It is these fully realised ‘late’ Swiss works that, above all others, have come to be seen as the pinnacle of Turner’s achievements in watercolour and the ‘climax of a lifetime devoted to the expression of light and colour.1 Only five of these landscapes are now not held in museum collections and the present work has remained in the same distinguished private collection since 1968. Lake Lucerne from Brunnen was last seen in public in 2001, when it was exhibited at London’s Royal Academy, in its seminal exhibition Turner - The Great Watercolours.
The present work depicts one of the most dramatic landscapes in all of Switzerland. Positioned high above the village of Brunnen, which is located on the eastern shores of Lake Lucerne, Turner in this work looks away south to allow the magnificent vista of the Bay of Uri to unfold before the viewer’s eyes. In the distance, to right of centre, tower both the Oberbaunstock and Uri-Rotstock mountains, while a tiny white sail highlights the waterside village of Fluelen and the end of the lake.
This arm of Lake Lucerne is not only famed for its grandeur and natural beauty but also for its historical associations. Turner’s contemporary, Samuel Rogers (1763 -1855), described it in his popular poem Italy as: ‘That sacred lake, withdrawn among the hills / Its depth of waters flanked as with a wall’….., in which ‘each cliff and head-land and green promontory / Graven with records of the past / Excites to hero worship.’
As with many of his finished works, in Lake Lucerne from Brunnen, Turner does not fail to make the connection between his landscape and its history. On the left bank, far off in the distance, for example, he indicates the position of the fourteenth century Tell Chapel, where the legendary William Tell reputedly leapt to freedom, escaping his tyrannical Austrian overlords. While on the right, high above the lake, Turner gives great prominence to the meadow of Rütli, a site that, in 1291, witnessed the birth of Swiss democracy.
Towards the end of August 1841, and perhaps inspired by his experience of the Italian Alps, which he passed through five years previously, Turner embarked on his first dedicated tour to Switzerland since 1802. Leaving England by way of Harwich, he stopped at Rotterdam, before travelling up the Rhine as far as Coblenz. He crossed into Switzerland at Basel and headed east, first to the waterfalls at Schaffhausen and soon afterwards on to Lake Constance. He then journeyed as far south as the Splügen Pass, before striking out in a north-westerly direction for Zurich. From there, he turned south again in order to explore the great lakes of Zug, Lucerne, Brienz, Thun and Geneva before turning for home.
All throughout this tour, as was his life-long habit, Turner set about recording the landscapes, the architecture and the local people that caught his attention. He used no fewer than thirteen sketchbooks in which he made hastily conceived drawings. In addition to these, he painted bold small-scale watercolours in which he was able to fix down on paper his impressions of the light, colour and atmosphere of any given place. At Lake Lucerne, it was the Mount Rigi and the Bay of Uri that particularly transfixed him. From above the village of Brunnen, he made two hasty drawings in a roll sketchbook, which he embellished with a splash of watercolour.2 While, from the shore itself, or possibly from a boat, he painted a number of exquisite sketches in full watercolour heightened with pen and ink. These all reside in the Tate, Britain in London.3 Later, he created a much more highly-coloured study that is almost certainly a preparatory sheet (or colour-beginning) for the present work.4
On the 22 October, Turner was back in London and by the winter of 1841/2 he had formulated a novel plan which, he hoped, would make a commercial success of the tour. He presented Thomas Griffith, his agent since the late 1830s, with a set of as many as twenty Swiss ‘sample studies’, from which a select group of loyal patrons might be tempted to commission ten large-scale ‘finished’ watercolours. Alongside those, Turner submitted to Griffith four already completed landscapes which, according to John Ruskin, were designed to make clear ‘what their quality would be.’5 Turner suggested that one hundred guineas be charged for each of the finished works, but Griffith, who had already commented to the artist that the pictures were ‘a little different from your usual style’ - such was their avant-garde nature - was clearly apprehensive and so the pair compromised at eighty guineas each, with ten percent going to the dealer as a commission.6
In the spring of 1842, Griffith invited four of Turner’s most important collectors to his London showroom in Waterloo Place just off Pall Mall. They were the carriage-maker Benjamin Godfrey Windus, the amateur artist and Scottish laird Hugh Munro of Novar, the brilliant young art critic John Ruskin, and the whaling magnate Elhanan Bicknell. Although Turner and his agent may have thought that they had cause for concern when Windus decided not to participate in the scheme, in fact, they need not have worried. Of the first four finished works, Hugh Munro of Novar bought three; The Pass of Splugen, The Lake of Lucerne; and The Red Rigi, while Elhanan Bicknell purchased The Blue Rigi. Of the six further subjects that were to be chosen from the sample-studies, Ruskin acquired two: Coblenz and Lucerne from the Walls, Munro added The Dark Rigi and Zurich to his collection, while Bicknell commissioned the present watercolour. The tenth work in the series, a view of Lake Constance, did not initially find a buyer, but Turner later gave it to Griffith in recognition of his help with the project.
Ruskin considered this set of ten landscapes to be the defining statements in Turner’s career as a watercolourist. Long after the artist’s death, he wrote that ‘Turner had never made any drawings like these before, and never made any like them again… He is not showing his hand in these, but his heart.’7
Close inspection of Lake Lucerne from Brunnen reveals why Ruskin was so full of praise. Turner has perfectly captured the complex light effects and haze of the early morning. The huge sky is filled with a golden light which floods the mountain uplands with warmth, while the deep blue waters of the lake rise up in weightless mists, and so give the impression that the plunging cliffs and lake melt seamlessly together.
