In 1817, Turner undertook his first overseas trip following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, to Belgium, the Battlefield of Waterloo, along the Rhine and returning to England via Holland. The resulting fifty-one watercolours, of which Binger Loch and the Mäusethurm is one, are generally regarded as ‘one of the glories of his entire career’ (Powell, op. cit., p. 32). The present watercolour depicts the view down the Rhine to the Binger gorge with the village of Bingen and the ruins of the castle of Burg Klopp on the left, Burg Ehrenfels on the right and the island with the Mäusethurm tower in the centre.
This trip is amongst the most well documented of all of Turner’s tours, as he himself recorded his movements in the Itinerary Rhine Tour sketchbook and it is possible to plot precisely the route taken. Turner left London on Sunday 10 August and spent a few days in Belgium before travelling on to Cologne, arriving on Monday 18 August. He then journeyed along the west bank of the Rhine, mainly on foot, along the recently completed Route Napoléon, as far as Mainz, before returning the same way, this time mainly by boat; the entire journey took 11 days (fig. 1).
Prior to his departure, Turner undertook careful preparations, studying and making extensive notes from the various guide books available, including The Traveller’s Complete Guide through Belgium and Holland…With a Sketch of a Tour in Germany, by Charles Campbell; Sketches in Flanders and Holland; with some Account of a Tour through Parts of these Countries shortly after the Battle of Waterloo, in a series of letters to a friend, published in 1816 by fellow artist, Robert Hills and Views taken on and near The River Rhine at Aix la Chapelle, and on the River Maere, published 1788-1791 and re-issued in 1792 by Rev. John Gardnor. These proved invaluable references to the artist and he followed Campbell’s route very closely.
Turner sketched ceaselessly throughout this tour, filling three sketchbooks with hundreds of rapidly executed pencil sketches (Tate, London, TB CLIX, CLX, and CLXI). In order to be able to record all of the scenery, architecture and subjects that captured his imagination, he divided most of the pages into small boxes and strips, some only about an inch or so tall. The present watercolour is worked up from a drawing in the Waterloo and Rhine sketchbook (TB CLX ff 71 verso 72, see C. Powell, op. cit., p. 98, no. 2). It was drawn from a boat, as when Turner arrived at Bingen on 25 August, he left off walking along the river path to continue by boat and returned the same way just two days later. The sketches and resulting watercolours recorded from a moving position present a distinctive perspective from the mid-steam which differs to the outlook from the river bank.
This river vantage point captures the changing landscape around Bingen. Above Bingen, the river is far wider, more tranquil and rural; the low-lying land rising gently to the slopes of the celebrated vineyards of the Rheingau. Below Bingen the river tapers and vessels had to pass between the narrow channel of the Binger Loch, which runs between the Island and Burg Ehrenfels. This was made particularly hazardous by strong currents and submerged rocks. In Binger Loch and the Mäusethurm, Turner has not only managed to convey the physical change in the landscape but also something of his emotional response to travelling along the river itself. The scratching out in the horizon of the river, hints at the change of speed of the flowing water and the inherent danger beyond is emphasised by the darkening sky. As Powell notes, ‘the foreground is light and serene in contrast to the brooding hills beyond; rocks above the shoreline are surrounded by swirling foam and are prominently reflected in the water; Burg Ehrenfels appears in a halo of light as though acting as a lighthouse to guide travellers to safety’ (Powell, op. cit., p. 104).
Turner executed two further watercolours of the area around Bingen: Abbey at Bingen (Wilton, no. 680) depicting a view up the Nahe, the tributary which joins the River Rhine just beyond Burg Klopp and Bingen from the Loch (fig. 2, Wilton, no. 682) looking down the Nahe towards Burg Ehrenfels. The serenity of the former and the storminess of the latter help to elucidate the contrasts in the present watercolour between the overall sense of calmness and the undertone of impending drama.
Turner had intended to produce a series of engravings based on this tour, but despite signing an agreement with John Murray to produce a series of thirty-six drawings for engraving, the scheme never came to fruition. Unfortunately for Turner and Murray, Ackermann published Baron Johann van Gerning’s series of engravings of the subject, thus rendering the project superfluous. However Turner’s intention demonstrates the importance to the artist of this trip.
It was originally thought that the group of fifty-one watercolours that Turner executed as a result of this trip were in fact produced en plein air. Walter Thornbury, the artist’s first biographer wrote that they were ‘done at the prodigious rate of three a day’ but despite this ‘are miracles of skill, genius and industry’. He continues ‘These Rhenish drawings are most exquisite for sad tenderness, purity, twilight, poetry, truth, and perfection of harmony. They are to the eye what the finest verse of Tennyson are to the ear; and they do what so few things on earth do: they completely satisfy the mind’ (Thornbury, op.cit., p. 238). John Ruskin also believed that they were drawn directly from nature, stating in 1851 that ‘every one… is the almost instantaneous record of an effect of colour or atmosphere, taken strictly from nature, the drawing and the details…being comparatively subordinate’ (E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin, Library Edition, 1903-12, p. 376-7).
However, both Finberg and Powell have discounted this theory. The paper used is not the type that Turner would have travelled with and the watercolours are clearly based on the pencil drawings in the sketchbooks. We know that Turner lost various possessions on this trip including his ‘box of colours’ rendering it difficult to complete finished watercolours. Lastly, it would simply not have been possible for Turner to have travelled at the rate he did and to execute both the hundreds of sketches in his sketchbooks and the group of watercolours.
Thornbury also erroneously stated that Turner, on his arrival back in England, travelled directly from Hull, where he had docked, to Farnley, the home of his long standing friend and patron, Walter Fawkes and before he had even taken off ‘his great-coat, he produced the drawings in a slovenly roll, from his breast-pocket; and Mr Fawkes bought the lot for some 500/’ (Thornbury, ibid). However, we now know that Turner did not visit Farnley until mid-November, spending the intervening time in Durham, much of it at Raby Castle, where it seems that he worked up the series of watercolours. Fawkes did though purchase the whole group of fifty one watercolours for about £500.
Walter Fawkes was a politician, radical thinker, landowner and collector; as well as being one of Turner’s most important patrons, he also became one of Turner’s closest friends. The two probably met in the 1790s, either in London or when the artist was staying at nearby Harewood. Turner began to stay regularly at Farnley Hall from 1808. Turner also became close friends with Fawkes’s second son ‘Hawkey’ who inherited this drawing on the death of his father. It then entered the collection of Reginald A. Tatton (1857-1926) who owned many Turners including the oil painting Bonneville, Savoy (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven), 33 watercolours bought from the Rawlinson collection through Agnews in 1917 and the Red Rigi (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, see lot 209, fig. 14).
Few watercolours from this series remain in private hands. The last watercolour from this series to be sold in these Rooms was From the Rheinfels looking over St Goar to Burg Katz, 3 June 2004, lot 69, £285,250. The reappearance on the art market of this watercolour after nearly fifty years provides an opportunity to purchase one of the watercolours from the series described by Andrew Wilton as 'an unexpectedly intimate 'illustrated’ tour of the great river between Cologne and Mainz, through its most celebrated and sublime scenery.’