J.M.W. Turner: ‘My business is to paint what I see’

As an exceptional Turner watercolour of Lake Lucerne comes to auction in New York on 30 January, art critic Alastair Sooke and Christie’s Harriet Drummond examine other sublime examples from a series made by Turner in Switzerland in the 1840s

More than 150 years after his death, J.M.W. Turner’s reputation stands as Britain’s favourite artist. ‘He shocked his contemporaries with loose brushstrokes and vibrant colours,’ says art critic Alastair Sooke as he walks through galleries at Tate Britain, an institution he describes as ‘the storehouse of Turner’s artistic legacy’. 

Surveying a group of paintings depicting views of Venice, the critic explains that, ‘Wherever Turner went he was making sketches, and some of them would become the inspiration for later finished paintings.’ 

While there is no mistaking Venice in these works, Turner wasn't interested in creating an accurate representation of a Venetian scene. ‘Instead,’ Sooke explains, ‘he was trying to capture the spirit of the place. He once said, “My business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there.”’

Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (London 1775-1851), The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer. 9 ¾ x 12⅛ in (24.8 x 30.8 cm). Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 30 January 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Sooke is joined at Tate Britain by Christie’s Head of British Art on Paper, Harriet Drummond, to admire a selection of watercolour studies of Lake Lucerne from the Turner Bequest, which comprises around 30,000 works on paper, including watercolours and drawings, 300 oil paintings and nearly the same number of sketchbooks, compiled during his tours of Europe. 

‘Turner also had an extraordinary drive and hunger for everything that was new,’ says Drummond. ‘He was particularly drawn to landscapes where land meets the water, because of the beautiful effects caused by light and weather.’

The pieces on view relate directly to The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamera watercolour created by Turner in the 1840s and offered in our Old Master & British Drawings  sale in New York on 30 January. Having first visited this part of Switzerland in 1802, Turner returned repeatedly between 1841 and 1844.

‘These are considered the most sublime, most finished, and most evocative watercolours that resulted from Turner’s trips to Switzerland’

In The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a SteamerTurner used an accretion of overlapping washes to create a vast perspective, plunging the viewer deep into the picture space, with some masses only defined as shadows. Having achieved this effect, he began to add small flecks of colour, or outlined details using a very fine brush. Drummond describes the series it is from as the artist’s ‘most sublime, evocative and atmospheric watercolours that resulted from his trips to Switzerland’. 

The work offered in our sale is also exceptional in being the only sample study for this series that is not part of the Turner Bequest. Of the Swiss views completed between 1842 and 1845, this is the only preliminary idea to have been passed down through private collections — it was acquired by Thomas Griffith (1795-1868), who by the late 1830s was acting as Turner’s agent and dealer. 


Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (London 1775-1851), Figures by the Shore at Margate. 5¼ x 7¼ in (13.6 x 18.4 cm). Estimate: $60,000-100,000. This lot is offered in Old Master & British Drawings on 30 January 2018 at Christie’s in New York

A second work by Turner, Figures by the Shore at Margate, is also offered in the New York sale. During the 1830s and ’40s Turner made use of small sheets of grey paper — folded and torn from much larger pieces of paper, and generally measuring around 5½ x 7½ inches — for some of his most impressionistic sketches. In this instance he recorded his observations of the shore near his lodgings at Margate in the southeast of England. In addition to watercolour, the image is built up by the application of chalks, most strikingly as white highlights that suggest both the foaming waves near the shore and the fall of light on distant buildings. 

Turner painted more than 100 oils and watercolours of the town and its surrounding coastline, which he once described as having ‘the loveliest skies in Europe’. His regular visits to Margate in his later years, and the love he found there with his landlady, Sophia Caroline Booth, proved something of an embarrassment in the years after his death. Although works depicting Margate can be found in the Turner Bequest, most of those in other collections can almost certainly be traced back to Mrs. Booth or her son, Daniel John Pound. 

Both The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer  and Figures by the Shore at Margate  are offered at Christie’s from the collection of Montgomery H.W. Ritchie of Amarillo, Texas. Read more about Turner in our guide to his life and work.

Related departments

Related lots

Related auctions

Related content