Turner used this composition for plate fifteen of his Liber Studiorum, published 10 June 1808 in part 3 (see Forrester, loc.cit, illustrated); the plate is entitled 'LAKE OF THUN, SWISS' 19 and categorized as 'M' for mountainous. The view is generally taken as that looking west along the lake, with the Niesen on the left and the Stockhorn on the right, though Wilton (Russell and Wilton, op.cit., p. 58) suggests that the watercolour may alternatively show Lake Brienz, looking east from near Giessbach with the village of Brienz on the far left. By 1979 Wilton seems to have abandoned his doubts, and Hill (loc.cit.) is happy to accept the Liber Studiorum identification: 'As Ruskin said, the exact details of the mountains were of subsidiary importance - the artist conflated details from each of his sketches - with the result that the Niesen at the left is barely recognisable, although the Stockhorn at the right is more so. Memory of place, however, is not some sort of picture-postcard, a snapshot of scenic topography - it is compounded of details and fragments, incidents and sensations, a rag-bag of particularities that serve to verify our knowledge'.
The watercolour is based on sketches made during Turner's first visit to the Continent in 1802: he left London on 15 July 1802 and went directly to Switzerland, returning via Paris, which he had reached by the beginning of October (for a map of Turner's route in Switzerland, see Russell and Wilton, op.cit., pp. 34-5). Turner would have travelled by boat from Thun, at the western end of the lake, to Neuhaus where he did a number of sketches in the Lake Thun Sketchbook (London, Tate Gallery, TB LXXVI). The sketchbook has been dismembered: the page numbered '60' by Finberg (A.J. Finberg, A Complete Inventory of the Drawings of the Turner Bequest, London, 1909, vol. I, p. 205) was the basis for the present watercolour and shows storm-clouds over the Niesen that were developed in the watercolour, though the details of figures and shipping in the foreground are different.
Ruskin wrote of a further sketch, in pencil and watercolour and of a slightly different viewpoint (Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, ex John Ruskin; Wilton, op.cit, 1979, p. 341, no. 359, illustrated; Hartley, op.cit, p. 40, illustrated; and Hill, op.cit, p. 110, illustrated), that the Alps were for Turner 'an unbroken influence of gloomy majesty, making him henceforth of entirely solemn heart in all his work, and giving him conceptions of the vastness and rock-frame of the earth's mass, which afterwards regulated his design, down even to a roadside bank... But he rarely painted on the spot; - he looked, gathered, considered; - then painted the sum of what he had gained, up to the point necessary for due note of it - and much more of the impression, since that would pass, than of the scene, which would remain. The Niesen and the Stockhorn might be completely drawn at any time; but this vision of them amidst their thunder-clouds, and his impression of the stormy lake, with the busy people at its shore, careless of storm or calm, was to be kept' (quoted by Hill, loc.cit. from Notes by Mr. Ruskin on His Collection of Drawings by the late J.M.W. Turner, R.A., exhibited at the Fine Art Society's Galleries, London, 1878, pp. 17-18; reprinted in E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin, Library Edition, 1903-1912, vol. XIII, pp. 417-9).
As Ruskin suggests, these watercolours of Swiss views, executed by Turner in the first years after the 1802 visit, brought a new weight of content to the artist's depiction of lake and mountain scenery beyond that developed in Wales, the Lake District and Scotland before this visit. They also demonstrate a much greater degree of technical accomplishment. As Andrew Wilton has written (op.cit, 1979, pp. 96-97): 'These watercolours present Swiss scenery with directness and great power. Their grace and strength, and their imaginative use of the the conventional devices of picturesque and mountain topography, achieve statements of a weight and grandeur without parallel in the canon of Alpine view-making. Yet they rely for their effect almost entirely on the depiction of the natural phenomena that had attracted tourists and artists throughout the preceding half-century... Technically, they exploit the full range of Turner's watercolour procedures, making use of broad washes blotted or sponged off to reveal under-layers of colour or the white of the paper; detail is added locally with strong, crisp delineation aided by scraping-out with a knife or finger-nail. Distances are articulated by loose but precise hatching with a dryish brush, which obtains the textures of rocks and forests, again assisted by scraping-out, sometimes with the wooden point of a brush...'
