Aiguilles of Mont Blanc: A rediscovered watercolour by John Ruskin

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.

Courtesy of Libson Yarker Ltd

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.

References: Ruskin 1854 Diary MSS list as ‘14 Aiguilles of Chamouni, from Les Ouches 1842’; Works 38/240, no. 398 as ‘Aiguilles of Chamouni, from Les Ouches (1842). No. 14 in R.’s list; w. c. (12¾ x 17½). Mrs. Cunliffe. Exh. R.W.S. 313, M. 88. Reprod., 35, Pl. 20 as ‘Chamouni’.’; David Hill, ‘Perfection, I should call it’: John Ruskin’s Personalised Guide to Switzerland, 1843’ in British Art Journal, Vol.13, no.1, Spring/Summer 2012, p.64, n.40; David Hill, ‘Ruskin drawings at King’s College, Cambridge: #1 Isolino di San Giovanni from Lago Maggiore, Evening’ in http://www.sublimesites.co, 2 March 2014 at https://sublimesites.co/2014/03/02/ruskin-drawings-at-kings-college-cambridge-1-isolino-di-san-giovanni-from-lago-maggiore-evening-2/; Libson-Yarker online exhibition ‘Good Prospects’, 2020 at https://www.libson-yarker.com/exhibitions/good-prospects-landscape-drawings-from-our-racks/aiguilles-of-chamonix-near-les-houches [accessed 09.04.2020]

Photograph taken by Professor David Hill, June 1999

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.

The Croft, near Ambleside
Photograph by Professor David Hill, 28 March 2014

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.

Jjean Dubois, 1989-1849
Hotel de L’Union, Chamonix, c.1820
Coloured aquatint.
Chamonix
Photograph taken by Professor David Hill, 30 June 2011

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;

Image courtesy of Sotheby’s, scanned from 1982 catalogue

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.

 

Image courtesy of Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal

Rocks and Stream, Chamonix, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal.

 

Image courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum

Mont Banc from the Prieure, Chamonix, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, USA

 

Image courtesy of Sotheby’s, scanned from 1982 catalogue

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

 

Image courtesy of Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster

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].

Photograph taken by Professor David Hill, June 1999

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.

David Hill, 4 May 2020

Ruskin drawings at King’s College, Cambridge: #4 The Mer de Glace from the Montanvers Hotel above Chamonix

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.

Provenance:
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. [441]. 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’

Commentary:
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.

Mer de Glace from Montanvers
Photograph by David Hill, 1990

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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Chamonix, Mont Blanc and the Montanvers
Google Earth 3D rendering

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 Montanvers Hotels and the Mer de Glace.
Google Earth 3D rendering.
The 1840 hotel in which Ruskin stayed is to the right. The larger building is the present day Refuge du Montanvers, built in 1880.

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

Glacier des Bossons from Chamonix
Photograph by David Hill, c.1999

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 [1846], 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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The Tapia between Montanvers and Plan de l’Aiguille above Chamonix
Google Earth 3D rendering]

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.



Ruskin Library catalogue

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.


Ruskin Library catalogue link
Image source

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.

Mer de Glace from Montanvers
Photograph by David Hill, 1990

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.

Click on any image to open gallery with images full-size. Scroll from image to image and then close (top right) to return to this page.

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.

David Hill, December 2018

Turner at Sallanches, 1836

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.

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
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

*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:

Click to access Lowell_Libson_2015.pdf


The watercolour, and Ian Warrell’s article, is at page 120.

Google Earth satellite image of Sallanches and the Arve valley to Chamonix Click on image to enlarge
Google Earth satellite image of Sallanches and the Arve valley to Chamonix
Click on image to enlarge

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.

