on the hi-res images of everything, and is designing a superb web environment to deliver those together with the new cataloguing information. A paper conservator is looking after the works themselves and an archivist is helping sort out the mass of documentation that relates to the collection, including Sydney Kitson’s notebooks, card indexes, correspondence and personal cataloguing data.
I spent the whole month of September in Normandy exploring in Cotman’s footsteps. Cotman made three tours there in 1817, 1818 and 1820, and published a major book, Architectural Antiquities of Normandy in 1822 containing 100 plates drawn and etched by himself. Leeds has a mass of drawings from those tours. The vast majority of them are figures studies, all of them deft, some wonderfully characterful, others poignant and full of human sympathy. There are also numerous carriages, carts and wagons, donkeys, horses and diligences. And there are studies of landscape and architecture, and several of the published etchings. I concentrated on visiting all the identifiable sites in the Leeds collection, and found that a very great deal remains to be recognised, and that being on site often offered numerous insights into his practice.
It taught me how hard Cotman worked on his tours – he was up at 6 am most days to start sketching, and what a huge task he took on. As it happens, 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the first of those tours, so in working my way through the material that I have accumulated, I have started with a few 1817 subjects represented in the Leeds collection. In the days and weeks to come I will post a few articles to SublimeSites to explore some of those sites in sequence. I hope they prove enjoyable in themselves, and whet the appetite for a full treatment of the Leeds material, and perhaps, sometime, a detailed treatment of the full range of sites and material.
Since completing part #6 of the SublimeSites.co series on Turner and Heidelberg, I have discovered a potential literary source for the subject of the Tate oil painting.
In part #6, I suggested that the composition of the painting was based on a sketch in the ‘Mountain Fortress’ sketchbook in the Turner Bequest at the Tate (TB CCCXXXIX). I am still puzzling over what the subject of the sketches might be – there are several of the same castle(s) in that sketchbook – but I did notice that the sketchbook contains the draft of a passage of poetry that clearly contains the germ of the composition.
I have transcribed the passage and incorporated that into an updated version of Part #6.
Supported by the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation
This article is prompted by a watercolour that Turner made on his tour to the Alps in 1836. That tour was the subject of the exhibition Turner, Mont Blanc and the Val d’Aosta held at the Archaeological Museum in Aosta in 2000. At that time I identified its subject as the French town of Sallanches, in the Savoy Alps. The watercolour was exhibited by Lowell Libson in New York in January 2015, re-identified as Chambery, which was one of the last sites that Turner visited in 1836. The re-identification was made by Ian Warrell in an essay published in Lowell Libson’s 2015 catalogue.* My purpose here is to stand by my original identification: The subject remains Sallanches.
*Lowell Libson’s 2015 catalogue can be downloaded as a pdf by clicking on the link below. Use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:
The watercolour, and Ian Warrell’s article, is at page 120.
In Turner’s day Sallanches provided a halfway halt on the journey from Geneva to Chamonix. Most modern tourists rush by intent on snowy peaks but for Turner’s generation it was a very special place. As one heads south from Geneva the Arve valley contracts to a gorge at Cluses. Beyond that the valley opens out again, and at Sallanches provides the first sight of Mont Blanc. In my 1992 book Turner in the Alps, in which I traced the footsteps of his first visit to the Alps in 1802, I described this part of the valley as ‘the courtyard of Mont Blanc’, and most travellers took the time to take in the situation, and look forward to getting amongst the peaks. Turner particularly so, and he made several watercolours in the area. In 1836 he was retracing his own footsteps of thirty- four years earlier, and once again took the time to ground himself in the place properly.
He revisited his sites of 1802, and also found new ground to explore on the slopes above Sallanches, finding viewpoints around the valley of the Torrent de Sallanches. My contention is that the Lowell Libson watercolour is the culmination of these explorations.
I have visited Sallanches several times over the past twenty-five years, and taken a number of photographs, but various factors including trees in the gorge, chalet development in the pastures along the lip and various companions intent on hurrying up to the high peaks, prevented my photographing all of Turner’s subjects in the area. I recently revised my material on these sketches for the new catalogue of the Turner Bequest. This may be accessed online at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/sketchbooks-used-on-tour-to-the-alps-r1144578#synopsis [Search for ‘Sallanches’]
The exhibition of the watercolour this January, however, prompted a revisit over four Spring days this March, and a systematic review of every subject. Tree growth remains a problem in some cases, but I did manage to find angles on every subject sufficient to confirm his exact vantage points. It became manifest that he frequently worked synthetically with his material. The Tate catalogue material can now be significantly augmented, and a close look at each sketch provides an object lesson in the creativity in his approach to topography in 1836. It contrasts markedly, for example, with his 1828 sketch of Rome from the Aventine (see SublimeSites.co article of 22 January 2015). That is a tour de force of naturalistic placement. His approach in 1836 is to take his topography on a roller-coaster of energised resynthesis, imaginative assimilation and recalibration.
