Turner at Lake Lucerne, by Dr William Hauptman
There is no region of Switzerland more resplendent in natural beauty or steeped in multiple historic associations than the area around the Lake of the Four Cantons, generally referred to as the Lake of Lucerne. With the anchor of Lucerne at its western tip, the four joining lakes-named for the confluence of the cantons of Lucerne, Schwyz, Nidwald, and Uri-form a slight hook that descends southward toward the Ruess River and the city of Altdorf. For centuries, this lake route assumed a crucial role as a connecting link from the west to the St Gotthard Pass, thus one of the most significant commercial circuits for passengers and goods to Italy. For most foreign travellers, the verdant, mountain-bordered southern branch, known as the Bay of Uri connecting Brunnen and Fleulen, was considered one of the most picturesque in the country that aroused a myriad of romantic sensations. When William Coxe passed through here in 1776, he described the scenery as replete with "rocks uncommonly wild and romantic" and the effect " amazingly grand and sublime." During Turner's many visits to the region, these sentiments of unbridled natural opulence became a capital theme exploited with grandeur and instinctive reverence.
But beside the stupefaction of the unqiue terrain itself, other emotions were stirred that underscored directly to the origins of Swiss independence. The meadow of Rütli on the western shore of the lake, northward from the bend in Turner's view, was the reputed birthplace of Swiss democracy, Europe's oldest, when in 1291 the three representatives of the existing cantons met to align their sources against Hapsburg domination. On the eastern side, seen in the distant right centre of Turner's composition, is the Tell Chapel, built in 1388, where William Tell supposedly bounded to liberty from Gessler's hands, a reputed episode that Schiller's play of 1804 (Act IV, sc.1) described so vividly. There is little wonder that in Samuel Roger's Italy, later illustrated by Turner in a series of vignettes, he called it "that Sacred lake", in which
Each cliff and head-land
Graven with records of the past,
Excites hero worship...
In Turner's early visits here, travelling from Lucerne to its most eastern point at Fleulen, a distance of about 25 miles, was possible only by boat, as a roadway cut through the rock on the eastern site, the Axenstrasse, was not constructed until 1863. Lake travel was regulated by diverse private companies who supplied sailboats with three oarsmen to ferry merchandise and visitors, a trip made usually in about six hours. In this view taken from the landing site on the beach, a view Ruskin said was "very dear to Turner," citing this work as one of his "loveliest drawings," he necessarily compressed the panorama while still retaining the essential profiles of the mountains at each side: the two peaks of the Bauenstöcke loom over the small village of Bauen at the left with the more massive Seelisberg behind, while the foot of the Axenberg dominates the right. Although Ruskin would doubt the accuracy of some of Turner's other views from Fleulen, particularly those from an upper perspective, this watercolour reveals a topographical accuracy that corroborates the diligent nature of Turner's eye.
William Hauptman is the author of a history of British watercolour painting published by Phaidon Press.
Turner's magnificent watercolour of the Lake of Lucerne in Switzerland was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1815. In the composition, he chose to combine the sublime Alpine view with a peaceful early morning scene of women and children disembarking from boats, unloading blankets, barrels and clothing, as beyond them, other boats approach the shore on the calm lake. Across the water the mountains have just appeared with the dawn and the sun is penetrating the mist on the lake.
Separate from the activity of unloading the boat, and standing on her own, is a girl who appears to be weeping. This must surely be a clue to an episode or historical context to which Turner was referring, and may reflect recent violent scenes that had happened at Fleulen. For Turner's visit in 1802 was just two years after the intense fighting in the area when in June 1799, the Austrians allied with the local Swiss to expel the French. Two months later Napoleon's troops returned across the lake in a flotilla of boats and fought the Austrians who retreated up the Valley. The Russians fought their way over from St Gotthard to the lake, but were trapped and after bloody fighting were forced to retreat.
It was Turner's first visit to the Alps in the Summer of 1802 when he drew the sketch he later used as one of the studies for the present work, on page 41 of The Lake Thun sketchbook (illustrated Fig. 1., p.13). He was able to make this visit because the Treaty of Amiens had brought to an end war with France, albeit as it subsequently turned out it was a short period of peace. At Fleulen, he recorded this harmonious scene with women and children, and the single woman in distress may be an acknowledgment of the recent conflict at this site.
Aged twenty seven and newly elected as a full member of the Royal Academy, Turner for the first time set off across the Continent to the Alps in July 1802. He approached the Alps via Geneva, then travelled through Bonneville to Chamonix, around Mont Blanc to Aosta, back to the east end of Lake Leman, across to Thun, Interlaken, Reichenbach, further north east to Lucerne and down the lake to Fleulen, moving on further south as far as Faido. He had returned to Paris by the end of September.