Google Earth image of Sallanches, showing general area of sketches. Aiguille de Varan in background to left, Mont Blanc to right. Click on image to enlarge
Google Earth image of Sallanches, showing general area of sketches. Aiguille de Varan in background to left, Mont Blanc to right.
Click on image to enlarge
Google Earth image of Turner’s 1836 viewpoints around the Gorges de Levaud at Sallanches Click on image to enlarge
Google Earth image of Turner’s 1836 viewpoints around the Gorges de Levaud at Sallanches
Click on image to enlarge

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.

J.M.W.Turner Sketches in the Arve Valley (detail), 1836 Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 28a (detail of lower part of page) Turner’s first thought at Sallanches was to reconsider subjects from his previous visit of 1802. Here he takes a two-part panorama of the view of Sallanches from St Martin, swinging round to the left to take in the view of Mont Blanc. 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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-five-sketches-in-the-arve-valley-at-cluses-and-sallanches-r1167978
J.M.W.Turner
Sketches in the Arve Valley (detail), 1836
Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm
From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 28a (detail of lower part of page)
Turner’s first thought at Sallanches was to reconsider subjects from his previous visit of 1802. Here he takes a two-part panorama of the view of Sallanches from St Martin, swinging round to the left to take in the view of Mont Blanc.
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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-five-sketches-in-the-arve-valley-at-cluses-and-sallanches-r1167978
Mont Blanc from St Martin, near Sallanches Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 March 2015, 14.08 GMT Click on image to view full size
Mont Blanc from St Martin, near Sallanches
Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 March 2015, 14.08 GMT
Click on image to view full size
Sallanches from above St Martin Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 March 2015, 12.47 GMT Click on image to view full size.
Sallanches from above St Martin
Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 March 2015, 12.47 GMT
Click on image to view full size.

Gallery of Turner’s sketches of 1802 and finished watercolours.
Click on any image to open the gallery

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.

J.M.W.Turner Sketches in the Arve Valley (detail of towers at Sallanches), 1836 Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 28a ) 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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-five-sketches-in-the-arve-valley-at-cluses-and-sallanches-r1167978
J.M.W.Turner
Sketches in the Arve Valley (detail of towers at Sallanches), 1836
Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm
From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 28a )
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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-five-sketches-in-the-arve-valley-at-cluses-and-sallanches-r1167978
Sallanches from above St Martin Photograph by David Hill taken 11 March 2015, 13.10 GMT Detail of (left of centre) Chateau des Rubins, (centre) Eglise St Jacques, (right of centre) Tour de Disonche and Tour de la Frasse. The key architectural landmarks of Turner’s 1836 studies of Sallanches.
Sallanches from above St Martin
Photograph by David Hill taken 11 March 2015, 13.10 GMT
Detail of (left of centre) Chateau des Rubins, (centre) Eglise St Jacques, (right of centre) Tour de Disonche and Tour de la Frasse. The key architectural landmarks of Turner’s 1836 studies of Sallanches.
The Aiguille de Varan above the bridge at St Martin Photograph by David Hill, taken June 1992
The Aiguille de Varan above the bridge at St Martin
Photograph by David Hill, taken June 1992

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 Bridge of St Martin, with the Aiguille de Varan Photograph by David Hill take 11 March 2015, 11.48 GMT Click on image to open at full size
The Bridge of St Martin, with the Aiguille de Varan
Photograph by David Hill take 11 March 2015, 11.48 GMT
Click on image to open at full size
J.M.W.Turner The Aiguille de Varan from across St Martin’s bridge, near Sallanches, 1836 Pencil on paper, page size 113 x 190 mm From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 28 Turner probably stayed in the Hotel du Mont Blanc at the far side of the bridge. The summit of the Aiguille de Varan is nearly two vertical kilometres above the bridge. 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-the-aiguille-de-varan-from-st-martins-bridge-d29086
J.M.W.Turner
The Aiguille de Varan from across St Martin’s bridge, near Sallanches, 1836
Pencil on paper, page size 113 x 190 mm
From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 28
Turner probably stayed in the Hotel du Mont Blanc at the far side of the bridge. The summit of the Aiguille de Varan is nearly two vertical kilometres above the bridge.
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-the-aiguille-de-varan-from-st-martins-bridge-d29086
Panorama of the Bridge of St Martin, with the Aiguille to Varan over, and Mont Blanc to the right Photograph by David Hill taken 11 March 2015, 11.55 GMT Click on image to open at full size
Panorama of the Bridge of St Martin, with the Aiguille to Varan over, and Mont Blanc to the right
Photograph by David Hill taken 11 March 2015, 11.55 GMT
Click on image to open at full size