In 1836 Turner visited Sallanches on his way to the Val d’Aosta on the southern side of Mont Blanc. He probably put up at the Hotel du Mont Blanc at the little village of St Martin. At that time the main road to Chamonix ran on the right bank of the Arve, and travellers had to cross the old bridge at St Martin to visit Sallanches.
By the 1830s it was possible to go from Geneva to Chamonix in a single day, and the Hotel du Mont Blanc gradually lost its trade. It became a particular favourite of John Ruskin, who saw it as a symbol of a time when travellers had a proper engagement with the world through which they moved. He titled a chapter of his autobiography Praeterita, after it. This article has a postscript in which I consider one of Ruskin’s studies at Sallanches.
Turner’s previous visit was in 1802, when he was twenty-seven, during his first trip abroad. He remembered his earlier subjects – and must have been reminded how much his practice had progressed and deepened. Working in a sketchbook that he had served him for the entire journey thus far [Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate TB CCXCIII] he revisited some of the subjects that he had found in 1802.
Gallery of Turner’s sketches of 1802 and finished watercolours.
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J.M.W.Turner Mont Blanc, from Sallanches, 1802 Pencil and watercolour on paper prepared with a grey wash, 320 x 376 mm From the St Gothard and Mont Blanc sketchbook, Turner Bequest LXXV 11 Tate Britain, London Photo courtesy of Tate. To see this image in the Tate’s own online catalogue of the Turner Bequest click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-mont-blanc-from-sallanches-d04603 Turner used this sketch as the basis of a finished watercolour in a private collection.
J.M.W.Turner Mont Blanc from Sallanches, c.1808 Watercolour, 11 1/8 x 15 3/4 ins, 280 x 390 mm Private Collection, sold at Sotheby’s 14 July 1994 (130 repr colour); Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s Turner’s principal focus in 1802 was on the massif of Mont Blanc as it dominates the head of the valley.
Sallanches and the River Arve, from the St Martin Road, 1802 Pencil and watercolour on paper prepared with a grey wash, 315 x 473 mm From the St Gothard and Mont Blanc sketchbook, Turner Bequest LXXV 12 Tate Britain, London Photo courtesy of Tate. To see this image in the Tate’s own online catalogue of the Turner Bequest click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-sallanches-and-the-river-arve-from-the-st-martin-road-d04604 Turner used this sketch as the basis of a finished watercolour in a private collection.
J.M.W.Turner Sallanches, Savoy, from the St Martin road, c.1808 Watercolour, 281 x 399 mm 11 x 15 1/2 ins Private Collection Photograph by David Hill
In 1802 his main subjects had been the view of Mont Blanc that was the principal focus for the tourist, and the town of Sallanches backed by its green pastures and limestone crags. In 1802 he had made highly worked drawings of a grand old masterly kind; now his notes were very much more nimble and confident in the way that he assimilated the forms. Mont Blanc and the Arve valley now requires no more than a few quick lines, and he is entirely confident in what he has absorbed of the form, and even if the definition of the peaks from Mont Maudit at the left, through to the Domes de Miage at the right is completely unselfconscious, it is entirely relatable, even down to the placing of summit of Le Prarion below the col between Mont Maudit and the Aiguille du Gouter, as indeed it appears from this angle. The sketch of Sallanches records a wide sweep from Les Quatre Tetes at the right to the slopes of Croisse Baulet towards the left. Once again he compresses a large amount of specific information in what appears to be little more than a few glances, and manages to record the cluster of monumental buildings at the debouchement of the Fours de Sallanches. At the centre is the Chateau des Rubins, and then tracking right, the tower of the Eglise St Jacques, the Tour de Disonche and the Tour de la Frasse, swiftly drawn but sufficiently individuated to be easily recognised. They were to become the principal architectural reference points in his subsequent suite of sketches.
