This watercolour was painted during Turner’s tour of the Alps in 1836, an important journey that is now recognised as a crucial watershed in the development of his later style and working methods. The colour studies he made during the tour are not thought to be preliminary designs for future commissions, but have been aptly described by Professor David Hill as ‘sufficient and entire unto themselves’. In his account of Turner’s route, Professor Hill proposed that the principal value of the sketches was the use they ‘served at the time, to focus and structure the process of observation’, thereby intensifying the experience (Hill 2000, p.261).
Turner’s objective in his 1836 travels was to revisit an area he had first explored half a lifetime ago. He was then sixty-one, but as a twenty-seven year old he had rushed to the Alps in 1802, during the short-lived Peace of Amiens. Whereas, for most of Turner’s travels, we have little first-hand information about his movements or his opinions of the places he visited, the 1836 journey was of quite a different character. For a start, he was accompanied for much of it, which was a circumstance he otherwise seems to have preferred to avoid. His companion this year was the young Scottish landowner, Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro of Novar (1797-1864), whom he had known since the later 1820s. By 1836 Munro was already becoming the most dependable collector of Turner’s latest paintings. This was in itself remarkable at a time when, increasingly, the artist’s pictures returned, unsold, at the end of the annual Royal Academy exhibitions. Munro’s interests were wide-ranging, as was his taste for art; his collection included many works by his contemporaries, as well as notable old master paintings (such as the Madonna dei Candelabri at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, then attributed to Raphael). He was apparently also a talented amateur, though examples of his work are now rare.
In foregoing the pleasurable solitude usual on his travels, it is apparent that Turner was taking a paternal interest in his young patron, attempting to distract him from a potentially hazardous entanglement in politics (see Hill 2000, p.262). At the time Turner may also have felt somewhat beholden to Munro, who appears to have bankrolled his stay in Venice in 1833. Presumably the wealthy Scotsman also largely subsidised their joint expenses in 1836.
Most usefully, Munro later provided short reports, with valuable details of the journey, both to John Ruskin in 1857, and to Walter Thornbury, the journalist who wrote one of the earliest biographies of Turner (1862). Combining these with Turner’s own notebooks and his watercolour sketches, it is possible to reconstruct the outline of the tour, and get a sense of where the two men paused. Some of the material that Turner produced at various places, as described by Munro, can be identified precisely, whilst other items appear not to have survived. How some of this got separated from the bulk of Turner’s personal studies, now in his bequest at Tate Britain, is a matter of speculation. The correspondence between Ruskin and Munro reveals that it came onto the market in the later 1850s via a foreign dealer, but unfortunately there is nothing more to record the precise source of the colour sketches.
Since it first appeared, the watercolour discussed here was readily associated with the 1836 tour to the Aosta valley because of the distinctive character of the colours Turner used, which can also be found in several of the other studies (see those discussed in Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, pp.471-4, nos.1430-1456; the present watercolour was unknown to Wilton when he prepared that catalogue). Despite its evident connection with the Alpine tour, no specific subject was proposed until Professor Hill, in his 2000 exhibition catalogue, linked the scene with Sallanches, in the Arve Valley, to the north-west of Mont Blanc.
According to Munro, he and Turner had stopped at St Martin and Sallanches quite early in their route through the Alps, and it may have been a significant moment, though the accounts are somewhat muddled and conflicting. In a letter to Ruskin dated 14 November 1857, Munro said that he had not noticed Turner taking his colours out until they were actually in Switzerland, though he had himself worked in watercolour at Sallanches. Subsequently, however, in Thornbury’s rather garbled version, Turner is described as having witnessed Munro struggling with a colour sketch at Sallanches. Rather than commenting on it, Turner tactfully ‘took up a new drawing-pad that was lying near … and off he went to “see what he could do with it.” He returned in about two hours with the paper squared into four sketches, each in a different stage of completion.’ According to Thornbury, ‘This was evidently his rough, kind way of showing an amateur friend the way of pushing forward a sketch.’