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:

J.M.W.Turner Two Sketches: Sallanches in the Arve Valley; Avise in the Val d'Aosta (detail), 1836 Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 38a detail From Sallanches, looking down the torrent de Sallanches to the Aiguille de Varan 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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-two-sketches-sallanches-in-the-arve-valley-avise-in-the-val-r1167996
J.M.W.Turner
Two Sketches: Sallanches in the Arve Valley; Avise in the Val d’Aosta (detail), 1836
Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm
From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 38a detail
From Sallanches, looking down the torrent de Sallanches to the Aiguille de Varan
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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-two-sketches-sallanches-in-the-arve-valley-avise-in-the-val-r1167996
The Aiguille de Varan from Sallanches Photograph by David Hill, taken September 1999
The Aiguille de Varan from Sallanches
Photograph by David Hill, taken September 1999

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.

J.M.W.Turner Two Sketches: Looking Down the Val d'Aosta to Courmayeur and Dolonne, and The Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc from Above Sallanches (detail of the sketch of Sallanches), 1836 Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 37 detail With the Tour de la Frasse and the Tour de Disonche framing the Church of St Jacques. Turner incorporates two different viewpoints in the one sketch, so as to more tellingly integrate the buildings with the mountains. At this time the church tower had an onion spire on its turret. This was the casualty of a fire in 1840. 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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-two-sketches-looking-down-the-val-daosta-to-courmayeur-and-r1167993
J.M.W.Turner
Two Sketches: Looking Down the Val d’Aosta to Courmayeur and Dolonne, and The Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc from Above Sallanches (detail of the sketch of Sallanches), 1836
Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm
From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 37 detail
With the Tour de la Frasse and the Tour de Disonche framing the Church of St Jacques. Turner incorporates two different viewpoints in the one sketch, so as to more tellingly integrate the buildings with the mountains.
At this time the church tower had an onion spire on its turret. This was the casualty of a fire in 1840.
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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-two-sketches-looking-down-the-val-daosta-to-courmayeur-and-r1167993
Mont Blanc from Sallanches Photo by David Hill taken June 1991. Taken from the first bend of the Route de Doran above Sallanches. When Turner sketched this material in 1836 he combined it with the mountains as seen from a higher vantage point. Click on image to enlarge.
Mont Blanc from Sallanches
Photo by David Hill taken June 1991.
Taken from the first bend of the Route de Doran above Sallanches. When Turner sketched this material in 1836 he combined it with the mountains as seen from a higher vantage point.
Click on image to enlarge.
Panorama of the Arve Valley from above Sallanches Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 March 2015, 14.52 GMT. Turner initially drew the buildings from further left, so as to frame the church tower, but this higher viewpoint enabled him to encompass the Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc. Click on image to enlarge
Panorama of the Arve Valley from above Sallanches
Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 March 2015, 14.52 GMT.
Turner initially drew the buildings from further left, so as to frame the church tower, but this higher viewpoint enabled him to encompass the Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc.
Click on image to enlarge

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.