But in 1836 he was also looking for something new. His attention began to gravitate towards the Aiguille de Varan, rising almost two kilometres above the valley floor. He sketched the still-fine view over the bridge, which I first photographed in 1992 when travelling the route for Turner in the Alps. At that time I adopted a portrait format, so as to preserve the sense of verticality. In his 1836 sketch, however, Turner retained the landscape-format of his page in order to include a remarkably wide angle of view. Until my recent visit I had never doubted the straightforwardness of Turner’s treatment of the subject, but on site with a photograph of the sketch in my hand it became obvious that he had treated his observations as entirely malleable. The ‘story’ of the bridge at St Martin is that the Aiguille de Varan towers over it, with the little church of St Martin to the left, and Mont Blanc to the right. The reality is slightly more awkward than Turner’s sketch suggests. If one lines up the Aiguille over the bridge, the church slides out a little to the left. If one lines up the church spire with the Aiguille, as Turner does in the sketch, one has to look over the river from the left, rather than over the bridge. If one is to bring in a sight of the bridge arch, then one has to move to the right, and the Aiguilles slides out to the right. The whole time Mont Blanc is rather too far round to the right to be accommodated. So in the sketch Turner has adopted at least two viewpoints. The first takes the bridge and church spire from slightly upstream. The second takes the whole panorama of the Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc, compresses it into the space of the page, and sets the summit of the Aiguille directly over the spire of the church, and brings in Mont Blanc as to be almost over the bridge cross. It was a surprise on site to find Turner so actively manipulating his material in such a straightforward-looking pencil sketch. It was perhaps even more surprising to realise that I had been there several times before and assumed the sketch recorded the site just the way it is. The strange thing is that even having worked through his sleights of hand on site, and even with the photographic evidence before me, my memory insists that the Turner sketch is right, and that the photographs don’t nearly so well record the way that it is. This is all rather different to his practice in the Rome sketches of 1828 discussed in the earlier article. By 1836 Turner was confident enough in his assimilation of a place as to be able to draw its memory directly. It would be an interesting project to try and chart his routine adoption of this process. Presumably it must develop in the interval between 1828 and 1836. As we shall see, it is a practice that that seems well established at Sallanches.
The Aiguille de Varan figured as his constant reference in every one of the sketches he made at Sallanches in 1836. Another subject was a quick note of the view down the Torrent de Sallanches as it runs through the village down towards the Arve. The Aiguille de Varan is in the background:
But his main objective was a view of the Aiguille from above the town, so he set off up the Route de Doran past the Church of St Jacques. At the first bend in the road he paused to take a sketch looking back to the church between the Tour de la Frasse on the left, and the Tour de Disonche on the right, with Mont Blanc over the church tower to the right. Once again, I was surprised by Turner’s syntheticism. The church tower can indeed be framed between the foreground buildings, and the turret made to aspire to Mont Blanc. I photographed this grouping in 1991, but did not realise at that time that Turner had grafted two different views together. He first sketched the buildings and Mont Blanc from a similar angle to the photograph, and then shifted his position higher and further right so that he could compress the wider panorama and slide in the view of the Aiguille de Varan.
As one gains height along the Route de Doran, the view opens up to give an impressive panorama over the valley from Cluses in the north towards Megeve in the south. In between, the Arve is enclosed by a cirque, dominated by the Varan at the left and the Mont Blanc massif as one pans round to the right. By anyone’s measure it is one of the best panoramas in the Alps, particularly because it offers some foreground space and perspective on the high peaks. Turner decided to devote some serious attention to all this, and took out some larger, loose sheets of paper that he had with him, and made a series of pencil sketches working his way around the Fours de Sallanche.
The exact view of the first larger sketch is a little way up the Route du Doran near the second (right-hand) bend. Even in the winter, however, the material is obscured by trees. It is possible, however, to climb up into the pasture above the next stretch of road and verify the material, and to discover that the material is once again not as straightforward as one might have assumed. The angle of view is over 100 degrees, and the material is condensed into the space. Nonetheless this, as is generally the case with these sketches, does accurately give the memory of the way in which the elements crowd upon one’s impression. It is worth noting the way that he uses scratching out through the grey wash to make out the snowy crests of Mont Blanc. Notwithstanding that, there are specific problems. The Tour de Disonche, for example, is wrongly oriented. Turner shows it more or less in the same aspect as it appears in his sketch at the first bend in the road. As it appears here, it is turned through 90 degrees. Its roof ridge runs at right angles to that of the church so we should be looking down the line of its ridge, rather than flat upon it. Quite what the explanation for this might be is unclear. At the very least one can say that Turner was not looking at it when he drew. It is there, sure enough, and it might be no more than it was obscured by a tree. But the problems persist. His treatment of the church is rather less than professorial: The bell-tower, has two tiers of openings, and the tower is distinctly offset to the north (far) side of the nave. The Chateau des Rubins at the right is treated rather cursorily and most of the buildings of the town are merely suggested through a lattice of scribbling. That said, he does notice another of the tower-houses of Sallanches, that of the Chateau Breches, just to the left of the Chateau des Rubins, hastily indicated but nonetheless individuated. The Chateau Breches was a new observation so he took trouble over that. We might conclude, I think that Turner felt that he didn’t need to pay the familiar buildings too much attention. He could find material for these elsewhere. For now, it was the grander scheme that interested him more; he was looking for a picture.