There are several sketches of Sallanches in the Turner Bequest (see TB CCCXLII 75, 76, 77; two of these are reproduced below; the third is Hill 2000, p.122, no.13). In these the lively outlines of the town and the distant mountains are worked in plumbago, the graphite medium described by Munro as Turner’s preferred choice on the early stages of the journey. In his catalogue, Hill linked these three sketches with this watercolour and the anecdote just related (even though the paper on which the watercolour is painted is different from that used for the sketches). One of the telling details he identified for making a connection between these works was that the upper parts of one of the sketches bears traces of watercolour, indicating that this sheet had been placed below another where work on the sky had occasionally gone beyond the top edge of the uppermost work. The assumption was that the cloudy sky in the ‘Sallanches’ watercolour must have been the cause of these extraneous marks.
In setting out the topography in the image, Hill identified the view as from the Fours la Sallanches valley, looking over the church of St Jacques directly to the Aiguille de Varan. He notes that Turner had compressed the full sweep of the panorama of dramatic topography in his pencil sketches, and must therefore have similarly adjusted the range of mountains when painting the watercolour. However, there are noticeable differences between the shape of the peaks recorded in either media that suggest they may not actually depict the same place.
Nevertheless, Hill’s analysis of Turner’s technique is acute and passionate: ‘It is a tour de force of energetic handling of paint, for the most part working broad passages of colour one up against another, and mixing and modulating directly on the paper, but always, and most impressively in the effects of cloud on the mountains, with an extraordinary control of the flow and drying of the paint’ (Hill 2000, p.272).
As there are grounds for questioning the identification of the view as Sallanches, it is worth briefly considering its place in the sequence of watercolours produced during the tour. Munro of Novar noted that ‘they were generally done in squarish sizes, perhaps as big as a large sheet of writing paper’, but that some were ‘cut up in smaller dimensions’. In fact Turner’s 1836 watercolours were generally of a standard landscape format until he climbed above Chamonix towards Mont Blanc, whereupon the sheets he selected were squarish, measuring roughly 25 x 28 cms (see Hill 2000, nos.21, 23, 24, 25). If the view really is Sallanches, it would be the first of the sequence, but it feels quite different in mood from the Mont Blanc series.
Another group painted on sheets of the same size was made on the other side of Mont Blanc at Pre-Saint-Didier, in the Aosta valley (Hill 2000, nos.36-39). These last four works, with their sequential variations on the same viewpoint, might in fact better relate to the anecdote in which Turner set down instructive variations on a theme from which Munro might study his working process. Perhaps Thornbury misquoted or jumbled up Munro’s narrative on this point?
As they pressed on down the Aosta valley the square format, or a slightly elongated version of its dimensions, became the norm both for Turner’s more expansive pencil sketches and his colour studies, the larger sheets supplementing the rudimentary notes in his sketchbooks. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge owns a colour study that shares some of the same elements as the present watercolour (Hill 2000, no.54). Both are founded on the yellow-green base washes that darken into earthy ochre tones. The shadowy masses of the mountains are in each case given weight by a fairly concentrated blue, which is thinned and darkened in the sky to recreate the passage of rain clouds. In another work, a view of Aosta, formerly owned by J.E. Taylor (who may also have possessed this watercolour), the pattern through which the image was built up was roughly the same, but Turner also added prominent figures on the road, and scratched away at the painted surface to introduce lively highlights (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; see Hill 2000, no.59).
Another relevant watercolour, and one that bears perhaps the closest comparison is a view of Chambéry (Private collection; Hill 2000, no.78). Painted late in the tour, and related to sketches in the ‘Fort Bard’ sketchbook, it surveys the attractive historic city from the south-east, with heavy dark clouds bearing down to the peaks. The cathedral and the adjacent chateau of the counts and dukes of Savoie are rendered merely as a generalized mass of towered buildings amidst indications of a sprawling urban settlement. This indistinctness is curious and obviously a deliberate decision, because Turner had diligently recorded the architecture in the 1836 sketchbook. Furthermore, had he wanted to corroborate any of the newly acquired visual information, back in London he could have consulted the sketches he made of Chambéry in January 1829, on his way back from Rome that year (see Ian Warrell, Turner’s Sketchbooks, 2014, p.147).