J.M.W.Turner The Arve Valley, with the Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc from above Sallanches, 1836 Pencil and scratching-out on grey paper, faded to a reddish tone, 238 x 312 mm ‘Miscellanous: Black and White’, Tate Britain, London, TB CCCXLII 77 From the northern scarp of the torrent de Sallanches at the foot of the Gorges de Levaud. The area is today covered in trees. 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-sallanches-d34279
J.M.W.Turner
The Arve Valley, with the Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc from above Sallanches, 1836
Pencil and scratching-out on grey paper, faded to a reddish tone, 238 x 312 mm
‘Miscellanous: Black and White’, Tate Britain, London, TB CCCXLII 77
From the northern scarp of the torrent de Sallanches at the foot of the Gorges de Levaud. The area is today covered in trees.
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-sallanches-d34279
The Arve Valley from above Sallanches, with the Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc. Photograph by David Hill, taken 10 March 2015, 14.40 GMT Turner’s sketch (TB CCCXLII 77) is taken from a similar angle to this, but from lower down, and slightly further right. The exact view is impeded by trees. Click on image to enlarge.
The Arve Valley from above Sallanches, with the Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc.
Photograph by David Hill, taken 10 March 2015, 14.40 GMT
Turner’s sketch (TB CCCXLII 77) is taken from a similar angle to this, but from lower down, and slightly further right. The exact view is impeded by trees.
Click on image to enlarge.

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.

J.M.W.Turner The Arve Valley, with the Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc 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 75 From the northern edge of the valley of the Torrent de Sallanches near the later (1855) Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. 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-d34277
J.M.W.Turner
The Arve Valley, with the Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc 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 75
From the northern edge of the valley of the Torrent de Sallanches near the later (1855) Chapel of the Immaculate Conception.
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-d34277
Sallanches from the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 March 2015, 15.09 GMT. The chapel was built in 1855, but Turner took his sketch TB CCXLII 75 from the site in 1836. Today trees obscure the Tour de Disonche, but the Church of St Jacques can be made out clearly, pointing to the Aiguille de Varan, and the Chateau des Rubins at the right points to Mont Blanc. In the centre of the composition we can make out the course of the Torrent de Sallanches, spanned in Turner’s sketch by two bridges. Click on image to enlarge.
Sallanches from the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception.
Photograph by David Hill, taken 11 March 2015, 15.09 GMT.
The chapel was built in 1855, but Turner took his sketch TB CCXLII 75 from the site in 1836. Today trees obscure the Tour de Disonche, but the Church of St Jacques can be made out clearly, pointing to the Aiguille de Varan, and the Chateau des Rubins at the right points to Mont Blanc. In the centre of the composition we can make out the course of the Torrent de Sallanches, spanned in Turner’s sketch by two bridges.
Click on image to enlarge.

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.

