From this vantage-point he looks southwards, up river, past the massive rocks and cliffs on which the fort was built, to the tree-covered hills that line the river for miles around and the island of Oberwerth. The foreground is composed of a stone shrine, a patchwork of crumbling buildings and multi-layered terraces. The scene is bathed in the soft, diffused light of the late afternoon sun, which hovers low in the sky. Turner has increased the sense of otherworldliness with his inclusion of a number of monks, both Dominican and Carmelite, dressed in their distinctive black and white habits.
The watercolour is one of fifty Rhineland views that Turner painted as a result of his sketching tour of 1817. With the fall of Napoleon in 1815 and the return, finally, of peace in Europe, this was Turner’s first opportunity since 1802 to travel on the Continent. He left London on August 10th and after passing through Belgium, where he sketched some of the great cathedral cities and at the field of Waterloo, he reached Cologne on the banks of the Rhine by the middle of that month. For the next twelve days he travelled south to Mainz, a journey of some 120 miles which took him through scenery that was peppered with towering cliffs, dramatic ruined castles and pretty villages. He stayed at Coblenz for three nights, on the 21st, 22nd and 29th August and explored both the town and Ehrenbreitstein as comprehensively as he could. In his Waterloo and Rhine sketchbook he made a sketch in pencil from the same view-point as that of the present watercolour. (fig. 2)
It has long been said that Turner painted his fifty ‘finished’ Rhineland watercolours directly from nature, as the works are so full of life and spontaneity. However, due in part to the large number of pencil drawings in Turner’s tour sketchbooks that link directly to the finished compositions, Cecilia Powell has argued that he may well have painted them either in the evenings at the inns and lodgings he found himself staying in at night, or perhaps after he returned to England and was staying at Raby Castle in County Durham.2
According to Walter Thornbury, Turner’s first biographer, soon after his return to England, Turner travelled up to Farnley Hall in Yorkshire to stay with his great friend and leading patron Walter Fawkes (1769-1825). Tradition has it that even before he had taken off his great-coat, ‘Turner produced the Rhine drawings [the finished watercolours] from his breast pocket.3 Fawkes was evidently much impressed, for he acquired the entire lot, all fifty of them, for the sum of £500.
Turner’s Rhineland watercolours remained in the Fawkes family until Ayscough Fawkes offered thirty of the landscapes at his sale at Christie’s on the 27 June 1890. The series is now widely scattered, the largest single group (seven drawings) belonging to the British Museum.4
The present work was sold as lot 23 in the 1890 sale and was acquired by the celebrated art dealers Agnew’s for £150. For the next 123 years it remained hidden from view and Andrew Wilton described it as ‘untraced’ in his 1979 catalogue raisonné. It was not until 2013 that it re-surfaced, much to the excitement of Turner scholars.
Turner was to travel up and down the Rhine many times during the course of his long career and Ehrenbreitstein became one his most iconic subjects. The present work, with its masterly execution, its beautiful colouring and magical lighting, is particularly powerful as, dating from the seminal 1817 tour, it sees Turner reacting to the great fortress and the Rhineland countryside for the very first time. We are grateful to both Cecilia Powell and Ian Warrell for their help when cataloguing this lot.
1. Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, Ed, E. de Selincourt, 1941, vol. II, pp. 48-9
2. C. Powell, Turner’s Rivers of Europe, London 1991, p. 32
3. Ibid, p. 34
4. K. Sloan, J.M.W. Turner, Watercolours from the R.W. Lloyd Bequest to the British Museum, London 1998, pp. 60-75
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