Several aspects in the south-east view of Chambéry can also be found in the watercolour considered here. They possess exactly the same palette range: the diluted grey-brown used for the landmarks of the city; the zesty lemon highlights on the hillsides; the darkening blues of higher slopes; and the washed-out inkiness of the clouds. Common to both is a patch of solid blue to mark a shaded spur on the left hand side, as well as the shared sense of deep space, artfully created through successive planes of colour.
Going back to the ‘Fort Bard’ sketchbook, it is apparent that the watercolour can be related to the various views Turner made of Chambéry from the north (TB CCXCIV 20 verso, 21, 22, 23). The last two of these, especially, seem to provide the basis for the watercolour view. Typically, Turner has favoured a distant prospect that gives a better sense of the wider setting, seen from the outskirts, rather than a composition dealing only in the picturesque particularities of celebrated monuments, as favoured by some of his contemporaries. Indeed, earlier in the tour Munro recalled that Turner had anxiously sought to outshine the types of view made in Dijon by James Duffield Harding (1797/8-1863). Something of the same casual approach to Chambéry’s historic core can also be found in the related colour study, and in both Turner neglected to work up the landmarks of the city centre. In this instance, the misty area, left blank at the heart of the image, may have left Turner with the option of giving the buildings fuller treatment at a later stage.
John Edward Taylor, the pre-eminent collector of Turner watercolours in the years following the artist’s death, was the son of the founder of The Manchester Guardian. He began buying from Agnew's in the 1860s, with The Blue Rigi (Tate) among his earlier purchases. His other Turners included The Red Rigi (National Gallery of Victoria) acquired from John Ruskin. In 1892 Taylor gave 154 watercolours to The Whitworth Institute (now Whitworth Art Gallery), Manchester. These included 25 works by Turner, nearly all of them early works to go with the earlier British watercolours in the Whitworth; the only later work was Fire at Fennings Wharf, on the Thames at Bermondsey of circa 1835. Two years later, in 1894, he gave a further selection of drawings to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, including two late Swiss watercolours by Turner. Despite these gifts, however, it took twelve days for Christie's to disperse the remainder of Taylor's collection in July 1912. Of the 107 works by Turner Agnew's bought the first, Longships Lighthouse, 'and then the next 34 lots in succession before allowing Palser to have lot 77' (E. Joll, catalogue of the Turner exhibition held at Agnew's, 1967); despite this rare concession Agnew's went on to buy roughly two thirds of all the Turners in the sale, including both The Blue Rigi and The Red Rigi. The Blue Rigi sold for the enormous price of 2,700 guineas (it was to be acquired after a public appeal by the Tate in 2007 for £5.8m), while The Red Rigi fetched 2,100 guineas. The price of 1,100 guineas achieved by the present work was one of the highest achieved in the sale of Taylor’s distinguished group of Turner watercolours. Mrs Willard Straight (née Dorothy Payne Whitney) acquired the present work, Chambéry, from or through H. Gibbs who purchased it at the Taylor sale in 1912. She also owned the watercolour of the Val d’Aosta looking over Sallanches (Museum of Fine Art, Boston) from the Taylor sale (lot 63) which had been one of Agnew’s many purchases. Watercolours dateable to this tour are catalogued by Andrew Wilton in The Life and Work of J. M .W. Turner, 1979, nos. 1430-1456, and share a distinctive colouring ‘applied in a rich, almost unctuous way’ on sheets of paper which are typically almost square in format. Other watercolours of alpine subjects, formerly in the Elmhirst collections are View down the Val d’Aosta (Private collection, Wilton 1432), An Alpine Valley (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Wilton 1451) and A Mountain Gorge (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Wilton 1453)