From the corner of the Route de Doran Turner continued his exploration along the lip of the Fors de Sallanches. Today there is a road, the Route de Levaud, which after a couple of hundred yards passes the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. The chapel post-dates Turner’s visit – it was built in 1855 – but Turner made his second large sketch here, and presumably the chapel site was selected since it offered such a fine prospect. It is a popular site today, providing a decent uphill walk from the town, and a splendid sun-bathed spot for reflection or a picnic. When I was there in March the ground was sprinkled with primroses enjoying the early-season warmth. The view relates remarkably well to the sketch. The Tour de Disonche is obscured behind a tree to the left, but the church tower points directly to the summit of the Aiguille de Varan, and the tower of the Chateau des Rubins at the right points directly to Mont Blanc. Above and to the left of the Chateau des Rubins is the Chateau Breche noted in the previous sketch, and in the centre of the composition we can trace the course of the Torrent de Sallanches, spanned in Turner’s sketch by at least two bridges. It seems to give the complete picture of Sallanches. Most artists would have stopped there.
He also made his way down into the valley of the Sallanches river to the Chateau des Rubins. There is an old path that zig-zags down through the trees from the Chapel and perhaps this was Turner’s own route. He took two quick sketches in his pocket sketchbook looking past the Chateau des Rubins to the church, town and Aiguille de Varan. John Ruskin later sketched the Chateau des Rubins with the Aiguille de Varan behind, and his approach contrasts so markedly with Turner that I append his study at the end of this article as a postscript. For now, Turner does not seem to have thought that either subject warranted treatment on the larger sheets, but the systematic way in which he quartered the compass around his principal landmarks is typical of his practice. It gave him the co-ordinates to comprehend the geography of his site. In passing it is worth noting that Turner called the Chateau des Rubins the ‘Tour Pisa’ or the ‘Pal[ace] Pisa’. Presumably he was told that – he probably often hired the services of a local guide – but I have found no confirmation of that name in any of the easily available literature. In a third turn of the compass he made a final sketch in his pocket book of The towers of Sallanches with the Aiguille de Varan behind. We can work out the that the viewpoint is a little further downstream of the last, since the towers of Disonche, de la Frasse and the church are opened a little further, but I did not manage to confirm the identity of the building in the foreground, nor of that apparently to the left of the Tour de Disonche. I would be grateful to hear from anyone that might be able to amplify the detail and would be happy to publish any comments that help to develop the account.
Turner made one final large sketch at Sallanches from a viewpoint on the Route de Levaud beyond the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, but its proved impossible to stand on the actual ground or take a photograph. We can, however, work out from the angles of view in the sketch on the Tour de Disonche, Church, Chateau des Rubins, Aiguille de Varan and the bridges over the Sallanches river, that the viewpoint is hereabouts, a little further away from the town than the chapel of the immaculate conception, so as to bring the Chateau des Rubins into play in the centre foreground. Walking back and forth on my recent visit, it became frustratingly clear that that all the land in this area, between the Route de Lavaud and the valley, has been appropriated for private housing and Turner’s view lost to public perusal. So if you happen to be the proprietor of the following view, I would be delighted to hear from you. All the more so if you might be prepared to admit me to take a photograph!
The last pencil sketch is very close to the watercolour. The relationship of the placement and form of the church, the specific indications of the distant mountains, the slopes falling from the left foreground and the suggestion of the road in the middle distance running diagonally to St Martin, are sufficient in my eyes to make certain the identification of Sallanches.
