Commissioned by Thomas Prior in 1840, Heidelberg with a Rainbow is one of
the greatest watercolors ever executed by Turner, and stands out as one of the
crowning achievements of the artist’s mature style. Heidelberg with a Rainbow combines Turner’s unique use of sweeping passages of hazy color and light with his acute draftsmanship, and rendering of figures and architecture.
With a deft lightness of touch, Turner depicts the imposing hanging over the north bank of the River Neckar. The figures relaxing on the river bank are drawn with Turner's typical economy of line, an effect which is complemented by the scene’s beautiful and ethereal atmosphere. Few watercolors of this quality remain in private collections and remain a testimony to Turner’s exceptional talents as an artist and in this medium in particular. Unsurprisingly it was the first Turner watercolor to make more than one million pounds when it was last offered for sale and set a world record in 2001.
Heidelberg with a Rainbow shows the German city from the north bank of the River Neckar looking across to the castle, the eighteenth century stone bridge and the fifteenth century Heilige Geist Kirche (Church of the Holy Ghost). He shows the banks of the river crowded with women washing clothes in the river, pipe-smoking students and horsemen cooling their mounts in the water. It is often said that, because some of the figures in the foreground are in medieval dress, Turner is depicting Heidelberg in its seventeenth century heyday, as he did in an oil painting Heidelberg in Olden Times (Tate Gallery). In fact, it was normal for German students in the nineteenth century to dress in this manner as Turner had earlier noted in a sketchbook (see TB CCXCI p.29). To the left looking at the viewer and smoking a pipe is an artist with a portrait of a lady and portfolio next to him. Cecilia Powell points out that he is reminiscent of the figure of Raphael in Turner’s 1820 painting Rome from the Vatican (Tate Gallery).1 Powell also describes the landscape beyond as ‘gloriously painted’ and that it is ‘one of Turner’s most splendid skies.’ Rain has fallen on the far side of the river and the storm is moving off creating a rainbow over the town.
“Of all the grandly romantic spots, by nature, art and interesting circumstances… Heydelberg is the first.” Thus wrote Turner’s friend Sir Thomas Lawrence on his visit to Heidelberg.2 The town and castle enjoyed a turbulent history as the home of the Electors of the Palatine until 1720. As a seventeen year old, the Princess Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I of England, married Friedrich the Elector Palatine and spent five years there before the court’s exile to Prague. In 1648, the town was given back to Friedrich’s son but the castle was sacked by Louis XIV’s invading troops in 1689 and again in 1693 and has been uninhabited since. Heidelberg is also home to one of the oldest and most famous of European universities. Founded by the Elector Rupert I in 1385, the University of Heidelberg soon became a stronghold of Protestant learning.
Heidelberg with a Rainbow was commissioned from Turner by the engraver Thomas Prior (1809-1886) in 1840 for 100 gns. Prior had recently visited Heidelberg and it had attracted him as a subject. Turner initially discouraged him, as large engravings after his work had not been selling well, but he eventually relented. Turner had not worked with Prior before but appears to have liked the engraver’s work as, unusually for him, he only made one alteration to the proof. This was the work which brought Prior to public attention as an engraver and he subsequently engraved a number of other works after Turner with great success.
Turner visited Heidelberg on at least four occasions, the first being in 1833. On his first trip, Turner made several rough pencil sketches of Heidelberg (TB CCXCVII, ff.14, 14v, 15v and 16). He also made a number of drawings of the town from a similar viewpoint in the Berne, Heidelberg and Rhine Sketchbook (TB CCCXXVI 39v-42r, 44r), which probably dates from 1841. The present watercolor can be closely related to a color study from the same viewpoint which is dated 10th March 1841 and which Powell suggests was used by the artist to help in the process of developing Heidelberg with a Rainbow into an engraving.3
However the present watercolor is closest in subject matter and design to a later finished watercolor of the same view, now in the Manchester City Art Gallery entitled Heidelberg: Sunset (fig.1). Shanes suggests that this may have been drawn as a pendant to the present work which shows a morning view, although he dates the Manchester version to later and it was not engraved.
Turner’s impressive view of Heidelberg quickly became known through the wide circulation of prints of the picture, and the watercolor itself has belonged to several of the most important nineteenth century collectors of Turner’s works. Prior, the engraver, sold the picture to a carriage-maker and Turner collector Benajmin Godfrey Windus (1790-1867) of Tottenham Green in North London. The Gentleman’s Magazine recorded in February 1852 ‘it is at Mr. Windus’s on Tottenham-green that Turner is one his throne. There he may be studied, understood, and admired – not in half-a-dozen or twenty instances, but in scores upon scores of choice examples.’ Windus’s collection was open to the public in Tuesdays and was the best place to see Turner’s work in London at the time.4 Windus had sold all but one of his Turners by the time of his death and Heidelberg with a Rainbow was recorded by the artist Thomas Tudor as being with the dealers Colnaghi in 1847.
