Although Turner’s watercolor views of the Rigi have in recent decades seemed to epitomize the final flourish of creativity inspired by his last tours of Switzerland, he was in fact just as attached to the breathtaking panorama over Lake Lucerne from Brunnen. (see A. Wilton, ‘Turner at Brunnen’, Turner Studies, winter 1981, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 63-64; I. Warrell, ‘Turner’s Late Swiss Watercolours – and Oils’, in L. Parris, ed., Exploring Late Turner, New York, 1999, pp. 139-152). This village presides over the Bay of Uri, the southern-most arm of the lake, which is celebrated for its calm, deep blue waters, as well as its associations with William Tell and his role in establishing the country’s independence. In Turner’s watercolor, in the far distance on the left, he applied an extra touch of blue to indicate the location of the chapel to which Tell leapt when escaping his Austrian captors. Just as significant is the pasture above the cliffs, just off center, known as the Rutli meadows, where the oath of the old Swiss confederacy is believed to have been declared.
Nineteenth-century travellers would have been alert to these associations, especially in the wake of the Europe-wide success of Schiller’s play (1804) and Rossini’s opera (1829). More particularly, English-speaking visitors are likely to have known Samuel Rogers’ description of the setting: ‘That sacred lake, withdrawn among the hills’. In invoking the Tell narrative, Rogers concluded his much-reprinted poem with the sentiment
‘Each cliff and head-land, and green promontory,
Graven with records of the past,
Excites to hero worship.’
Turner had first visited the area during his earliest continental tour in 1802 and had subsequently provided an illustration of Tell’s Chapel for a lavish edition of Rogers' poem (1830). It was in the 1840s, however, that he engaged most closely with Lake Lucerne, returning there repeatedly between 1841 and 1844. His travels on and around the lake were by then greatly facilitated by the recent introduction of a steamboat – the Stadt Luzern – which was able to transport passengers from the southern village of Flüelen up to Lucerne in less than three hours. This was well under half the time that Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland optimistically advised it might take three boatmen to row that distance. Although the steamer service initially ran only eight times a week in high summer, Turner’s inclusion of one of the boats in this study (its presence given greater prominence by the trails of dirty smoke) is yet another instance of his readiness to embrace the novelty and advances of the industrial age.
This watercolor is one of a group of studies Turner painted of Lake Lucerne from Brunnen, but is exceptional in being the only one not part of the artist’s bequest at Tate Britain (see I. Warrell in K. Lochnan, ed., Turner Whistler Monet, Art Gallery of Ontario and Tate, exhib. cat., 2004-2005, pp. 170-3). Like other sheets Turner used on the lake and elsewhere in Switzerland, it is painted on a cream wove paper made by John Muggeridge at The Paper Mill in Carshalton, although the watermark records the name of the Ansell family, founders of the mill (P. Bower, Turner’s Later Papers. A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawings Papers 1820-1851, London 1999, pp. 80-1).
The scene is presented in much the same way on two sheets of a roll sketchbook (the soft backed notebooks Turner favored on his later travels), but in both of those the color has been added quite sparingly over pencil outlines that were presumably made on the spot (Tate; inv. TB CCCXXXII 32 and CCCLXIV 387; the second of these includes the steamboat). Lake Lucerne from Brunnen skilfully combines the information in those sketches, tweaking the visual information to best effect, enhancing the impression of height which lengthens the reflections, though the compression of some landscape features distorts what is found in reality. Stylistically, by comparison with the related sketches, it is a much more skilful rendering of the subject, realized through an accretion of overlapping washes that create a vast perspective, plunging the viewer deep into the picture space, with some masses only defined as shadows. Having achieved this effect, Turner began to add small flecks of color, or fine outlined details using the sharp nib of his pen.