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J.M.W.Turner The Arve Valley, with the Aiguille de Varan from above Sallanches, 1836 Pencil and scratching-out on grey paper, faded to a pinkish tone, 238 x 312 mm ‘Miscellanous: Black and White’, Tate Britain, London, TB CCCXLII 76 From the left scarp of the torrent de Sallanches, a little way further up the Route de Lavaud from the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, so as to bring the Chateau des Rubins and the Church of St Jacques more in line, and excluding Mont Blanc to the right. The area today is enclosed by private houses. Image courtesy of Tate; to see the original image in the online catalogue of the Turner Bequest click on the following link, then press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-sallenche-d34278
J.M.W.Turner Sallanches, Savoy, 1836 Watercolour, 9 3/4 x 10 3/4 ins, 249 x 273 mm Exhibited by Lowell Libson Ltd in New York, January, 2015 as ‘’A distant view over Chambéry, from the North, with storm clouds’ This article stands by my 2000 identification of the subject as the view of Sallanches from the northern lip of the Gorges de Levaud, looking down to the Eglise St Jacques, with the Aiguille de Varan in the distance. Photograph courtesy of Lowell Libson Ltd. To view this watercolour on the Lowell Libson website click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.lowell-libson.com/pictures/a-distant-view-over-chambery-from-the-north-with-storm-clouds Click on image to enlarge
Sallanches: The Church of St Jacques and the Aiguille de Varan. Taken from the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. The exact viewpoint of Turner’s sketch TB CCCXLII 76 is now occupied by a private dwelling. Photograph by David Hill taken 10 March 2015, 10.33 GMT
Turner’s 1836 sketches at Chambery offer no such comparison. Warrell’s argument is more derived from a stylistic affinity with a watercolour sketch from the end of the tour which unmistakably does show Chambery.
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J.M.W.Turner Sallanches, Savoy, 1836 Watercolour, 9 3/4 x 10 3/4 ins, 249 x 273 mm Exhibited by Lowell Libson Ltd in New York, January, 2015 as ‘’A distant view over Chambéry, from the North, with storm clouds’ This article stands by my 2000 identification of the subject as the view of Sallanches from the northern lip of the Gorges de Levaud, looking down to the Eglise St Jacques, with the Aiguille de Varan in the distance. Photograph courtesy of Lowell Libson Ltd. To view this watercolour on the Lowell Libson website click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.lowell-libson.com/pictures/a-distant-view-over-chambery-from-the-north-with-storm-clouds Click on image to enlarge
J.M.W.Turner Chambery, Savoy, 1836 Watercolour on paper, 10 x 11ins, 254 x 279 mm Private Collection, sold Christie’s, London, 2 April 1996, lot 63. Showing the view from the slopes to the south of the city, looking over the castle and church towards the distant Lac de Bourget. Photograph courtesy of Christie’s Ltd.
The stylistic relation is, indeed close, and Warrell’s argument charts a line of development of Turner’s watercolour sketching style during the tour that culminates in these two subjects. In a nutshell: Chambery is Turner’s last major subject of the tour, so his Chambery sketch is the tour’s culminating point. The Sallanches is in the same style, so it must also be of Chambery. The topography of Sallanches is, however, I firmly believe, completely solid. Some other explanation for the stylistic relation must be sought.
At this point it might be worth amplifying the context. One of my principal interests in the tour of 1836 is that it is certain that Turner sketched in watercolour direct from nature. Several modern scholars have tended to question this practice in relation to other tours (principally in Germany and France) and it has become something of a crusade for me to put him on the spot with colours in hand wherever I can. 1836 is especially important to me for in this case we can be certain about his practice. He had a travelling companion, H.A.J.Munro of Novar, and from him we have direct testimony of Turner colouring from nature. Munro remembered, for example; ‘colours coming out’ once they reached Switzerland. Their first port of call in Switzerland was Geneva, and thereafter Turner seems to have sketched in colours regularly. Munro’s testimony also informed the account given by Walter Thornbury in his first full-length biography of Turner. Form that we discover that sketching in colours could be a frustrating business, and it is worth quoting Thornbury’s account at length:
Mr Munro found that Turner enjoyed himself in his way – a sort of honest Diogenes way. He disliked teasing questions as to how he got this or that colour. On one occasion in the Aosta valley, Turner was very dissatisfied with a sketch. He altered and sponged until the drawing had got a white greenness about it which was not pleasant. He got quite fretful about this, and began to abuse colour-sketching, saying, “I could have done twice as much with the pencil.”
His first enquiry in the morning, when they started to sketch, was always, “have you got the sponge?” because it was with the sponge he obtained many of his misty and aerial effects.
