In the early 1840s Turner made several journeys to Switzerland, and on his return to England lent his agent, Thomas Griffith, elaborate watercolour studies made either during or immediately after his tour. They were to be shown to prospective clients, who could choose subjects that Turner would, on commission, work up into finished views. He made a set of ten such watercolours in 1842, and propsed another ten in 1843, though only six of these seem to have been finished. By 1845 he had completed a further set, probably ten in all, and during the late 1840s worked at yet more series, undaunted by ill-health and the rapid falling away of his patrons who found his late style increasingly difficult to comprehend.
Turner was addicted to working in sequences. He had done so since he was a young man, when he was commissioned to make topographical watercolours for John Walker's Copper-Plate Magazine in the mid-1790s. His production process almost demanded such a method: laying in broad washes of colour, pegging the sheets up in lines to dry, like laundry, and adding detail when the colours were ready, it was economical of time and creative effort to work like that.
The studies on which the finished works were based originated from distinct, separate experience, but they too relied on a well-established system, using the rollable, soft-covered sketchbooks he had adopted since the late 1820s as an adjunct to his smaller, pocket-sized books for pencil jottings. There was room on the larger leaves of the 'roll' sketchbooks for well developed watercolour studies of the type that Oberhofen exemplifies. These too, like the larger works, were often developed in groups or series, in which the same schemes of colour pervade several compositions.
On the whole, the late Swiss subjects record sights he had noted on his visits of 1841 to 1844. But he had amassed a large archive of sketches over his lifetime of travelling, and it was natural for him to refer back to a note he had made long ago. He had drawn this composition when he was in Switzerland on his first trip to the Continent in 1802; it survives in his Lake of Thun sketchbook (TB LXXV f.67) fig. 1, and is inscribed 'Oberhofen'. He saw the place again in 1841 or 1844, and it was probably on the latter trip that he drew it again and worked the scene up into this handsome study. Later still, engaged on one of his last series of finished watercolours, he made a large version, which is now in Indianapolis W. 1557, fig. 2, it has all the characteristics of his very latest manner, loose, suggestive and perhaps unfinished.
The present sheet, however, is one of the most highly wrought of the late studies, with contrasting use of broad, atmospheric washes and precise descriptive penwork: Turner loved to dip his pen in the colours of his picture and concentrate the chromatic shifts of the broad underpainting into crisp outlines on the surface. His instinctive massing of warm hues in opposition to cool, common in most of the late paintings, is well illustrated here. With its deftly placed boat and figures and beautifully described architecture, as well as the pellucid and profound blues of lake and hills, this work sums up the sure touch, atmospheric subtlety and compositional mastery of his late style.
We are grateful to Andrew Wilton for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.