T he words of Childe Harold, the eponymous protagonist of Lord Byron's epic poem, written in the early years of the 19th century, were a melancholy tribute to a place that had truly captured the poet's imagination. His ode to Ehrenbreitstein, the fortress which stood solemnly at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers in western Germany, facing the town of Coblenz, was conflicted in tone: full of admiration for the stout tower which had never been vanquished in combat; but also imbued with a sense of rueful irony. It was peace that had "destroy'd what War could never blight"; the everyday elements, not the shells of surrounding armies, that had reduced its stature.
Few things fired the Romantic imagination more than dilapidation, and J.M.W. Turner was in turn inspired by Byron's ruminations to produce one of the greatest paintings of his later years. The two men, who certainly knew of each other, and may have met, had both lived through the legacy of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and understood that the ensuing peace was both hard-won and precarious. Both treated this scene - the battered fortress seemingly overwhelmed by nature - as a cautious cause for optimism. Perhaps there would be no need for Ehrenbreitstein's thick walls in the future? Perhaps there would be no more wars. But don't bet on it, says Turner's delicate, golden scene. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is this moment of quiet repose.
Turner first visited Ehrenbreitstein in 1817, and returned there several times, making drawings, sketches and watercolours which attempted to find the right, subtle, tone required of this complex scene. As with Byron, the tired fortress and its lyrical surrounds had got under his skin, and it became one of his favourite Germanic themes. In the case of the 1835 painting, Turner had been talking to the publisher and his close friend Joseph Pye, with regard to producing a watercolour of the scene. Pye would use the work as the basis for an engraving, which would be published and widely circulated. But if there was this commercial concern at the origin of the project, it was soon overtaken once Turner got to grips with his subject. The artist found such resonance and emotional richness in the scene before him, that he was moved to turn to his oils: only in this way could he do justice to it. (It subsequently took 11 years, and numerous less than friendly exchanges between the two men, for Pye to turn Turner's magical tableau into the planned engraving.)
The determination to reveal the scene's deeper truths was twinned with Turner's own formal audacity. As with many of his later works, by bringing some of the techniques of watercolour to his oil painting, he pushed the boundaries of his medium skilfully and freely. This was no static scene, or complacent celebration of a world that felt balanced and harmonious. This was landscape painting that was loosely delineated, seemingly alive to the touch. Like the world around him, Turner's work was blurred at the edges, and lacking in the comforts of certitude.
What was it about this particular place, Ehrenbreitstein, that so captured the attentions of both Byron and Turner — and indeed the general public, most of whom greeted the painting with acclaim on its exhibition at the Royal Academy in May 1835? Turner's painterly innovations aside, there was surely an extra dimension here that prompted The Spectator's critic to describe the work as a "splendid tribute of genius to one of the champions of freedom"? Who, moreover, was that champion? The answer to that question is supplied in the words of Byron's poem. The third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was begun in 1816, just a year after the Battle of Waterloo. While a nation celebrated Wellington's triumph, Byron was pointedly ambivalent on the subject of Britain's victory in the resigned lines of an early stanza of Canto III: "…is this all the world has gained by thee, Thou first and last of fields! king-making Victory?"
Byron's sympathies, it was no secret, lay more closely with Napoleon Bonaparte, who represented the forces of enlightenment and rationalism, and whose defeat depressed the supporters of those values all over Europe. The poet's long and complex obsession with the Emperor — both men, in their different ways, dominated 19th century conceptions of heroism — reverberates throughout his work. But it was not Bonaparte, in this section of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, who became the focus of the poet's Romantic fervour. It was the French general of the Revolutionary wars, François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers, who was the heroic subject of stanzas 56 and 57 of Canto III. The dashing Marceau symbolised for Byron the youthful energy of the revolution, having taken part in the storming of the Bastille in 1789, and become an officer of the French Revolutionary Army. After a brief but distinguished military career, he died in battle against the Habsburg Austrians, fighting a rearguard action near Altenkirchen in 1796. He was just 27 years old. Here was the story of an idealist, cruelly felled in his prime, from a prelapsarian revolutionary time, before the Empire became corrupt. Marceau was the perfect Romantic hero.
The Austrians, evidently moved by the young officer's boldness in battle, took it upon themselves to honour his memory. They burnt his body and buried the ashes underneath a stone pyramid designed by Marceau's fellow general, Jean-Baptiste Kléber. The venue chosen for the monument was the fortress at Ehrenbreitstein. It was this simple act of generosity, and abiding sense of honour, towards the enemy that so moved Byron, but also Turner. Byron gushed over Marceau's demise, and the monument built to remember him:
By Coblentz, on a rise of gentle ground,
There is a small and simple Pyramid,
Crowning the summit of the verdant mound;
Beneath its base are heroes’ ashes hid,
Our Enemy’s – but let not that forbid
Honour to Marceau o’er whose early tomb
Tears, big tears, gushed from the rough Soldier’s lid,
Lamenting and yet envying such a doom,
Falling for France, whose rights he battled to resume.
Look into the middle distance of Turner's painting, and there is the "small and simple Pyramid", surrounded by Austrian soldiers sitting in the shade of the two trees on the right of the picture. They look like they are having a picnic. It makes for a still, and poignant, scene. The time for warfare is over. Who cares for the spoils of victory? It is time for reconciliation, and peace.
The power of Turner's Ehrenbreitstein lies in its capture of this evanescent moment in European history. Where Byron succumbs to his own sense of melancholy in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Turner strikes a different, more hopeful, chord. His assembly of details is masterful: the hazy, crumbling fortress; the proud pyramid, standing tall over the resting soldiers. In the foreground, the intimate activities of a small group of locals acts as a counterpoint to the icons of warfare and heroism: a mother comforting a daughter, a frolicking couple. The moment seems to stretch time: the soft, pink light of sunset lights the fortress, while a moon hangs delicately over the proceedings, about to cast its spell. In the bottom left of the painting, a clump of wild flowers is painted in sharp detail; to the far right, by contrast, Turner uses the techniques of watercolour to bleed all the elements of the scene, rock, water, sky, into an indistinct blur.
The sublime fusion of form and content here is palpable. This was no mere act of formal experimentation, but a considered view of the state of a continent. Both technically and politically, Turner was looking at the future. The old order was falling apart, there was a new way of looking at things. Everything — the course of political, as well as art, history — was up for grabs. The mood here is both elegiac, ready to step into a different world. "This man Turner, he learnt a lot from me," said Mark Rothko, laconic and anachronistic, on viewing an exhibition of the British artist's work at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1966. Turner is indeed looking towards Rothko in those close-to-abstract fields of colour that dominate his late work. But he is also looking at his own immediate past: at the mistakes of history, the caprices of power, the human costs of empire-building. Ehrenbreitstein stands suspended, between past and future, over a turning point in European history, making no judgement, proposing no simple solutions, just telling it like it is. It is the artist speaking truth to power, in the most refined of ways. And it surely speaks with eloquence to our own confused times too.