He never rhapsodised about scenery, but set hard at work at some distance from Mr Munro, silent, concentrated (and generally a good deal higher). So as to obtain more distance and more of a bird’s-eye view. He took quick sketches, and then finished them afterwards quietly (by the help of his tremendous memory) at the inn. He had a horror of what Wilson called “being too mappy.” If you bore with his way, it was easy to get on very pleasantly with him: indeed there was a sort of half-resolution come to that Turner and Mr Munro should visit the East together.
Turner used no maul-stick, his touch was sure and decisive; his materials were of the rudest: brushes worn away to single hairs, and now trebly as valuable as when new. Turner’s way of showing a kindness was peculiar; he seemed to put on a certain roughness, to conceal his real feelings. One day (I believe it was near Sallanche) he found Mr Munro (who, bye-the-bye, is an artist himself of most refined taste) in some difficulty with a sketch. He did not appear to notice it, but growlingly took up a new drawing-pad that was lying near (the paper he used was of a rough kind, and generally wrinkled in the most uncomfortable way by repeated washes), and off he went to “see what he could do with it.” He returned in about two hours with the paper squared into four sketches, each in a different state of completion. This was evidently his rough, kind, way of showing an amateur friend the way of pushing forward a sketch. These sketches I have seen, and to me they seem invaluable. There are first rough pencilling loops for trees, and lines marking the horizon and chief masses. Then come brown dabs of marking-out colour, then washes for sky and water, till in the last sketch sapphire hills and touches of heaven seem breaking through the chaos, and every inch of colour is radiant with knowledge and beauty.
The account tells us that Turner frequently started sketches on the spot and worked on them afterwards at the inn. It is possible that the watercolours of Sallanches and Chambery were worked on together, even side by side, but that would not deny their separate plein-air origins. The account further tells us that Turner persevered with colour despite his sometimes becoming frustrated with it. This might prompt us to consider what he could achieve with colour that could not be done with the pencil. The answer is effect. Pencil can record form and detail, but the circumstantial phenomena of light, colour and atmosphere require colour. And every one of Turner’s 1836 watercolour sketches is based in its own particular phenomenal occasion. In this case the Aiguille de Varan is north-east of Sallanches, so the sun rises behind it in midsummer. We do not know the specific dates when Turner was at Sallanches in 1836, but he generally made his continental tours between July and September. He would have been about three weeks into his tour, so we can surmise the end of July or early August. At that time the sun rises over the right shoulder of the Aiguille.
That chimes with the effect here, with the church backlit and the right part of the mountain bleached out by the light. Having explored the area thoroughly in his pencil sketches, he knew exactly where the best compositions were to be had, and rising early as was his routine habit, was ready to observe the morning clouds over the peak filling with light and dissolving. This rather argues against the drawings being made together. It seems more likely that at the age of sixty-one, the greatest ever painter in watercolour had a wide repertoire of styles and approaches at his disposal, and applied them as his subject or creative agenda warranted.
And yet the effect is not merely naturalistic. Munro told Thornbury that Turner wanted to avoid ‘being too mappy’. He was an artist, after all, and he wanted to represent more than matter-of-fact topography and effect. So although he took care to understand the facts (and this harder than most would assume) his proper work was to see past that to the sublime; that which resides beyond ordinary apprehension.
I am reminded of a distant but still clear experience in everyday apprehension. Back in the late 1980s when teaching Fine Art at Bretton Hall College, we used to take the students every Spring to Anglesey. It was a pleasure to work alongside the painter David Walker Barker, who, apart from having all the technical bravura of Turner, also has a similar sense of the sublime and an impressive knowledge of geology. He told me about the rocks of Ynys Llanddwyn at the south west tip of the island. Right at the end of the peninsula, where there is a little harbour and old light-tower overlooking the hills of Snowdonia across the Menai Straits, the rocks are like God’s plasticine. Slabs of green with red eyelets, blue-grey veined through with carmine, purples and green flecked with ruby. This seemed a splendid place to take the students drawing and so with big billing I led them on the two-mile trek across Newborough Sands and onto the end of the peninsula. ‘Here we are,’ I eventually announced – ‘look around and see what you can find.’ Ten minutes later a circle of unimpressed faces informed me that the rocks were in fact all grey. And so they were, as lumpen and dull as rocks might ordinarily be. It was a decent breezy day so it was worth setting them to draw in any case. After half an hour we started to see it: A tint in a pebble; a hue in a vein spreading across an outcrop. After an hour we did not have colour enough and by the end of the day we had used every stick and tube and our sketchbooks were like an India spice stall.
