At Tate Britain

Peter Campbell

Three of Turner’s greatest late watercolours have been brought together for the first time: The Red Rigi (borrowed from Melbourne), The Blue Rigi and The Dark Rigi (both in private hands). By 20 March, when the exhibition ends, it will be clear whether or not the Art Fund has raised the £4.95 million needed to buy The Blue Rigi (shown here) for the Tate. Sometimes ‘saving’ a picture for the nation means no more than keeping hold of something which would lose nothing by being in another country. The Blue Rigi is different. Although the Tate has the most extensive of all Turner collections it has no late Swiss landscape of this sort, and it is only in an exhibition like this one – which sets the finished works alongside the studies and sketches from the massive Turner bequest – that you get to the heart of Turner’s idiosyncratic creativity. There are sketchbook pages here, and large pale studies in sloppy dilute watercolour, that seem to be the repository of memories of, and ideas about, atmospheric effects. There are other sketchbooks in which tiny drawings in fine pencil detail buildings and hard scenery. There are the sample studies for all three Rigis: the roughs from which patrons could choose to commission finished watercolours. All these preliminaries take on new meanings when the end result is to hand.

When it came to making finished versions, Turner’s procedures were quite unlike those of watercolour painters who, working in the open air, can be prompted for each mark by what is in front of them. Verisimilitude is only a partial guide to how a thing was made. You wonder how much of Winslow Homer’s pictures of the American wild depended on studies made in front of the subject. With Sargent it is more straightforward: there is very little in his watercolour landscapes that does not seem to be unmediated response to the thing seen, made on the spot. Turner could do that kind of thing: he has sketches from nature in which the absolute economy of means and materials is greater, and the abbreviation more drastic, than in any made in his time and in few made since. They were a time-saving way of remembering the effects of light and the look of clouds and sky. Importantly, they stop short of offering the kind of detail that asks to be transferred directly to a later version. They avoid the loss of spontaneity that follows such copying; the loss that makes Constable’s well-worked Academy pictures so disappointing when you have already fallen for the detail-cheap, confident elisions of his sketches.

The three Rigi paintings are wide scenes of distant objects. Although only 18 inches across they are monumental. The mountain, like a great wedge of cheese (it is fifteen miles away), rises above Lake Lucerne, which fills the middle distance. Shore details – jetty, waterfowl, boats – mark the foreground but read as being hundreds of yards away. Taken together, the three pictures can be thought of as a study of the way light modulates a view, at morning and evening. The Red Rigi shows the setting sun still shining on the upper slopes of the mountain. In The Blue Rigi Venus, the morning star, is reflected in the lake and burns white in a cobalt sky which will gradually reach down to replace the dawn-yellow band on the horizon. In achieving these effects, Turner has not borrowed the broad brushstrokes of the wash sketches. Rather, he builds up much of the surface of the pictures with the finest of fine brushstrokes, hatching the vignetted blue corners and including minute detail in both close and distant objects. You have to move in to read all of this. Until the notes the gallery has supplied made me look close, I missed the tiny flash of yellow and orange made by a gun fired from the boat on the right of The Blue Rigi, and so failed to see the reason for the wildfowl taking off on the left, and so failed to realise that the dog leaping from the boat must be a retriever. How the whole was made coherent, how such anecdotal detail was combined with astonishing evocations of dawn, dusk, cloud and water is something I can’t figure out, but it encourages exploration. To follow progress from first notes to the scratching, hatching, overlaying of washes and God knows what other sleights of hand on the final sheet is to gain great respect for 18th and 19th-century papermakers – Whatman was the most famous – without whose craft watercolour paintings like Turner’s could never have been made. He needed tough materials. Never dominated by the charm of the medium, he would use anything that came to hand – layered washes, body colour, fingernail scratches – to achieve the effect of his chosen moment.

There is no landscape without weather. In 1841, when Turner painted these pictures, the subtlety of mist and shadow, of fading and strengthening light had not become the commonplaces of travel photographs. People went in pursuit of such wonders. Many climbed Mount Rigi to see the view at sunrise (there was an inn at the top); two or three hundred people could be found waiting there on summer mornings.

Tolstoy, in his story ‘Lucerne’, published in 1857 – roughly the midpoint between the opening of the cog railway in 1871 and Turner’s pictures of 1841 – describes the English invasion:

‘Lucerne, the chief city of the canton, situated on the shore of the Vierwaldstatter See,’ says Murray, ‘is one of the most romantic places of Switzerland … it is only an hour’s distance by steamboat to Mount Righi, from which is obtained one of the most magnificent views in the world.’ Whether that be true or no, other guides say the same thing, and consequently at Lucerne there are throngs of travellers of all nationalities, especially the English … This is the promenade; and here back and forth stroll the Englishwomen in their Swiss straw hats, and the Englishmen in simple and comfortable attire, and rejoice in their work. Possibly these quays and houses and lindens and Englishmen would be excellent in their way anywhere else, but here they seem discordant amid this strangely magnificent, and at the same time indescribably harmonious and smiling nature.

The descriptions of the landscape could be taken from Turner’s pictures:

The lake, iridescent as melted sulphur, and dotted with boats, which left behind them vanishing trails, spread out before my windows smooth, motionless as it were, between the variegated green shores. Farther away it was contracted between two monstrous headlands, and, darkling, set itself against and disappeared behind a confused pile of mountains, clouds and glaciers.

The discordant presence of the English tourists becomes central to the story when the prince is shocked by the meanness of the smart, rich English, listening on the hotel balcony but giving no money to the itinerant musician who sings to them about climbing Mount Rigi.

Turner, illustrator of travel books as well as painter, benefited from the tourist business. I don’t know if he had Ruskinian anxieties about smoke and railways, or how far he would have shared Tolstoy’s distress at the rich, unpoetic English. Travel was a source and he wasted nothing. He built pictures from notes and sketches. Memory of the scene itself was not a necessity. Although he never climbed Mount Rigi, the beginnings of a Sunset from the Top of the Rigi, an oil painting commissioned by an Irish businessman but never finished, is there in the exhibition.