The Blue Rigi, painted in 1842, together with The Red Rigi (fig. 1) and The Dark Rigi (fig. 2) of the same year, arguably represents the peak of Turner's achievement in the field of watercolour. (For The Red Rigi, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, and The Dark Rigi, Private Collection, see Russell and Wilton, op. cit., pp. 90-91 and 89, illustrated in colour, and Wilton, 1979, nos. 1525 and 1532, illustrated). Together with some dozen related watercolour sketches, mainly in the Turner Bequest but including four in other public or private collections (Wilton, 1979, nos. 1472-4, 1478), they anticipate Cézanne's obsession with Mont Sainte-Victoire and Monet's with Rouen Cathedral in their variety of light effects and emotional range.
The Rigi dominates the view to the north-east of Lake Lucerne; the view of the sunrise from its summit was one of the high points of a visit to Switzerland. Turner's group of finished Rigi subjects was the result of his visit to Switzerland in the late summer of 1841 (see fig. 3 for Turner's itinerary) and there are drawings in the Lucerne and Berne and the Between Lucerne and Thun sketchbooks (Tate Britain, Turner Bequest, CCCXXVIII - 6a and CCCXXIX - 11, 11a). On his return, 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 chose ten subjects to be worked up as finished watercolours. (A contemporary letter from Turner to his patron B.G. Windus suggests that Turner originally hoped to produce a set of twenty watercolours; see Whittingham, op.cit.). In addition Turner would finish four of the subjects as examples of how the completed watercolours would look. Turner seems to have hoped for a hundred guineas for each finished watercolour but Griffith felt that he could only charge eighty guineas each, retaining ten percent as his commission. Of the first four finished watercolours two were of Rigi subjects: '2 Mount Righi [sic], seen from Lucerne, in the morning, dark against dawn' (The Blue Rigi), and '3 Mount Rigi, seen from Lucerne, at evening, red with the last rays of the sun' (The Red Rigi). Elhanan Bicknell bought The Blue Rigi, H.A.J. Munro of Novar The Red Rigi; Munro was eventually to add the remaining two from the initial group of four. Of the six further subjects to be completed Munro commissioned two more, including The Dark Rigi, Bicknell bought one more and Ruskin (with his father's support) two. The last watercolour, Coblenz, which at first remained unsold and was given to Griffith as part of his commission, was soon also sold to Ruskin. 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 and Wedderburn, op. cit., XIII, 1904, pp. 477-84, summarised in exhibition catalogue, London, Royal Academy, 1974-5, pp. 161-3, Russell and Wilton, op. cit., pp. 138-9 and elsewhere); see also Warrell, op.cit., 1999, pp. 140, 146).
Ruskin also asserted in the Epilogue 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' (Cook and Wedderburn, op. cit., XIII, 1904, p. 484). He had already written, in a letter to his father, 29 December 1851, just after Turner's death, that Turner's 'first Swiss series - ours, Bicknell's and Munro's - are quite priceless' (ibid., p. xxvi).
We have seen that The Blue Rigi was one of the four subjects developed into finished watercolours for Griffith in 1842. There is what seems to be a sample watercolour study, from the 'roll' sketchbooks and on a smaller scale, akin to those for all fifteen subjects (Turner Bequest CCCLXIV - 330 (fig. 4)). For the sample study of The Red Rigi, see fig. 5. The study for The Dark Rigi (fig. 6) is from a slightly different view point.
In the study for The Blue Rigi the mountain is set higher on the paper with an expanse of empty water below, while in the finished watercolour a considerable amount of activity is introduced, including the firing of a gun, the flight of birds, and dogs leaping into the water.
If we consider the way in which the watercolours were to be sold, it seems unlikely that Turner saw the three finished watercolours of the Rigi as companions. In the event Munro finished up with The Red Rigi and The Dark Rigi, contrasting the warm evening light of the former with the dawn effect of the latter, but this was presumably the result of his conscious decision. The Blue Rigi may in fact show a slightly earlier moment than The Dark Rigi, in which the use of rich blues, greens and yellows is distinct from the predominance of cooler limpid blues in the present watercolour.