So what happened? The rocks did not change, but what we saw initially as grey and dull we later really saw as a riot of colour. Technically our minds attuned themselves to the subject, and our perception recalibrated itself. Such is the product of considered attention, and it becomes habitual in those that practice it regularly. So produce that, if you will, to the practice of Turner, which by 1836 had been sensitised daily over a period of fifty years. We can see the effect in his watercolour sketch of Sallanches. As Thornbury said of one of the drawings in this series, and he might well have been talking about this very drawing: ‘sapphire hills and touches of heaven seen breaking through the chaos, and every inch of colour is radiant with knowledge and beauty.’
Other drawings by Turner in the Sallanches area [and elsewhere]
To complete the references for the reader this gallery reproduces a few sketches of St Martin not discussed in detail in the main text. It also reproduces one sketch currently catalogued by the Tate as Sallanches, but which actually shows a different site altogether.
It worth remarking of the pencil sketches particularly, that they are rather more conventional in their approach to the topography than those discussed in the main text. That at the Huntington Library seems comparatively clichéd, and that at the Fitzwilliam, positively populist. The drawings in the main text seem much more driven and striving. The explanation may be as simple as those in the main text belong to Turner’s private campaign, but the two pencils here were made for a public, in the person of Turner’s travelling companion H.A.J.Munro of Novar. As we have already read, Turner inevitably found himself drawn into teaching and demonstration. The pencils were probably made for his benefit, and it is not impossible that Munro was their original owner.
Click on any image to open the image and captions in a gallery format.
J.M.W.Turner Bridge of Saint Martin, near Chamonix, 1836 Pencil on paper, 9 x 12 5/8 in. (22.9 x 32.1 cm.) The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California, USA. Gilbert Davis Collection. Object Number: 59.55.1279 Showing the view looking up the River Arve, with the debouchement of the Torrent de Sallanches in the foreground right, to the bridge of St Martin, and Mont Blanc in the distance. The summit of Mont Blanc must have been veiled by cloud, for it is not visible in this sketch. This sketch [and that following} was owned by John Ruskin, and exhibited by him at the Fine Art Society in London in 1878 no.120 as ‘Mont Blanc. Over the bridge of St Martin’s. The old Hotel du Mont Blanc on the left. St Martin’s Bridge with the cross on its keystone has been principal in Turner’s mind in both.. sketches. There will doubtless soon be an iron one instead – with no such useless decoration; but probably a bill pasted on it of the Sunday trains to Chamouni at reduced fares.’ It is very useful to have Ruskin’s specific identification of the hotel. Image courtesy of the Huntington Library. To see the image in the Huntington’s own online catalogue click on the following link, then press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page. http://emuseum.huntington.org/view/objects/asitem/People$004097/3/title-asc?t:state:flow=03fd85b0-c630-456a-8089-1eff5fdd67cc
J.M.W.Turner Sallanches, near Chamonix, from St Martin, 1836 Pencil on paper, 9 x 12 5/8 in, 230 x 322 mm The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge , no.156 Showing the view from St Martin, looking over the bridge to Sallanches. It is of a strikingly different character to the run of sketches discussed in the main text of this article. Here Turner is in much less sublime mode, and populates his foreground with many entertaining and picturesque figures and details. The spirit seems much more in tune with say the sentiment of illustrations for the popular landscape ‘Annuals’ of the 1830s, and the subject may have been developed in some measure for the benefit and instruction of Turner’s travelling companion, H.A.J.Munro of Novar. This and the previous sketch was owned by John Ruskin. He made his penultimate visit to Sallanches and St Martin in 1882 and on that occasion he mulled over the prospect of buying the then derelict Hotel du Mont Blanc at St Martin. He took the fact of the drawings coming into his hands as a sign. Image courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum. To see the image in the Fitzwilliam’s own online catalogue click on the following link, then press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page. http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/support/friends/opac/cataloguedetail.html?&priref=13978&_function_=xslt&_limit_=10
Sallanches from St Martin Photograph by David Hill, taken 9 July 2011, 11.25 GMT
J.M.W.Turner Mont Blanc from the bridge at St Martin near Sallanches, 1836 Watercolour, 7 3/4 x 12 1/2 ins, 200 x 320 mm Private Collection This watercolour was called ‘Wetterhorn from near Rosenlaui’, when offered at Phillips’ Phillips 18 April 1988 (no.35) but reidentified as Mont Blanc when exhibited at Aosta in 200 no.12. It records the classic view of Mont Blanc from the bridge at St Martin. Turner had sketched and painted this view on his first visit to the site in 1802, so the subject was well rehearsed even by him. Nonetheless, in 1836 it must have been obligatory to resketch it in the presence of his companion H.A.J.Munro of Novar. Munro must have been astonished at how simply Turner could call up the pupil-contracting brightness of the contre-jour mountain. Photograph courtesy private collection.
