The images Turner created on his travels to Switzerland during the first half of the 1840s are considered by many to be amongst his very best. John Ruskin noted that ‘I look upon them as, in some respects, more valuable than his finished drawings, or his oil pictures, because they are the simple records of his first impressions and first purpose, and in most instances as true to the character of the places they represent as they are admirable in composition.’1
The 1843 summer tour saw him travel as far south as Lake Como, by way of Baden, Goldau, Schwyz, St. Gotthard, Via Mala, Bellinzona and the Tyrol. He was sixty-eight years old but he was also full of energy and enthusiasm. Ruskin recorded something of Turner’s working method, stating that ‘Turner used to walk about a town with a roll of thin paper in his pocket, and make a few scratches upon a sheet or two of it, which were so much shorthand indication of all he wished to remember. When he got to his inn in the evening, he completed the penciling rapidly, and added as much color as was needed to record his plan for the picture.’2
It is likely that Turner was attracted to Lake Lauerzersee having read the lengthy account of it in John Murray’s A Hand-book for Travellers in Switzerland and the Alps of Savoy and Piedmont, which he kept with him during his 1840s journeys. Murray described Schwytz as ‘a mere village’ and recommended the Hirsch Inn, as a good place to stay. He also explained that the Castle of Schwanau, which stands in a ruinous state - on the island to the left in Turner’s composition, had been destroyed in 1308 to avenge ‘an outrage committed by the Seigneur, in carrying off a damsel against her will…’, and he recounted that there was a ‘wild and somber tradition attached to [the] island’, namely that ‘once a year cries are heard to come from it, and suddenly the ghost of the tyrant is seen to pass, chased by the vengeful spirit of a pale girl, bearing a torch, and shrieking wildly. At first he eludes her swiftness, but at length she gains upon him, and forces him into the lake…’3
In the present sheet Turner has created an image of superb atmospheric intensity, and yet he combines this with a sense of tranquility and calm. It was perhaps drawings such as this that Turner had in mind, when, in 1844, he explained to the Ruskin that ‘atmosphere is my style.’4 By this stage in his career, he had developed an extraordinarily rapid and varied technique that enabled him to capture the vast space before him not by virtue of solid boundaries so much as through the atmospheric effects of light and color. It was the air, as much as the mountains, that he wished to draw and this goal was achieved by a range of techniques, including close hatching, broad washes, scratching, pencil and pen and ink. By the use of such means, on only a small sheet, he was able to encompass an immense view. Turner’s ability to capture the feeling of light and color on such a small scale has rarely been surpassed.
This avant-garde approach highlights Turner’s revolutionary role in the art of landscape representation in watercolor. By studying works such as the present lot, it is easy to comprehend why the Art Union, in 1842, observed that ‘under Turner’s leadership, the art of watercolor painting had in our own time been revived with such extension of its capabilities, and such novelty in its manipulations, as to render it almost a new art.’ They concluded that Turner was quite ‘the wonder-working artist’.5
This picture is one of a group which belonged to Turner’s housekeeper and devoted companion Mrs Booth. Sophia Anne Booth was first married to Henry Pound by whom she had a son Daniel John. On Pound’s death she married John Booth, an old man who owned some property, and she moved him from Deal to Margate where she ran a boarding house on the sea front. John Booth died in 1833, and Turner soon formed a close relationship with his widow. At first she remained at Margate, but in the 1840s Turner bought a house at Chelsea overlooking the Thames. By 1846 he was living there with Sophia and her son Daniel. Sophia Booth continued to look after Turner until his death in 1851, arranging his brushes and palette for him and making sure that he was properly fed. In return, as a token of his deep affection, Turner gave her at least eight oil paintings and five watercolor drawings.6
1. E.T. Cook and A Wedderburn,The Works of John Ruskin, London 1904, vol. XII, p. 189
2. J. Hamilton,Turner A Life, London 1997, p. 295
3. J. Murray, A Hand-book for Travellers in Switzerland and the Alps of Savoy and Piedmont, London 1838, pp. 44 & 45
4. I. Warrell, Through Switzerland with Turner, London 1995, p. 15
5. I. Warrell, Turner, The Great Watercolours, London 2000. p. 45
6. A. Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, nos. P474, P475, P476, P477, P478, P480, P481, P511, P513, W1401, W1417, W1418, W1516
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