Turner's skill in rendering the effects of lightning in work such as this was commented on by the late 19th Century meteorologist Richard Inwards (Forrester, loc.cit., from R. Inwards, 'Turner's Representation of Lightning', Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, vol. XXII, no. 98, April 1896): 'Any of these representations might be placed side by side with photographs of lightning, and would be found to convey faithfully to the mind all that the highest powers of sight can discover in the phenomenon'.
This watercolour was one of the large number of works by Turner acquired by his most important patron, Walter Ramsden Fawkes of Farnley Hall in Yorkshire (1769-1825). According to Turner's first biographer Walter Thornbury (The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., London, 1862, vol. II, p. 84), Turner first became acquainted with 'this kind and hospitable squire... on one of his early topographical tours in Yorkshire, either to visit Richmond for Whittaker [sic], or to sketch for Lord Harewood, who lives not far from Farnley.' Turner visited Harewood House in the summer of 1797 and was commissioned by Dr. Roberts Dunham Whitaker to illustrate his History of the Parish of Whalley in April 1799. Turner and Fawkes may have met again in Switzerland in 1802, and in 1803, the following year, Fawkes bought Glacier and Source of the Arveiron, the first of many Swiss watercolours, at the Royal Academy; he bought two further Swiss views in 1804 and continued to buy nearly all of Turner's finished watercolours of Swiss subjects, including this one, until 1810; he bought further Swiss and Italian views in the early 1820s.
Turner first visited Farnley Hall in 1808 and continued to do so until his patron's death in 1825, producing over fifty views of the house and district between 1815 and 1824. In addition Fawkes bought the fifty watercolours resulting from Turner's visit to the Rhine in 1817. To these purchases can be added twenty-five studies of birds of circa 1815-1820 and six illustrations to Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Thomas Moore of circa 1822. Starting with The Victory returning from Trafalgar, shown in Turner's gallery in 1806, Fawkes also bought seven oil paintings including London from Greenwich, exhibited in 1809 and later exchanged for another work, and one of Turner's greatest and most famous oils, Dort or Dordrecht, the Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, Connecticut).
In 1819 Fawkes held an exhibition of his collection of British paintings and watercolours at his London home in Grosvenor Place. Turner dominated the exhibiton with forty works in the large drawing room and twenty Wharfedale subjects in the Small Bow Drawing Room. Fawkes dedicated the catalogue to Turner: 'My dear Sir,-The unbought and spontaneous expression of the public opinion respecting my collection of Water Colour Drawings, decidedly points out to whom this little Catalogue should be inscribed. To you therefore, I dedicate it; first, as an act of duty; and secondly, as an Offering of Friendship: for, be assured, I can never look at it without intensely feeling the delight I have experienced during the greater part of my life, from the exercise of your talent and the pleasure of your society. That you may, year after year reap an accession of fame and fortune, is the anxious wish of Your sincere Friend, W. Fawkes'.
Shortly before Turner's first visit to Switzerland, Fawkes had acquired a group of Swiss views from the watercolourist John 'Warwick' Smith (1749-1831), who had toured the Alps in 1780-81 and who had also helped to illustrate William Coxe's Travels in Switzerland and in the Country of the Grisons, first published in 1779, and reissued, perhaps significantly, in 1801. Fawkes's knowledge of Smith's views may have led to his suggesting Turner visit Switzerland, and even to his choice of subjects.
Turner ceased visiting Farnley Hall after Fawkes's death in 1825, though he continued to be sent game pies by Fawkes's son, Francis Hawksworth Fawkes, who also bought the one Turner to be acquired for the collection after his father's death, the oil of Rembrandt's Daughter, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1827 and now in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.