Turner and Lake Lucerne
by Andrew Wilton
Turner's late visits to Switzerland in the 1840s were the rediscovery of a landscape that he had first encountered as a young man on his first Continental journey in 1802, when the brief truce of the Treaty of Amiens between England and France enables him, like many other inquisitive and travel-starved artists to venture abroad. For him at that time the Alps were the consummation of an idea of Sublime Nature that had been developed in the 18th Century, opening the minds of Grand Tourists who learned to love mountain grandeur in the course of their journey to Italy, the 'Land of Art'. Turner had already sharpened his eye and hand on tour in Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands, and his progress as an ambitious painter of grand landscape can be measured in terms of the great strides, both technical and conceptual, that he accomplished as a result of those journeys. To visit the Alps was to confront the created world in its most awe-inspiring aspects, challenging to the very idea of civilisation, and of humanity itself.
The great theorists of the Sublime - Edmund Burke, for instance, in his Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) - had insisted that nature in her grandest manifestations both uplifts the human spirit with awe and crushes it with terror. It was this paradox that Turner came to love exploring: the mere act of crossing the high mountains was a perilous and exhilarating event, which he celebrated in his early Alpine views, such as The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons of 1810, or Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps (fig. 7) of 1812. There were watercolours too: The Pass of St Gothard (fig. 8), for instance, of 1803, or The Battle of Fort Rock, of 1815, both executed on a large scale, with the intention of advertising watercolour as a medium capable of the same high aesthetic function as oil: the awe and the terror were embodied in the work itself. This was the first of many startling revolutions that Turner instigated in the course of his career.
On reaching the Swiss lakes he was, then, inclined to perceive them as extensions of the mountain aesthetic, as dark and enigmatic pools in a vortex of rocky geology, prey to sudden storms, mirrors of the brooding peaks that surrounded them. In the Lake of Thun mezzotint plate engraved for Turner's famous publication Liber Studiorum in 1808, the water is lashed by a violent wind and jagged lightning darts from black clouds. Turner's watercolour of this subject was sold in these Rooms as part of the Newall Collection, 13 December 1979, lot 74 and again 8 July 1997, lot 33.
But already he appreciated the more lyrical aspect of lake scenery. He was conscious that when Burke opposed the ideas of 'Sublimity' and 'Beauty' he made an important point about human nature: here too lay a paradox. Just as, on the one hand, we are thrilled by the threat to our very existence posed by beetling crags, foaming waterfalls and thunderstorms, so on the other we yearn for exaltation through tranquillity and expansive calm. Burke perceptively linked this instinct with our estimation of beauty as the defining attribute of those we love sexually, thus opposing through his theory the twin human impulses to preserve ourselves and to perpetuate our species. In his Lake of Geneva, with Mont Blanc (fig. 9) of about 1805 (Yale Center for British Art), Turner constructed an idyll in which the mountains are the distant backdrop to an elegantly balanced 'classical' landscape peopled with graceful nudes - though typically he was happy to include the local boatmen and cattle as part of the reality of the scene.
As he matured, this oppostion grew in importance for Turner, and at the end of his life he found himself returning almost compulsively to Switzerland in order to continue his exploration of Burke's powerful, and fruitful, paradox. But there came a point when he turned his back on the sensationalism of his early response to that aesthetic. In 1837 he exhibited a canvas that, with tongue in cheek surely, he called Snowstorm, avalanche and inundation - a scene in the upper part of Val d'Aout [Aosta], Piedmont (fig. 10) (Art Institute of Chicago). It was a kind of parody of his famously dramatic mountain subjects. From this time on, his meditations on Swiss scenery become more inward, more concerned with the transcendental aspects of the Sublime. The series of watercolours that he produced in the early 1840s concentrate a lifetime's intense thought into a group of modestly-sized works that are arguably the profoundest landscapes ever painted.
