Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (London 1775-1851), Mont Blanc from Fort Roch, Val d'Aosta. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd., 2012
signed 'JMW Turner R.A.' (lower left), pencil, watercolour and bodycolour with gum arabic and scratching out, the sheet extended along the lower edge, fragmentary watermark 'WHATMAN', 27¼ x 39½ in. (69.2 x 104.4 cm.). Estimate £1,000,000 - £1,500,000 ($1,561,000 - $2,341,500)
Provenance: Commissioned in 1808 by Edward Lascelles of Harewood House, Yorkshire, for 60 gns. (but not taken delivery of).
Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, Yorkshire, circa 1809, and by descent to
Rev. Ayscough Fawkes; Christie's, London, 27 June 1890, lot 58 (1000 gns. to Agnew's on behalf of Sir Donald Currie).
Sir Donald Currie, and by descent to
Sir John Currie, and by descent to
Mrs. E.G. Fergusson, until 1984.
with Thomas Agnew and Sons, London.
Makepiece Investments Ltd, London.
with Spink-Leger, London.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 27 November 2002, lot 6.
Literature: F.H. Fawkes, Catalogue of oil-paintings and water colour drawings and sketches in water colour in the possession of F.H. Fawkes of Farnley Hall, MS, 1850 (Victoria and Albert Museum Library).
L. Calder and Co., The Farnley Hall Collection of Turner Drawings in the possession of F.H. Fawkes Esq., London, 1864, pl. 4.
Athenaeum, 1879, p. 637.
W. Armstrong, Turner, London, 1902, p. 240.
A.J. Finberg, Turner's Watercolours at Farnley Hall, London, s.d. , p. 22, no. 24, colour pl. 5.
A.P. Oppé, The Water-Colours of Turner, Cox & De Wint, London, 1925, no. 3, colour pl. 2.
J. Russell and A. Wilton, Turner in Switzerland, Zurich, 1976, pp. 65 and 135.
A. Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg and London, 1979, pp. 102-3, no. 369, pl. 104.
D. Hill, Turner in the Alps: The Journey Through France and Switzerland in 1802, London, 1992, pp. 74-6, illustrated.
J. Agnew et_al., Agnew's 1982-1992, London, 1992, p. 159, pl. 144.
D.B. Brown, Turner in the Alps, exhibition catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, and Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, 1998-1999, p. 122.
D. Hill, Joseph Mallord William Turner: Le Mont-Blanc et la Vallée d'Aosta, exhibition catalogue, Aosta, Museo Archeologico Regionale, 2000, pp. 46, 77 and 282, no. 46, illustrated p. 187.
J. Hamilton et_al., Turner e l'Italia, exhibition catalogue, Ferrara Arte, 2008, p. 161, no. 27, illustrated.
Exhibited: London, Grosvenor Place, Fawkes Collection, 1819, no. 33.
Leeds, Music Hall, Exhibition of Watercolours from the Walter Fawkes Collection, 1839, no. 75, as 'Battle of Fort Rock'.
London, Agnew's, Thirty-Eighth Annual Exhibition of Selected high-class Water-Colour Drawings, 1904, no. 215, as 'Val d'Aosta'.
London, Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, 1906, no. 208, lent by Sir Donald Currie.
London, Agnew's, Exhibition of Water Colour Drawings, 1924, no. 3. London, Agnew's,Centenary Loan Exhibition of Water-Colour Drawings by J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 1951, no. 21, lent by Mrs E.G. Fergusson.
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Turner und die Schweiz, 1976-1977, no. 22, (lent by Agnew's).
York City Art Gallery, Turner in Yorkshire, June-July 1980, no. 93, illustrated.
Toronto, Art Gallery of Ottawa, Turner and the Romantic Landscape, August-October 1995.
Aosta, Museo Archeologico Regionale, Joseph Mallord William Turner: Le Mont-Blanc et la Vallée d'Aosta, July-October 2000, no. 46, illustrated in colour, p. 187.
London, Spink-Leger Gallery, Feeling Through the Eye: The 'New' Landscape in Britain 1800-1830, March-April 2000, pp. 86-7, illustrated in colour.
London, Royal Academy, Turner: The Great Watercolours, December 2000-February 2001, no. 21, illustrated in colour.
Essen, Museum Folkwang, and Zurich, Kunsthaus, William Turner: Licht und Fabre, September 2001-January 2002, no. 47, illustrated in colour.
Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti; Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland and Budapest, Szépmúvészeti Múseum, Turner & Italy, November 2008-June 2009, no. 27 (Ferrara only).
Notes: The group of large Swiss watercolours that Turner completed over a number of years following his first visit to the Continent in 1802 are among the greatest achievements of Turner's career and represent a pivotal moment in European landscape painting, the turning point from the classical tradition to a developed romantic sensibility. This magnificent watercolour is the culmination of that long series of views.
Turner's visit took place during the short interlude in the Napoleonic Wars occasioned by the Peace of Amiens. He had already explored the scenery of Snowdonia and Scotland, and knew that the mountains of French Savoy, Switzerland and the Val d'Aosta would be altogether more magnificent. For this trip he was financed by a consortium organised by the Earl of Yarborough, which possibly included his future patron Walter Fawkes, and was accompanied by Newbey Lowson of Witton-le-Wear, County Durham. He entered Switzerland at Geneva and left at Basel (see maps, Russell and Wilton, op. cit., pp. 34-5, and Hill 1992, p. 12), setting off from London in mid-July 1802 and returning via Paris, where he arrived at the end of September. He produced finished watercolours based on sketches made during his tour up to 1815, and returned several times in later life.
