Turner had first experienced the magnificence of Alpine landscape in 1802 when he visited the continent following the treaty of Amiens. He drew on the material he gathered on that trip over the next fifteen years but did not actually return to Switzerland until 1836, after which he was drawn back on a further four occasions.
This watercolour, a fine example of Turner's late treatment of Swiss subjects, appears to show the Valley of the Domleschg depression near Thusis, a town on the Via Mala in the Grisons, north of the Splügen pass. In the early 19th Century the Via Mala was discussed as the 'most sublime and tremendous defile in Switzerland'. This quotation is taken from Murray's handbook which devotes three pages to the description of the pass evoking the thrill of travelling through the close ravine (Murray 1838, pp. 206-8). Another watercolour looking along the same valley in the opposite direction and traditionally identified as showing this valley is illustrated in Wilton, op.cit., p. 479, no. 1495, where it is dated 1843. The bridge prominent in the foreground of that work can be seen in the distance of our watercolour and the various castles and towers also reappear in the correct locations.
Turner passed through the Domleschg Valley, travelling north, in both 1841 and 1843. The later date seems more likely by comparison with two other watercolours in the Turner Bequest of views in the same neighbourhood, Thusis with the Rhine Bridge and The Via Mala (T.B. CCCXXXVI-19 and CCCIXIV-362; John Russell and Andrew Wilton, Turner in Switzerland, Zurich, 1976, pp. 104-5, illustrated in colour; for maps showing Turner's Swiss tours in the 1840s see pp. 36-7). As Wilton states, these works, 'with some others made in the area, probably belong to 1843; none of the subjects were used for a finished work, but some of the sheets were sold (or perhaps given away, or taken from the studio after Turner's death)'. The later date is also supported by the technique of the watercolour, with a free use of delicate washes and defining strokes of the pen over a rapid pencil sketch, probably made on the spot. In addition, as Wilton says of Thusis with the Rhine Bridge, 'the liquidity of Turner's wash and the rapidity of his notation with the pen are integrated into a statement in which each element is dependent on the other and inseparable from it' (Russell and Wilton, loc.cit.). Such watercolours were not regarded by Turner as finished works for the public. They were rough watercolours or 'sample studies' which suggested the appearance of finished drawings to be developed from them. Thomas Griffith, Turner's agent, then showed these studies to prospective clients in the hope that they would commission finished paintings from him, although this was not the case with this particular drawing.
The watercolours executed at this time by Turner were a dramatic departure from his previous work as his interest was increasingly caught by his desire to capture the light and atmosphere of a place. Ruskin said of these remarkable works 'Turner had never made any drawings like these before, and never made any like them again' (see R. Upstone, Turner; The Final Years: Watercolours 1840-1851, London, 1993, pp. 16-17). The present watercolour was described in Ruskin's sale catalogue, which was written by Ruskin himself, as 'Alpine Torrent and Pass. An exquisite sketch. One of the most beautiful existing of the late time'.
Wilton (1979) identifies both his numbers 1495 and 1508 as having been lot 193 in the Bale sale in 1881, but the dimensions of our watercolour are closer to those (9½ x 11½ in.) given in the catalogue; Wilton's number 1495 is smaller (8 7/8 x 11 1/8 in.). In addition the various titles under which the work was known in the past, such as 'Mountain Torrent' (Bale sale 1881) and 'Alpine Torrent and Pass' (Ruskin sale, 1869), ignore the bridge that is so prominent in Wilton's no. 1495.
We are grateful to Ian Warrell for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.