J.M.W.Turner Two Sketches; The Head of Lake Geneva from near Lausanne; From above Sallanches in the Arve Valley to the Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc (detail of sketch of Sallanches), 1836 Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 62 detail From above the Chateau des Rubins, looking from the entrance to the Gorges de Levaud to Sallanches and the Aiguille de Varan. 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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-two-sketches-the-head-of-lake-geneva-from-near-lausanne-from-r1168042
J.M.W.Turner
Two Sketches; The Head of Lake Geneva from near Lausanne; From above Sallanches in the Arve Valley to the Aiguille de Varan and Mont Blanc (detail of sketch of Sallanches), 1836
Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm
From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 62 detail
From above the Chateau des Rubins, looking from the entrance to the Gorges de Levaud to Sallanches and the Aiguille de Varan.
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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-two-sketches-the-head-of-lake-geneva-from-near-lausanne-from-r1168042
Sallanches, Savoy Photograph by David Hill, taken 9 March 2005, 10.36 am. Looking over the Chateau des Rubins to Sallanches with the Aiguille de Varan in the background.  up. Taken from the path leading down from the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. The church tower is hidden behind the trees at the left. Ten years ago exactly, I note with some surprise, and much more snow than this year. Click on image to enlarge.
Sallanches, Savoy
Photograph by David Hill, taken 9 March 2005, 10.36 am.
Looking over the Chateau des Rubins to Sallanches with the Aiguille de Varan in the background. up. Taken from the path leading down from the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. The church tower is hidden behind the trees at the left. Ten years ago exactly, I note with some surprise, and much more snow than this year.
Click on image to enlarge.
J.M.W.Turner Four Sketches: Arras; Storm in the ?Arve Valley; From above Sallanches; and From Pré St Didier in the Val d'Aosta (detail of sketch of Sallanches), 1836 Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 70a detail From opposite the Chateau des Rubins, scanning across the Tour de Disonche with a glimpse of the Tour de la Frasse beyond to the right, to the Church of St Jacques and the Aiguille de Varan. Turner routinely quartered the compass at his major sites, so as to be able to mentally rotate the main co-ordinates of his geography. The viewpoint is now occupied by the new Centre Levaud Sports Hall, though Turner compresses his elements together somewhat. My photograph is somewhat to the left of the centre. 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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-four-sketches-arras-storm-in-the-arve-valley-from-above-r1144717
J.M.W.Turner
Four Sketches: Arras; Storm in the ?Arve Valley; From above Sallanches; and From Pré St Didier in the Val d’Aosta (detail of sketch of Sallanches), 1836
Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm
From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 70a detail
From opposite the Chateau des Rubins, scanning across the Tour de Disonche with a glimpse of the Tour de la Frasse beyond to the right, to the Church of St Jacques and the Aiguille de Varan. Turner routinely quartered the compass at his major sites, so as to be able to mentally rotate the main co-ordinates of his geography. The viewpoint is now occupied by the new Centre Levaud Sports Hall, though Turner compresses his elements together somewhat. My photograph is somewhat to the left of the centre.
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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-four-sketches-arras-storm-in-the-arve-valley-from-above-r1144717
Sallanches: The Chateau des Rubins, Eglise de St Jacques and Aiguille de Varan Photograph by David Hill taken 10 March 2015, 12.51 GMT Click on image to enlarge.
Sallanches: The Chateau des Rubins, Eglise de St Jacques and Aiguille de Varan
Photograph by David Hill taken 10 March 2015, 12.51 GMT
Click on image to enlarge.
J.M.W.Turner Two Sketches: The Tomb of Thomas Balsall in the Sanctuary of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon; A Town in an Alpine Valley (detail of the latter, now identified as Sallanches), 1836 Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 81 detail In my recent listing of these sketches for the online catalogue of the Turner Bequest at the Tate (see below) I tentatively suggested that this might show Sallanches. This can now be confirmed. The towers of de Disonche, de la Frasse and the church are seen before the Aiguille de Varan. From their angle we can work out that Turner’s viewpoint is a little below that of f.70a, above, but I could not confirm the identity of the foreground tower, nor that to the left of the Tour de Disonche. 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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-two-sketches-the-tomb-of-thomas-balsall-in-the-sanctuary-of-r1144738
J.M.W.Turner
Two Sketches: The Tomb of Thomas Balsall in the Sanctuary of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon; A Town in an Alpine Valley (detail of the latter, now identified as Sallanches), 1836
Pencil on paper, page width 113 mm
From the Val d’Aosta sketchbook, Tate Britain, London, TB CCXCIII 81 detail
In my recent listing of these sketches for the online catalogue of the Turner Bequest at the Tate (see below) I tentatively suggested that this might show Sallanches. This can now be confirmed. The towers of de Disonche, de la Frasse and the church are seen before the Aiguille de Varan. From their angle we can work out that Turner’s viewpoint is a little below that of f.70a, above, but I could not confirm the identity of the foreground tower, nor that to the left of the Tour de Disonche.
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/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-two-sketches-the-tomb-of-thomas-balsall-in-the-sanctuary-of-r1144738

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!

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
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

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.

Click on any image to open gallery and captions:

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.

Click on image to open gallery and captions:

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.

Google Earth visualisation of midsummer sunrise on the Aiguille de Varan
Google Earth visualisation of midsummer sunrise on the Aiguille de Varan

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.’

Sallanches detail 2

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.

Ruskin and the Chateau de Rubins, Sallanches, 1860

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.

AND FINALLY…

SALLANCHES, March 2015. Click on any image to open in gallery.