By this stage Turner had presumably devised his now well-known plan of seeking commissions for larger, more detailed watercolors based on color studies like this one. The process, as later recalled by John Ruskin (1819-1900), permitted a limited group of collectors (including Ruskin himself) to select from a range of studies those subjects they most wished to acquire. When this method of working was first launched in the spring of 1842, with this watercolor among the batch made available, the collectors were also shown four finished works, so that they had some idea of the ways in which Turner would transform his material. One of the finished examples was The Blue Rigi, now at the Tate (fig. 1; formerly Christie’s, 5 June 2006, lot 53), which was acquired by the whaling magnate Elhanan Bicknell (1788-1861), who had been actively buying Turner’s works since the late 1830s. As well as the Blue Rigi, he commissioned a companion watercolor, based on this view from Brunnen, which matched that celebrated view of the mountain in its richness of color and its subtle recreation of the lake’s vaporous atmosphere (fig. 2). The larger sheet of paper he used for this also permitted him to open out and revise some aspects of the foreground, thereby underlining the vastness of the rocky amphitheatre in which the Bay of Uri is situated. One curious alteration was the steamer; whereas it is travelling northwards from Füelen in this watercolor, in the final version it is on the return trip from Lucerne. Perhaps this was a private joke, introducing the notion of the time it took Turner to complete such vividly realized works.
As already noted, this study is singular in not being retained by Turner himself. Of the Swiss views completed as commissions between 1842 and 1845, this is the only preliminary idea to have been passed down through private collections. In fact it was acquired soon after it had served its purpose by Thomas Griffith (1795-1868). Although a trained lawyer, by the later 1830s Griffith was acting as Turner’s dealer, and it was he who brokered the details, including the prices, of this late watercolor series (see E. Joll, in The Oxford Companion to Turner, London 2001, p. 132; and N. Powell, ‘Thomas Griffith: Commerce, Charity and the Camberwell Connection’, Turner Society News, no. 123, Spring 2015, pp. 19-25). It is possible therefore that the Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen was a present from the artist to Griffith in recognition of all he had done to promote the project, like the 1842 watercolor of Constance (York Art Gallery).
After Griffith's death, the watercolor passed with various other Turner works to his unmarried daughter Jemima Lardner Griffith. Her sle at Christie’s in 1887 attracted much attention, not least from a Yorkshire-based industrialist called Thomas Stuart Kennedy (1841-94), who bought the two most expensive Turner watercolors in the sale. In his annotations to the auction catalogue he was evidently enchanted with this work, noting its ‘Lovely perspective and colour’. Lake Lucerne clearly held great appeal for him, because by that date he already possessed two other views of it by Turner. Unlike some collectors, he knew Switzerland very well through his daring youthful climbing adventures. Having been narrowly frustrated in his attempt to reach the summit of the Matterhorn in 1862 (three years before Edward Whymper’s successful but notoriously catastrophic ascent), Kennedy went on to become the first to scale the 4,357m peak of the Dent Blanche in the Pennine Alps. The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen appears to have been one of his last acquisitions, and although his widow sold off most of the collection after his death, she refrained from parting with this work, which eventually came back to Christie’s in 1908.
On that occasion it was acquired on behalf of Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919), formerly a protégé of Ruskin’s and an assistant to Edward Burne-Jones, but latterly an influential collector and dealer, who had helped negotiate the sale of important pictures to various American museums, notably the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the neighbouring Fogg Art Museum at Harvard. He also gave a great number of Old Master drawings to the Morgan Library, New York. His connection with this area of the United States explains the subsequent history of the watercolor, which passed through two collections in Massachusetts, including that of the architect and preservationist James Lawrence.
Although Lake Lucerne from Brunnen returned to Christie's in London a further time in 1976, it was soon back in America once more, and it has not been publicly exhibited since. The result of this is that very few in the UK, or elsewhere, have seen this remarkable work since that sale, one of the most subtle of Turner’s late Swiss watercolors.
Montgomery H.W. Ritchie began collecting art in the 1940s and assembled a formidable collection of Old Masters and Impressionist works, including those by Monet, Renoir and Degas. Much of his collection was given to the Dixon Art Gallery, Memphis, Tennesee in 1992. A John Constable painting from the collection, Study of clouds over a landscape, was sold in these Rooms, 31 October 2017, lot 53.
We are grateful to Ian Warrell for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.
Fig. 1. Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise, Tate, London.
Fig. 2. Joseph Mallord William Turner, Brunnen, Lake Lucerne, private collection.