The next recorded owner was Joseph Gillott (1799-1872) who was an equally celebrated collector of Turner’s work. Gillott owned a steel factory in Birmingham and collected passionately, keeping his collection in three purpose-built galleries in his houses in Westbourne Road, Edgbaston and his London residence at The Grove, Stanmore. It is recorded that he spent over £100,000 on pictures between 1847 and 1871 and it is likely that he acquired the present watercolor in the late 1840s. Gillott became a friend of Turner and first visited the artist in his house on Queen Anne Street, London in 1844. He famously persuaded Turner to sell him £5,000 worth of pictures in exchange for what he called ‘Birmingham pictures’ i.e. banknotes. Like Windus, Gillott had sold many of his Turners by the time he died, but twelve including the present watercolor, were included in his sale at Christie’s after his death, The 1st Earl of Dudley (1817-1885) of Whitley Court, Worcestershire bought Heidelberg for the then enormous figure of 2782gns. A journalist recorded the ‘radiant and rainbowed Heidelberg which the Earl of Dudley fought for and won in the Gillott sale, 1872’ and the battle resumed when it next came up for auction in 1908.
The fabled ship owner Sir Donald Currie (1825-1909) bought ‘Heidelberg’ through Agnew’s for a record price for a Turner watercolor of 4200gns. The bidding started at 100gns and, after what was described by a contemporary journalist as an ‘historic fight’ between Agnew’s and Hugh Blaker of Bath, the London dealers won the day. Sir Donald Currie died a year later, but the picture, treasured as one of the highlights of his collection, remained with his family until their sale at Sotheby’s in 2001.
Sir Donald Currie was one of the most remarkable businessmen of his day. In a career which had spanned almost half a century he dominated the international shipping trade, acquired extensive shareholding, managed three Perthshire estates and was an important patron of the arts. He was born in Greenock, the son of James Currie, a barber from Belfast. He began working for the Cunard Shipping Company in 1844 and rose quickly in their employment, developing a particular interest in the North Sea and Baltic trade. In 1862 he founded the Castle Line of Sailing Ships which ran between Liverpool and Calcutta and ten years later he transferred to the South African trade and founded the Castle Line of Steamers. He eventually came to control Union-Castle’s 282,000 tons of shipping and dominated the South African shipping conference. As a result of his important contribution to British industry he was knighted in 1881. He was the Liberal MP for Perthshire from 1880 until 1900 and because of his knowledge of South Africa, he was appointed by the British government to resolve boundary disputes with the Boers.
At his death in 1909, he left an enormous fortune valued at £2.4 million. His career has been described as representing ‘the full bloom of individual merit rooted strongly in the soil of laissey-faire,’5 and he was a spectacular example of a self-made businessman who started with nothing and in his own lifetime acquired huge wealth and influence.
In South Africa, he became a close friend of Sir John Molteno, the first Prime Minister of Cape Colony from 1872 to 1878. When his son Percy Alport Molteno (1861-1937) came to England to study Law at Cambridge, it was therefore natural that he was a welcome guest at Sir Donald Currie’s house and in 1889, he married Sir Donald’s daughter, Elizabeth. Disillusioned with law, he was offered a partnership in Donald Currie & Company by his father-in-law and moved permanently to London.
Despite living in England, Molteno maintained close links with his native South Africa. He found suitable refrigeration to enable the transportation of South African fruit to Europe and he was a keen advocate of colonial self-government. He did what he could to avert the Boer War but due to what he considered official ignorance of the realities of South Africa it was, in his opinion, inevitable.
When war came, Molteno was unequivocally on the side of the Boers. After the war, he entered British Parliament as Liberal member of Dumfriesshire in Scotland and in the period leading up to the Union of South Africa in 1910, he was the confidante and advisor of a number of South African statesmen. However Union brought to a head the campaign against Currie’s Castle Line and led to its sale and Molteno’s withdrawal from the shipping trade, much to his disillusionment.
Sir Donald Currie’s collection of works by Turner, which was inherited by Percy Molteno’s wife Elizabeth, was one of the most important of the late nineteenth century. Andrew Wilton records that at various times he owned no less than fifty-seven watercolors by Turner and fourteen oil paintings.6 The watercolor collection included examples from every period of Turner’s career and all twenty of Turner’s watercolors illustrating Thomas Campbell’s Poetical Works published as engravings in 1837. He owned other notable watercolors such as Gosport (Wilton no.828) from the famous England and Wales series, Luxembourg (Wilton no.1021) now in the Tate Gallery, Lake of Zug (Wilton no.1535) now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York and three late views of the Falls of Schaffhausen (Wilton nos. 1461, 1466 and 1467), one now in the Pantzer Collection, Indianapolis. His oils included Seascape: Folkestone, later in Lord Clark’s collection and sold at Sotheby’s for a world record £6,700,000 in July 1984. However undoubtedly the most important watercolor in his collection, which he only acquired a year before his death, was Heidelberg with a Rainbow. We would like to fondly remember the late Henry Wemyss who was instrumental in achieving the world record for this work when it last appeared on the open market at Sotheby’s in 2001 and when he wrote this catalogue entry.
1. C. Powell, op. cit., 1995, p.198
2. See D.E. William, The Life of Thomas Lawrence, 1831
3. see C. Powell, op. cit., 1995, no.126, p.196
4. For more about his collection, see Selby Whittingham, op. cit., 1987.
5. Quoted in Andrew Porter, Victorian shipping Business and Imperial Policy, 1986, p.1.
6. see Andrew Wilton, op.cit., 1979
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