Executed in 1847-48, The Brunig Pass from Meiringen marks the culmination of Turner's Swiss views. Correspondence between Turner and Ruskin seems to establish that this watercolor was, with The Descent of the St Gothard (fig. 1; Wilton 1552; Koriyama Municipal Art Museum, Japan), one of the last drawings executed for Ruskin by Turner. It is based on a study made when Turner visited Meiringen in 1844, which is now in a private collection (Wilton 1551), and which may have been removed from the 'Meiringen and Grindelwald' Sketchbook at Tate Britain (TB CCCXLVII). The study lacks the figures seen in the present watercolor and is taken from a slightly different viewpoint. At this date traversing the Brunig Pass required an adventurous spirit: John Murray's Hand-Book for Travellers in Switzerland and the Alps of Savoy and Piedmont, 1843, noted that the road from 'Lungern... over the mountains to Meyringen [sic] is only a bridle path' and that carriages could not use it (p. 59). Turner indeed shows what seems to be a cavalcade arriving in the foreground village, raising clouds of dust and drawing crowds of curious onlookers.
When Turner visited Switzerland in the 1840s, he returned to a landscape that he had grown to know as a young man, while visiting the Continent for the first time during the 1802 Peace of Amiens. Having already studied and sketched the mountains of Snowdonia, the Scottish Highlands and the Lakes (see lot 39), the young Turner found in the Alps the perfect example of the Romantic ideal of Sublime Nature. Here was a landscape which, more than any he could find in Britain, dwarfed the human figure and demonstrated the awe-inspiring power of the natural world. Making repeated journeys to the Alps throughout his career, Turner developed both his technical and conceptual abilities as he strove to realize ever grander, more evocative landscapes. For the route of his tour in 1844, see the map reproduced as fig. 3.
Turner travelled to Switzerland every year between 1841 and 1844. On returning from his first visit, in the winter of 1841-42, Turner visited his dealer Thomas Griffith and proposed a novel scheme for marketing the products of his recent tour. As recounted later by John Ruskin, fifteen sketches were to be made available from which possible purchasers could choose ten subjects to be worked up as finished watercolors. In addition Turner would finish four of the subjects as examples of how the completed watercolors would look. A total of nine watercolors were sold, including the four finished subjects, and Griffith took a tenth as his commission. The following year, 1843, Turner proposed a similar scheme but only five works were sold. In 1845, however, he seems to have succeeded in selling nine Swiss views in a similar way. Ruskin's account of these transactions appears in the Epilogue to his catalogue of the exhibition of his Turner collection held in London at the Fine Art Society in 1878 (Cook & Wedderburn, The Works of Ruskin, XIII, 1904, pp. 477-84). See also I. Warrell, 'Turner's late Swiss watercolours - and Oils', ed. L. Parris, exhibition catalogue, Exploring Late Turner, Salander O'Reilly, New York, 1999, pp. 140 & 146.
In his 1857 Catalogue of Turner Sketches in the National Gallery, Ruskin implies that there was a break in Turner's production of Swiss watercolors between the set of ten in 1845 and a final pair produced in 1850. This, however, fails to include the present watercolor and The Descent of the St Gothard, which are mentioned by Turner at the beginning of 1848 and for which Ruskin's father paid on 12 August. On 24 August Ruskin wrote to his father from Normandy, where he was travelling: '[B]y your account of the colour, I cannot help hoping much even from Brunig. All Turner's green and blue drawings that I ever saw were magnificent' (I. Warrell, Through Switzerland with Turner: Ruskin's First Selection from the Turner Bequest, London, 1995, p. 154).
After Turner's death, Ruskin tested the market by consigning the drawing for auction in these Rooms on 22 May 1852, lot 61. 'The Brunnig [sic] Passage, from Marengen [sic] to Grundenwald [sic]. Painted in the master's finest time' excited a great deal of admiration. The Times called it 'one of his later works and most gorgeously tinted' (The Times, 24 May 1852, p. 3). The Brunig Pass in the 1852 sale was bid to 115 guineas (£120 15s), showing that these great late works were already highly regarded. Turner himself had believed that his late Swiss works were worth 100 guineas each, although his agent Thomas Griffith advised him to accept 80 guineas, itself a very high price (I. Warrell, 'Turner's Late Swiss Watercolours - and Oils', op. cit., pp. 141 & 143). However, Ruskin's regard for the watercolor was such that he refused to let it be sold for less than £130 and it returned to his collection. On 1 June 1852, Ruskin wrote to his father from Verona, evidently in response to some approaches from would-be purchasers, and his
estimation of the picture's worth had only increased in the meantime. 'The Brunig must not be sold at anything less than 150 [pounds, presumably], it is valuable as Turner's last watercolour drawing, and done for me. I would rather for the present keep it' (I. Warrell, Through Switzerland with Turner, London, 1995, p. 155).
More recently, this watercolor was in the distinguished private collection of Richard S. Davis, who served as Director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from 1956 until 1959. His greatest acquisition for the Institute was Nicolas Poussin's early masterpiece, The Death of Germanicus (1627), purchased in 1958. Among the other works in Davis's private collection was The Grand Canal with Ca' Pesaro by Francesco Guardi, sold at Christie's, London, 6 July 1987, lot 50, for £390,000, which remains the world record for a work on paper by the artist.
The present drawing is on a relatively lightweight smooth hot pressed writing paper, possibly from the Whatman Mill. Made from linen rag, it is extremely strong despite being thin, allowing Turner to work and rework the surface to an extraordinary degree.
We are grateful to Peter Bower for his assistance in preparing this catalogue note.