All is quiet and there is not a breath of wind. In the foreground, to the left, a group of figures and their dog bask in the warm sunshine, while, further down the path and still in the shadows, a group of huntsmen stand near to a fire. The village of Brunnen itself still appears to be slumbering, save for a solitary rowing boat, with its distinctive high-set bow, which has already left the small harbour and headed out onto the shimmering lake.
Turner breaks the peace in the subtlest of fashions, with his inclusion of the Stadt Luzern, the newly installed steamboat that took passengers between the southern village of Fluelen and Lucerne eight times a week. Snow white plumes of smoke bellow from its tall chimney, providing a dramatic contrast with the inky blue water. Its presence acts as a reminder that, even in this timeless landscape, the industrial age had arrived.
Lake Lucerne from Brunnen has belonged to a number of distinguished collectors, including some the most important collectors of Turner’s work. The first, as we have seen, was Elhanan Bicknell, a merchant and ship owner who was heavily involved in the South Sea whaling industry. He lived with his large family in an elegant Georgian house on Herne Hill, near Dulwich and from the middle 1830s, he began to form what would evolve into a superlative art collection.
Bicknell was a generous host and, being particularly interested in modern British painting, he regularly entertained both artists and connoisseurs at his home. He seems to have first met Turner in 1835 and within time the artist was joining these social gatherings, while Bicknell himself paid the occasional visit to the artist’s studio in Queen Anne Street, London.
Although Bicknell amassed important works by other artists including Roberts, Landseer, Clarkson Stanfield, Copley Fielding, Prout, de Wint and Muller, between 1838 and 1854 he acquired no fewer than twelve oil paintings and sixteen watercolours by Turner. In April 1863, two years after Bicknell’s death, Christie’s held a sensational six day sale of his collection, which prompted one journalist to describe him as a modern day ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’.8 The Turners were rightly considered to be the jewels in the crown and whereas The Blue Rigi achieved £310.16 on the first day, the Lake Lucerne from Brunnen trumped this, when John Smith of Edinburgh paid £714 on day two.9 When The Blue Rigi was sold at Christie's, London in 2005, it achieved £5,832,000, a price that remains a world-record for a watercolour by Turner.
The next illustrious owner of the watercolour was William, 1st Earl of Dudley (1816-1885), who acquired it at Christie’s, only six years later, for just over one thousand pounds. Lord Dudley was the scion of an ancient aristocratic family with deep roots in Staffordshire and Worcestershire. His great estates enabled him to take full advantage of the industrial revolution and such was his success that he was often referred to as the ‘iron Earl of England.’10 Away from business, he was a Trustee of the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, a philanthropist and a collector. He owned two other truly exceptional watercolours by Turner, namely Bamborough Castle from 1837 and Heidelberg with a Rainbow from 1840.11
Lake Lucerne from Brunnen next entered the collection of James Irvine Smith (1830-1908), an Edinburgh based journalist, who specialised in the law. He had a great interest in the visual arts, and was actively involved with the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland. A collector himself, from the mid 1870s onwards, he carefully assembled a small but superb group of Turner watercolours, which included the following four Swiss views from the 1840s: Brunnen, seen from the Lake Lucerne (Courtauld Institute of Art, London), Lake Constance, (York City Art Gallery), Zurich (British Museum) and Lucerne: Moonlight (British Museum).
The next outstanding owner of Lake Lucerne from Brunnen was Sir Donald Currie (1825-1909) who acquired the work from Agnew's, London in 1907. Born the son of a barber from Greenock, near Glasgow, he became one of the most remarkable businessmen of his day. In a career spanning almost half a century, he dominated the international shipping trade, acquired extensive shareholdings, managed three Scottish estates, and was an important patron of the arts.
He was passionate about Turner and it is recorded that, over his lifetime, he acquired fourteen of his oil paintings, including Seascape: Folkestone, later in Lord Clark’s collection and sold at Sotheby’s in July 1984 for the then world-record price of £6.7 million, and no fewer than fifty-seven watercolours. This part of the collection comprised examples from every period of Turner’s career, including exceptional watercolours such as Gosport from the England and Wales series, Luxembourg now in the Tate Gallery, Heidelberg with a Rainbow (mentioned above in relation to Lord Dudley), Lake of Zug now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York and many more. To this list can be added the present work which, having descended within Sir Donald’s family until 1968, was acquired by the father of the present owner from the celebrated London art dealers Agnew’s.
We are grateful to Ian Warrell and Neil Jeffares for their help when cataloguing this work.
1. I. Warrell, op. cit, London 1995, p. 10
2. Tate, Britain, inv. nos. TB CCCXXXII 32 & TB CCCLXIV 387
3. Tate, Britain, London, inv. nos. TB CCCLXIV 387; TB CCCLXIV 313; TB CCCLXIV 354; TB CCCLXIV 342; TB CCCLXIV
4. A. Wilton, op. cit, Fribourg 1979, p. 483, no. 1528 (Private Collection)
5. A. Wilton, op. cit, London 1987, p. 198
6. C. Nugent and M. Croal, Turner Watercolours from Manchester, Manchester 1997, p. 110
7. E. Cook and A. Wedderburn, The Works of Ruskin, London, XIII, 1904, pp. 140,146
8. The Star Newspaper, 28 April 1863
9. John Smith originated from Scotland but lived at Princes Gate in London. He was a senior partner at the banking firm Smith, Fleming and Co. and owned a number of notable watercolours by Turner.
10. W. Rodner, 'Turner's Dudley: Continuity, Change and Adaptability in the Industrial Black Country' Turner Studies, 1988, vol. 8, no. 1, p. 34
11. Bamborough Castle was sold at Sotheby’s, London on the 5 December 2007 (lot 76) for £2,932,500, while Heidelberg with an Rainbow achieved $4,500,000, when it was offered at Sotheby’s, New York in on the 31 January 2013 (lot 101).
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