Turner attached great importance to these late thoughts of his on the relationship between God, man and nature as demonstrated in the landscape of Switzerland. That is clear from his approach to their creation. He had been abroad in 1840, and went again in 1841, 1842 and 1843. In the course of these tours he made innumerable small pencil sketches, as was his lifetime's habit; in addition, he produced quantities of coloured studies, views of Alpine towns, rivers and lakes, often repeating the same, or very similar, motifs over and over again. Perhaps the most obsessive repetitions of all are his wash drawings of the Rigi, the distinctively wedge-shaped mountain that rears up on the shore of Lake Lucerne opposite the town. He made a point of staying in a hotel, La Cygne (The Swan), which afforded fine views across the lake, enabling him to study the Rigi in all lights (see figs. 11 and 12).
Ruskin recounts the story of how Turner came back from his tour of 1841 with a wealth of studies, out of which he chose fifteen to be worked up so that his agent Thomas Griffith could show them to the clients and, as he hoped, secure commissions for fully finished watercolours. In doing this he was following a lifetime's habit, working in series on commission from publishers and engravers. Such commissions had dried up, but he still hankered after his old methods of working. Griffith was sceptical: Turner produced four specimens to demonstrate what the finished works would be like, but they were in a style Griffith found difficult to understand, and he doubted they would find favour with Turner's established patrons.
Turner was not to be put off. He went ahead with his project, and abetted by the enthusiasm of Ruskin, Griffith sold nine of the ten finished watercolours. Three were views of the Rigi, one in which it is seen glowing red in the light of sunset, the other two subjects showing the mountain in early morning, 'dark against dawn, ' as Ruskin put it.
His relationship with the Rigi parallels that of Hokusai with Mount Fuji, Cézanne's with Mont Sainte-Victoire; although a closer parallel is with Monet's fascination with Rouen Cathedral. The Rigi becomes not so much an object of study in itself, but as a vehicle for ideas about light, colour, atmosphere and the place of humanity in a world that seemed distilled to its essentials in that wonderful spot. There are studies that evoke moments of exquisite stillness at dawn or dusk, times when the misty atmosphere is suffused with a delicate golden glow, and others when long shadows brood over the slopes of the mountain and the waters of the lake. A few show the lake in more dramatic conditions: a sheet in the Yale Center for British Art has a steamer labouring in one of the brief, violent storms Lucerne is famous for; but in general this scenery has become for Turner a still centre at which all life is reduced to silent contemplation. In The Blue Rigi, the mountain is swathed in diaphanous mists beneath a pale primrose sky, and the sense of transcendental calm is underlined with a typically Turnerian humour by an episode in which two dogs leap into the water after a covey of waterfowl. The barking and the sound of splashing strike us as an almost audible event, and vividly dramatise the inviolable tranquillity of the scene: a real place, inhabited by the denizens of a real and yet ineffably beautiful world.
The Blue Rigi: History of a Watercolour
by Martin Butlin
Whereas Turner's early success was dependent, at least in part, on the patronage of the aristocracy and land-owning gentry, the more revolutionary works of his later years sold, if they sold at all, to a new class of patrons enriched by industry or commerce and often Non-Conformist in religion. In addition sales through the dealer and the auction house became more important as a supplement to the annual exhibition of works for sale at such bodies as the Royal Academy and the Society of Painters in Water Colours. The history of The Blue Rigi, like that of the contemporary oil painting of Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio, Christie's, New York, 6 April 2006, lot 97 (fig. 13), is typical of this new trend in the buying and selling of art.
Thomas Griffith, through whom Turner arranged the commissioning of the group of Swiss watercolours of which The Blue Rigi was one, was an example of the new type of art dealer; the actual process in which Turner submitted sketches of proposed compositions, is described in detail in the catalogue entry above. Griffith's first dealings in works by Turner seems to have taken place in 1827 when he was entrusted with the sale of the England and Wales watercolours, painted to be engraved and published by Charles Heath, another method by which artists like Turner secured employment. In 1834 Griffith was reported as having bought many of Turner's watercolours illustrating The Life and Works of Lord Byron from Dominic Colnaghi, a dealer already set up with a gallery for the display and sale of his wares; Griffith himself was to open such a gallery in Pall Mall in 1845. By this time Griffith had already acted as intermediary in the sale of both oil paintings and watercolours by Turner, including Slavers and Rockets and Blue Lights, both unsold at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1840. The schemes for marketing Turner's Swiss watercolours followed in 1842 and 1843, and in 1844 Turner was actually consulting Griffith about such details as whether one of his Dutch marine paintings, to be shown at the Academy that summer, should 'be with fish only'. (For Griffith see E. Joll in E. Joll, M. Butlin and L. Herrmann, The Oxford Companion to J.M.W. Turner, Oxford, 2001, p. 132).