Mont Blanc from the bridge at St Martin, near Sallanches Photograph by David Hill, taken June 1991.
J.M.W.Turner ?Looking down the river Arve to Sallanches at the left and St Martin bridge and church at the right, 1836 Watercolour on off-white white wove paper, a little discoloured, 9 x 12 1/2 ins, 225 x 315 mm Private Collection This watercolour was called ‘An Alpine River Landscape’, when offered at Christie’s, London – 12 July 1988 No. 194. In notes, I have suggested that the subject might be a view down the Arve o Sallanches at the left and St Martin bridge and church at the right. The distant mountain profiles correspond in general terms, but I am unsure about the view evidently up to Sallanches at the left. Photograph courtesy private collection.
J.M.W.Turner Voreppe in the Chartreuse, with the Grande Aiguille in the distance, right, 1802 Pencil and watercolour on grey paper 458 x 594 mm Tate Britain, London, Turner Bequest LXXIX Q (D04891) This sketch is currently catalogued as ‘Sallanches and the River Arve, from the St Martin Road’, but it certainly shows Voreppe in the Chartreuse near Grenoble. Photo courtesy of Tate. To see this image in the Tate’s own online catalogue of the Turner Bequest click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-sallanches-and-the-river-arve-from-the-st-martin-road-d04891
Google Earth Street View image of Voreppe
Ruskin and the Chateau de Rubins, Sallanches, 1860
The Chateau des Rubins and Aiguille de Varan from the left bank of the Torrent de Sallanches Photograph by David Hill taken 11 March 2015, 14.28 GMT Ruskin’s viewpoint is on the left bank of the Torrent de Sallanches, a short way above the Chateau des Rubins. It is possible to identify and stand upon the exact spot, but the view is somewhat obscured by twigs and branches. Click on image to enlarge
The Chateau des Rubins and Aiguille de Varan from the right bank of the Torrent de Sallanches Photograph by David Hill taken 11 March 2015, 14.31 GMT Not quite from the same viewpoint as Ruskin, but from across the stream, offering a less obstructed view. Click on image to enlarge
Called ‘A Building and a Tower in the Alps’ when exhibited at Agnew’s in 2003, and identified by myself as the Chateau des Rubins at Sallanches on a site visit of 9 March 2005. The identification was published by Sotheby’s when the watercolour was sold in 2008.
The high colour and the vignetted area of attention is very distinctive. When the watercolour was exhibited at Agnew’s in 2003 the catalogue likened this drawing to studies that Ruskin made in Fribourg c.1856, The closest comparison in spirit, style and tight concentration of scope is a study of the Glacier de Bois, Chamonix, at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, which is dated 1860.
Sallanches and St Martin were key sites for John Ruskin. He was particularly fond of the old Hotel du Mont Blanc at St Martin and on a late visit in 1882 even considered buying it. He generally stopped at the old inn or at the Bellevue in Sallanches, and particularly enjoyed walking on the hills above the town. He visited to town something like a dozen times from his first in 1833 to the last in 1888. As his diaries record, on 10 June 1849 whilst walking up the hill towards St Gervais he had a formative revelation. He found himself crushed by too wide a panorama. He did not have the mental scope of Turner and thenceforth resolved to proceed by small steps and a narrow compass. This watercolour is a perfect instance of how powerful his refocused vision could be. The subject reflects Ruskin’s interest in the language of architecture, here exploring how the architectural elements appear to take their nature from the masses of rock above. Ruskin draws that sharply into consideration by making the eye switch suddenly from foreground to distance to find the subsidiary, but infinitely grander mass of the mountain behind, with its own lesser and supporting elements holding up the main act, a little like a fairground human pyramid. If the opportunity arose it would be interesting to make a thorough survey of all of Ruskin’s subjects in the area.
Ruskin’s exact view point is on the left bank of the Torrent de Sallanches, a short way above the Chateau des Rubins. It was possible to identify and stand upon the exact spot when I visited in March 2015, but the view was somewhat obscured by twigs and branches.
SALLANCHES, March 2015. Click on any image to open in gallery.
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.