Turner only rarely traveled in company, despite the advantages to someone of a famously parsimonious disposition of sharing costs. Coincidentally, on both of his visits to the Val d’Aosta he was accompanied by a fellow traveler: in 1802 by Newbey Lowson (1773-1853), from County Durham (see also lot 124); and in 1836 by the wealthy young Scott, Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro of Novar (1797-1864), who was gradually taking the place of the deceased Walter Fawkes as reliable friend and patron. Munro was also an amateur artist, and benefitted from Turner’s advice when sketching during the tour, but his keen attempts to scrutinize Turner's processes more closely were largely frustrated by the painter’s tendency to sit at a distance from his admirer.
The route that Turner and Munro pursued largely followed that of the earlier tour but, after entering the Val d’Aosta, they pressed on down to Turin. At Bonneville, they apparently attempted to locate some of the viewpoints Turner had recorded in 1802, which suggests that both of them were familiar with the presentation album of the earlier sketches Turner had compiled, or that he brought it along. By 1836 he had honed his method of sketching so that the majority of his impressions took the form of rapid pencil outlines, often recorded down the page in successive strips. To complement this generalized accumulation of information he also worked on larger folded or cut sheets of paper. For the most part, he worked on these in pencil too, but after reaching Sallanches (according to Munro) he also began to use the pauses in the itinerary to paint directly in watercolor.
In his study of the 1836 tour, David Hill identified the subject of this watercolor for the first time, simultaneously proposing that it was begun, at least, on the spot, in the shelter at the summit of the Col de Seigne (to the south-west of Courmayeur). From that vantage point Turner had one of the finest views along the southern, Italian side of the Alps, with the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc rising above its companions. Evidently the weather was not settled, and clouds were moving around and across the mountain range, in the process blocking out notable features such as the Aiguille Noire. Other than the twisting line of the path leading down to the lake, there is no indication of human presence; this is nature in the raw. Turner could have established all of this fairly quickly, coming back to the sheet in more comfortable circumstances to refine and add greater detail to the rocks (evidence of his interest in geology), as well as the final bloom of warmer color.
Sketches of this kind were ahead of their time and remained with Turner, unexhibited during his lifetime. His contemporaries would only have been aware that he had revisited the Val d’Aosta if they had seen the painting he sent to the Royal Academy in 1837: Snow-Storm, Avalanche and Inundation – a Scene in the Upper part of Val d’Aouste, Piedmont (Art Institute of Chicago). But the experiences of this journey continued to thrill him. In fact, during Turner’s first recorded meeting with John Ruskin in 1840, he spoke ‘with great rapture of Aosta and Courmayeur’.
We are greateful to Ian Warrell for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.