The firm of Colnaghi's had been established in the late 18th Century as print sellers, and Turner is said to have coloured prints for them as early as about 1797. In 1834, as mentioned above, they exhibited Turner's illustrations to Byron. But by far the most important of dealers in works by Turner was to become the firm of Thomas Agnew, though there are no actual records of any transactions until 1851, the year of Turner's death, when they bought Mortlake Terrace, Summer's Evening (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1827) from the painter Thomas Creswick. The firm had been founded in Manchester in 1817 and opened a London branch in Waterloo Place in 1861, from which date their carefully preserved records document a large and continuing interest in Turner's works. More recently their interest has been reflected in a number of loan exhibitions devoted, in whole or in part, to his works, in 1924, 1951, 1967 and 1996, and Turner has always occupied pride of place in their annual exhibitions of watercolours.
The other great conduit for works by Turner has been through the sale rooms and in particular that of Christie's. Again the history of The Blue Rigi is a good example, this being the fourth time that the watercolour has passed through these Rooms. James Christie had started as a fine art auctioneer in 1766 and his firm was fully established as the leaders in the field when the work came up for sale in 1863 and again in 1912 and 1942, having passed through the hands of three major private collectors of Turner.
The three owners of The Blue Rigi in the 19th and 20th Centuries were typical of the new, non-aristocratic collector. Elhanan Bicknell was the son of a cloth manufactuer turned educationalist who ran an 'Academy' in Lower Tooting, London. Like his father he was by religion a devout Unitarian. He became a partner in his uncle's whaling business and by 1832 had enough money to start collecting in the relatively new field of contemporary British art, a taste far from that for the Old Masters that had dominated the art world at the beginning of the century. He had family links with Hablot Knight Browne ('Phiz'), David Roberts and John Constable, though he never bought anything by the last named, concentrating, apart from Turner, on such artists as Roberts, Clarkson Stanfield, Augustus Wall Calcott, Sir Edwin Landseer, Copley Fielding, Samuel Prout and Peter de Wint. He was known for his dinner parties for artists and members of the art world, and encouraged his protegés with commissions and by arranging engravings after their works.
Bicknell's first Turner purchase, made at Christie's in 1832, comprised two watercolours of Himalayan subjects illustrating Lieutenant George Francis White's Views in India based on White's own sketches. In 1841, by which time Turner is known to have attended dinners at Bicknell's, Bicknell bought the oil of Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio, (fig. 13) the picture sold for $32,000,000 in the Important Old Master Paintings sale at Christie's, New York, 6 April 2006, lot 97, at the Royal Academy, following this up by commissioning as its companion Campo Santo, Venice, exhibited the following year, 1842, the same year as he bought, through Griffith, The Blue Rigi and another view of Lake Lucerne, Brunnen.
These were the most advanced works by Turner that Bicknell was to acquire. In 1844, he bought no fewer than eight oil paintings, six of them on the same day, all pictures that Turner had failed to sell earlier, varying in date from Calder Bridge, 1810, to Ehrenbreitstein, 1835. In 1851 he bought two further pictures, of 1810 and 1812, and in 1856 four Yorkshire watercolours of 1809-13. More pointedly, Bicknell failed to buy any of Turner's four pictures of whaling subjects, exhibited in 1845 and 1846, one of these having been returned to Turner in 1848 after Bicknell had 'found Water Colour in Whalers and rubbed out some with Handky [sic]', as John Ruskin senior wrote to his son. There was also a dispute over Turner's fee for Joseph Hogarth's print after The Fighting Temeraire, financed by Bicknell.
