This spectacular view, for many years called Lake Nemi, shows the small lake Lungernzee looking south towards the snow covered mountains of the Wetterhorn in the distance. Turner picked a touching moment at twilight, with the sun's rays just picking out high points in the middle distance and the mountains beyond. The new moon meanwhile prominent and high, casts its reflection on the water nearest the cattle walking along the front edge of the lake. The translucent green hues of the water receding into the dark steep banks of the lake and the blue and red tones of the hillside produce a diagonal cross which draws the eye to an intense centre point, not dark, but lightened by moonlight on the mist. To the left in the foreground are workmen with their cart and a donkey nearby all just suggested by a few washes and touches of a pen nib dipped in red ink. Close examination reveals hairs from Turner's brush left on the surface of the paper.
This watercolour dates from c. 1848 and may have been made from sketches in the 'Grindelwald' Sketchbook which he was carrying on his last visit to the Alps in 1844 (see Fig. 5, p. 17). On page three of this modest little note book Turner has written "Lungern see" beside a very slight group of erratic pencil studies of mountains which look as if they may have been drawn in a moving coach. It is likely that Turner was attracted to this lake having read the lengthy account in John Murray's A Hand-book for Travellers in Switzerland and the Alps of Savoy and Piedmont, 1838, relating to the engineering feat of lowering the waterlevel of the lake by twenty feet, achieved in 1836. The local residents aiming to acquire 500 acres of extra land sought help from the engineer Sulzberger. It had been a project planned as early as 1788 but lack of funds had prevented its full implementation until the 1830's.
As Murray explains, first, a twelve foot long rod was driven through the rock from a previous tunnel and it produced a discharge of mud and water, and then a courageous miner knocked on the rod with a hammer. This resulted in a tremor on the surface of the lake. Following this, the tunnel was enlarged and a cask containing 950 lbs of powder was moved into the shaft and finally propped on logs. A 'match' was attached and the tunnel was gradually filled with tons of sand, an obnoxious job for about 500 men working in darkness and smelling foul air that extinguished all attempts at lighting candles. The length of the tunnel was finally 1305 feet, and
on the 9th January 1836, a cannon shot fired from the Kaiserstuhl and acknowledged by another from the Landenburg gave notice to the valley that the explosion was to happen. A miner named Spire was despatched with two others to light the fuse. The length of the "match" was sufficient to give them time to come out of the tunnel. On emerging, their appearance was signalled by a pistol shot. Ten minutes more than was expected passed and still nothing, then two dull explosions were heard but they did not shake the ground nor even break the ice on the lake. Many assumed it had failed but there was a shout from below and a black torrent of mud and water burst out of the lake. In six days the water fell 14 feet and a further ten days brought the level down to the required position, leaving steep banks, clearly drawn by Turner, which for some months were solely the territory for crows feeding on the worms and shell fish left exposed. Then a crop of potatoes was grown and more of the extra land was cultivated.
It is likely that Turner kept Murray's Hand-book in his luggage during the 1840's journeys to the Alps. Certainly his interest in such a major engineering project cannot be doubted. He was after all a friend of many figures at the forefront of science. At the date of this watercolour, he was still attending soirees at the Royal Society, and visiting the Royal College of Surgeons. He became a friend of the daguerreottist J.J.Mayall (1813-1901), visiting his shop in the Strand incognito until 1849, sitting for portraits and discussing photographs of the Niagara Falls. Turner was also a friend of Mary Somerville (1780-1872) and was fascinated by her work on magnetism. He knew Humphry Davy (1778-1829) and Michael Faraday (1791-1867) whose work on electricity in conjunction with magnetism established methods of electricity generation still used today. [ii]Such luxuries as electric light, of course were never available to J.M.W.Turner, just candle, daylight and possibly gas light.
Perhaps more relevant to the Lungern drainage would have been Turner's acquaintance with geologists such as John MacCulloch (1773-1835). James Hamilton, makes a strong argument that Turner, whether in his verse, his company or in his art, was fascinated by geology, and thus the activities at Lungern that he must have known from Murray's Hand-Book, would naturally have attracted him.[iii]
Because this is one of Turner's late watercolours which was not known to John Ruskin and therefore escaped his careful research of subject, it was mis-identified as Lake Nemi. Another smaller watercolour of the same view was also called Nemi (Wilton 1561), and A Swiss Lake Scene (Wilton 1564) would also appear to show the recently drained lake at Lungern, thereby reinforcing the significance of this site to Turner.
[i] The 'Grindelwald' Sketchbook (TB CCCXLVIII)
[ii] See, James Hamilton, Turner and the Scientists, 1998, p.16 and James Hamilton, Faraday, The Life, 2002.
[iii] James Hamilton, lit. op. cit., 1998, p.118)
Watercolour over pencil with stopping out heightened with white, pen with red watercolour and with touches of gum arabic, on wove paper, watermarked: J Whatman 1846
Joseph Mallord William Turner
London, Agnew's, 150th Anniversay Exhibition: Paintings and Watercolours by JMW Turner, RA, 1967, no. 78;
Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art, Turner Exhibition, 1986, no. 111;
London, Tate Gallery, Turner: the Final Years, 1993, no. 68;
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Turner the Great Watercolours, 2000, no. 109;
Essen and Zurich, William Turner, Licht und Farbe, 2002, no. 187
Watercolour over pencil with stopping out heightened with white, pen with red watercolour and with touches of gum arabic, on wove paper, watermarked: J Whatman 1846 384 by 562 mm., 15 1/8 by 22 1/8 in.
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of JMW Turner, 1979, no. 1560, p. 487 (as Lake Nemi);
Martin Butlin, Evelyn Joll and Andrew Wilton, Turner Exhibition, 1986, no. 111, pp. 268-9;
Robert Upstone, Turner: The Final Years, 1993, no. 68, p. 66 (as Lake Nemi);
Eric Shanes, Turner the Great Watercolours, 2000, no. 109, p. 237;
Andrew Wilton, William Turner, Licht und Farbe, 2002, no. 187, p. 360
John Heugh, his sale Christie's, London, 24th April 1874, lot 83 (bt. Agnew's);
John Knowles, his sale Christie's, London, 19th May 1877, lot 92 (bt. Agnew's);
C.W. Dyson Perrins;
Anonymous Sale, Sotheby's London, 26th April 1959, lot 68;
Mrs C W Garnett (by 1967);
with Richard Green Ltd.