JMW Turner, The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, 1842. Estimate: £1,200,000 - 1,800,000. Courtesy Sotheby's.

LONDON.- This July, Sotheby’s will present at auction one of the greatest and most beautiful watercolours by J.M.W. Turner left in private hands. Commissioned in 1842, The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen is part of a celebrated group of 25 ‘finished’ Swiss landscapes that Turner made during the final decade of his life - a collection of works widely considered the pinnacle of the artist’s achievements in the medium. Offered with an estimate of £1,200,000 – 1,800,000, the work will be the highlight of the Old Master & British Works on Paper sale in London on 4 July. 

Mark Griffith-Jones, Specialist, British Watercolours, Drawings and Portrait Miniatures at Sotheby’s said, ‘It is such a privilege to get to know this superb work – whose beauty and history are so captivating. Major watercolours from Turner’s late Swiss period are justifiably held in the highest regard and this is the most important work to appear on the market in more than a decade.’ 

Depicting one of the most dramatic landscapes in the Swiss Alps, The Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen captures the view over the picturesque village of Brunnen on the eastern shores of Lake Lucerne with the magnificent vista of the Bay of Uri unfolding before the viewer’s eyes. Inspired by Turner’s travels to the region between 1841 and 1844, the work was commissioned by Turner’s great patron Elhanan Bicknell to hang as a companion piece to the iconic Blue Rigi – one of three views of the Rigi mountains painted by the artist which now hangs in London’s Tate Britain having been sold for a record-breaking £5,832,000 in 2006.

Works from Turner’s ‘late’ Swiss series have come to be seen as the ‘climax of a lifetime devoted to the expression of light and colour’ with only five of the 25 works now remaining outside of museum collections. 

Lake Lucerne from Brunnen has remained in the same distinguished private collection since 1968 and was last seen in public at the seminal Turner - The Great Watercolours exhibition at London’s Royal Academy in 2001. 

The painting 
In this work, Turner has perfectly captured the complex effects of the early morning light and haze. The huge sky is filled with a golden light which floods the mountain uplands with warmth, while the deep blue waters of the lake rise up in weightless mists, giving the impression that the plunging cliffs and lake melt seamlessly together.

As Turner maps out the natural landscape, he carefully connects his scene with its history. On the left bank, far off in the distance, he indicates the position of the 14th century Tell Chapel, where the legendary William Tell reputedly leapt to freedom, escaping his tyrannical Austrian overlords. On the right, high above the lake, Turner gives great prominence to the meadow of Rütli, a site that witnessed the birth of Swiss democracy in 1291. 

Turner in Switzerland 
In the August of 1841, Turner embarked on his first dedicated tour to Switzerland in almost 40 years. Throughout this tour, as was his life-long habit, Turner set about recording the landscapes, the architecture and the local people that caught his attention. His travels were recorded in the form of hastily conceived drawings, bold small-scale watercolours and exquisite sketches in full watercolour heightened with pen and ink - all of which now reside in the Tate Britain. Upon his return to London, Turner submitted up to twenty Swiss ‘sample studies’ and four completed landscapes to his agent, Thomas Griffith. Griffith showed apprehension, remarking that the completed works were ‘a little different’ from Turner’s ‘usual style’ - such was their avant-garde nature. 

In the spring of 1842, Griffith invited four of Turner’s most important collectors to his London showroom in Waterloo Place just off Pall Mall; amongst them were the brilliant young art critic, John Ruskin, and the whaling magnate, Elhanan Bicknell. Four completed works and six subjects to be chosen from sample studies were presented to the group. Ruskin considered this set of ten landscapes to be the defining statements in Turner’s career as a watercolourist. 

Bicknell initially purchased the completed Blue Rigi, one of three watercolours depicting the Rigi mountain in the Swiss Alps, commissioning the current work to hang as a companion. 

Trophy watercolour 
Two year after Bicknell’s death, the work was offered at a sensational auction of the late magnate’s collection. The Turners in the collection were rightly considered to be the jewels in the crown and whereas the Blue Rigi achieved £310.16 on the first day, Lake Lucerne from Brunnen trumped this, selling for £714 to one John Smith of Edinburgh.

The work has since belonged to a number of distinguished collectors, including some the most important collectors of Turner’s work, finally being acquired by the father of the current owner in 1968.