The six-day sale of Bicknell's collection at Christie's in April 1863 (fig. 14) included ten Turner oil paintings and sixteen watercolours; in all there were 122 paintings, 23 sculptures and 291 drawings. Agnew's were reported as having offered £50,000 for the whole collection and in the event bought 123 lots including five Turner oil paintings and five watercolours. The final sale total was £75,000. Even The Blue Rigi, listed as having been bought by 'Holmes', was apparently bought for Agnew's, who sold it less than a month later, on 19 May 1863, to J.E. Taylor (see P. Bicknell and H. Guiterman, 'The Turner Collector: Elhanan Bicknell', Turner Studies, 7, no. 1, Summer 1987, p. 44; information kindly confirmed by Agnew's).
John Edward Taylor was the son of the founder of The Manchester Guardian, becoming a partner in 1852 and eventually sole proprietor. The pre-eminent collector of Turner watercolours, he began buying from Agnew's in the 1860's, with The Blue Rigi among his earlier purchases. His collection included an important group of Liber Studiorum proofs and in 1872, with Henry Vaughan, he organised the pioneering exhibition of the Liber at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. His other Turners included The Red Rigi, acquired through Griffith in 1842 by H.A.J. Munro of Novar, and sold by him to John Ruskin; Ruskin in his turn had sold it through Colnaghi's to Taylor by 1878. In 1892 Taylor gave 154 watercolours to The Whitworth Institute (now Art Gallery), Manchester. These included 25 works attributed to Turner, nearly all of them early works to go with the earlier British watercolours in the Whitworth; the only later work was Fire at Fennings Wharf, on the Thames at Bermondsey of circa 1835. Two years later, in 1894, he gave a further selection of drawings to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, including two late Swiss watercolours by Turner. Despite these gifts, however, it took twelve days for Christie's to disperse the remainder of Taylor's collection in July 1912 (fig. 15). Of the 107 works by Turner Agnew's bought the first, Longships Lighthouse, 'and then the next 34 lots in succession before allowing Palser to have lot 77' (E. Joll, catalogue of the Turner exhibition held at Agnew's, 1967); despite this rare concession Agnew's went on to buy roughly two thirds of all the Turners in the sale, including both The Blue Rigi and The Red Rigi. The Blue Rigi sold for the enormous price of 2700 guineas, while The Red Rigi fetched 2100 guineas. (For Taylor see F. Hawcroft, exhibition catalogue, British Watercolours from the John Edward Taylor Collection in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, 1973, and C. Hartley, Turner Watercolours in the Whitworth Art Gallery, ibid., 1984, pp. 3-4.)
The two Rigi watercolours were reunited again in the collection of Walter H. Jones of Hurlingham Lodge, West London. Jones, a cotton-broker, was an important collector of first editions and watercolours and enjoyed big-game hunting, fishing and polo. The Blue Rigi seems to have passed straight from Agnew's to Jones, but although he was interested in The Red Rigi he hesitated and it was sold to R.A. Tatton before being auctioned, yet again at Christie's, in 1928 when it was bought, yet again by Agnew's, and sold to Jones. Along with other drawings by British artists, the collection passed to Jones' widow, who moved to Aberuchill Castle, Perthshire, and was sold after her death at Christie's on 3 July 1942. Though The Blue Rigi still fetched the highest price in the sale, the wartime date explains the relatively low prices, The Blue Rigi going for 1500 guineas, The Red Rigi for 1100 guineas. The seventeen other Turners in the sale, in addition to the Rigis, ranged in date from The West Entrance of Peterborough Cathedral of 1795 to a late Venetian watercolour of circa 1841 and included two of the 1817 Rhine series of watercolours painted for Walter Fawkes, probably Turner's greatest patron, and other British, German, Swiss and Italian subjects.
The Red Rigi is now in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. The Blue Rigi has remained with the same family since its last appearance in these Rooms in 1942. That The Blue Rigi is still 'out of captivity' reflects the continuing enthusiasm of the private collector for this great watercolour ever since it was created.