The subject is derived from a sketch formerly in the 'St. Gotthard and Mont Blanc' sketchbook (Turner Bequest LXXV; now disbound), in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Wilton, op. cit., p. 341, no. 360, pl. 103; Brown, op. cit., p. 122, no. 40, illustrated in colour), but, as Hill (2000, loc. cit.) points out, the actual view of Mont Blanc is further up the valley from Fort Roch, with Le Chetif in full view. No sketch from this point can be traced. Fort Roch, which is known locally as Pierre Taillée, is near the village of Leverogne; the precipitous gorge shown in Turner's watercolour, some 50 metres above the River Doire, has now been replaced by a modern road which goes through a tunnel at this point, fig. 1 (D. Hill, 1992, p. 75 and 2000, p. 184).
The title 'Fort Rock' occurs in a list of commissioned subjects for watercolours of about 1808-1809 noted in Turner's 'Greenwich' sketchbook (TB CII, p. 1), with the name of Turner's long-standing Yorkshire patron, Edward Lascelles of Harewood, and a price of '60 G[uineas]'. Lascelles never took the work, which was traditionally assumed to have been painted at the time of the note, 1809, but has recently been redated by Eric Shanes on stylistic grounds to 1814; this seems plausible for a number of reasons.
He was at work on a very similar subject at about that time: in 1815 he showed at the Royal Academy a watercolour of roughly the same size and general composition but dramatically illustrating an imaginary Napoleonic Battle of Fort Rock, Val d'Aosta, Piedmont, 1796, fig. 2 (Tate Gallery, TB LXXX-G; Wilton, op. cit., p. 345, no. 399, illustrated in colour pl. 105; Hill 1992, p. 75, illustrated in colour p. 77; Brown, op. cit., p. 124, no. 41, illustrated in colour p. 125). The Royal Academy catalogue printed a long extract from Turner's manuscript poem The Fallacies of Hope (reprinted in Wilton, Hill, et_al., loc. cit.), but no such battle seems actually to have taken place as Napoleon invaded Italy well to the south. The scene of a battle taking place on the precipitous road during Napoleon's invasion of Italy in 1796 develops the topography in terms of a drama from recent history: the opposition of the invaders to the defending militia is paralleled by the hostility of the stark mountains to human life of any kind, beautifully expressed in the great cleft that divides the composition vertically into two contrasting halves.
Three years earlier, in 1812, he had exhibited his famous painting Snow storm: Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps (M. Butlin and E. Joll, The Complete Paintings of J. M. W. Turner, 2nd edition, 1984, no. 126), which develops the same theme in terms of a much more distant historical event. He was determined to understand the Alps geographically and historically, and to expound that understanding as fully as possible. Hence these watercolours, which are further thoughts on the theme he had broached in Hannibal. The verses he composed to accompany Hannibal in the Royal Academy's catalogue speak of 'Italy's blanch'd barrier' while the poem he wrote for The Battle of Fort Rock tells how
'The snow-capt mountain, and huge towers of ice,
Thrust forth their dreary barriers in vain...'
So in the present, very different, work figures are strikingly used to express the relationship between human life and landscape: the mule-drivers trudging along the narrow mountain road; the group of astonished girls looking in awe and excitement over the parapet into the ravine below. They enact precisely what a later guidebook, Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland (1838) mentions at this point: 'A peep over the parapet wall, or through the platform into the depth below, excites a shudder'. The scale of this foreground group, and its precise characterisation with charming details of costume and gesture, conforms to the enhanced significance that Turner was beginning to accord his figures in the 1810s. Whereas inThe Battle of Fort Rock the distant peak is wreathed in cloud and rain-storms, here it stands out in brilliant sunlight.
This, then, is a view of Mont Blanc in peace, as opposed to the war-torn scene of The Battle of Fort Rock. That Turner conceived the two subjects as a pair is highly likely: he had already proposed a similar coupling when in 1800 he exhibited a grand view of Caernarvon castle, North Wales (Tate; TB LX M, Wilton 263), with a bard singing a 'song of pity' to his followers before a broad serene landscape; and planned but never completed a scene in the Welsh mountains with Edward I's army on the march (Tate, TB LXX Q), illustrating the moment described in Edward Gray's famous poem The Bard, when the last of the Bards precipitates himself from the rock as the hostile army approaches. He was to revert yet again to the opposition of Peace and War in two paintings of 1842; Peace: Burial at sea, and War: The exile and the rock limpet (Turner Bequest, Tate; Butlin and Joll, op. cit., nos. 399 and 400), contrasting the exiled Napoleon contemplating his bloody career and the death of an admired artist, David Wilkie.
The Battle of Fort Rock was discovered after Turner's death blocking a window in an out-house, and was resurrected only recently; the present watercolour, on the other hand, has enjoyed sustained appreciation from a line of distinguished owners. Although it never came into the hands of Edward Lascelles, it was acquired by Turner's greatest patron and good friend, Walter Ramsden Fawkes of Farnley Hall in Wharfedale, Yorkshire, and after it left Farnley in 1890 entered the fine collection of the Scottish shipping magnate Sir Donald Currie, in whose family it remained until 1984. In 1819 Fawkes exhibited his Turner collection at his London residence. The Alpine subjects, of which this watercolour was one, excited particular attention. The Literary Gazette wrote, 'By the magic of this pencil, we are brought into regions of such bold and romantic magnificence, and introduced to effects of such rare and awful grandeur, that criticism, were it fit in such a place, is baffled'.
We are grateful to Andrew Wilton for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.
Christie's. Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale, 3 July 2012. London, King Street