David Hill suggests that Turner exhibited this picture at the Royal Academy in 1815 as a pair to the Battle of Fort Rock, Val D'Aosta, Piedmont, 1796 (Tate Gallery, see Fig.1). Fort Rock showed a war scene, albeit not a recorded episode in 1796 in contrast to this peaceful view.
It is poignant and indeed ironic that during the planning for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1815, Napoleon was returning from Elba, gathering troops. By March 20th he was in Paris, and during the exhibition whilst the English were examining the present work and Fort Rock in the Inner Room at the Academy, Napoleon met his final defeat at Waterloo on 18th June.
The precise date of this watercolour is not known. Based upon sketches of 1802, Armstrong proposed 1805 while Finberg allies it's date to The Great Fall of Reichenbach (Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford) which is dated 1804 and was also exhibited in the Inner Room at the Academy in 1815 (no.292).[i] Andrew Wilton suggests 1807, and certainly the scale of the watercolour and the powerful cool colours of the palatte supports a date before 1810. However, Evelyn Joll and David Hill were inclined to date it to 1815, the year of the Academy exhibition on the basis of it being purchased by Fawkes in that year.
The ownership of the watercolour is distinguished. During the nineteenth century it was part of the two most important collections of Turner watercolours. Walter Fawkes, Turner's most significant patron (as explained earlier in this catalogue by James Miller), was the first to own it and David Hill discovered that he bought it in 1815 for 120 guineas, the year of the Academy exhibition. It was then exhibited at his London home in 1819 at the Exhibition of Watercolours from the Collection of Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, as was Scarborough also in this sale. Of that exhibition one reporter wrote, 'Turner is perhaps the first artist in the world in the powerful and brilliant style peculiar to him; no man has ever thrown such masses of colour upon paper; and his finest works have been collected in Mr Fawkes' house.'[ii]
It is not known when Turner first met Walter Fawkes but Fawkes, who travelled in Switzerland in his youth, has been credited with persuading Turner to go to the Alps himself. Certainly Fawkes' first commissions from Turner between 1803 and 1805 were Alpine subjects and he eventually owned nineteen Swiss subjects. From 1808, Turner stayed at Fawkes' home, Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, nearly every summer until Fawkes' death in 1825.
The watercolour remained in the Fawkes family collection until 1890 and then it passed via Agnew's into its second major collection, that of Sir Donald Currie (1825-1903). Currie assembled a collection of no less than seven Turner watercolours and fourteen oil paintings. The present work, was sold from the collection of Currie's grandson Major FD Mirrieless in 1959 for what was then a record price for a watercolour by Turner of £11,000.
[i] See Sir W. Armstrong, lit.op.cit., 1902, p. 264 and AJ Finberg, lit.op.cit., 1961, p. 219.
[ii] See York City Art Gallery, Turner in Yorkshire, 1980, p.55.
Watercolour over pencil with scratching out and gum arabic, in original frame
Joseph Mallord William Turner
London, Royal Academy, The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1815, no. 316;
London, Grosvenor Place, Exhibition of Watercolours in the Collection of Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, 1819, no. 3;
Leeds, Music Hall, Exhibition of Watercolours from the Walter Fawkes Collection, 1839, no.25;
London, Royal Academy, The Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1886, no. 35;
York City Art Gallery, Turner in Yorkshire, 1980, no.82
660 by 1000 mm., 26 by 39 in.
Sir Walter Armstrong, Turner, 1902, p. 264;
E.T. Cook, Ruskin on Pictures: A Collection of Criticism by John Ruskin, 1902, p. 123-4;
The Connoisseur, August 1960;
A.J. Finberg, The Life of JMW Turner RA, 2nd ed. 1961, pp.219 and 477;
John Russell, Turner in Switzerland, 1976, p. 135, no. 16;
Andrew Wilton, JMW Turner: His Art and Life, 1979, p. 342, no. 378;
Richard Green, Turner in Yorkshire, 1980, p. 56;
Turner Studies, 'Turner in Yorkshire', exhibition review by Evelyn Joll, 1980, Vol. 1 (1), pp. 38-39;
Ian Warrell, Through Switzerland with Turner, 1995, p.79;
Walter Fawkes, Farnley Hall, Yorkshire;
By descent to the Rev. Anscough Fawkes, his sale Christie's London, 27th June 1890, lot 57 (bt. Agnew's);
Sir Donald Currie, G.C.M.G.;
Major F. D. Mirrielees, his sale Christie's London, 20th March 1959, lot 55 (£11,000 a world record);
The Wills sale, Sotheby's London, 5th July 2005, lot 38;
with Richard Green Ltd