View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
In this drawing Turner depicts the Walloon city of Huy with its Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame to the left of the bridge. Traditional half-timbered buildings line a narrow street in the foreground, while a giant precipice looms vertiginous in the background.
Turner referred to a rough pencil jotting of Notre-Dame in the Spa, Dinant, and Namur sketchbook to represent the church’s apse and towers here (Tate D28147; Turner Bequest CCLXXXVII 56a). This pencil sketch was taken from a high vantage point to the south-east of Huy at the Place Saint-Denis, captured while on an excursion on foot which took the artist inland and into the foothills of the city, away from the Meuse itself.
Much of what is represented in this gouache, however, is the product of Turner’s imagination. That is to say the artist has removed and rearranged landmarks to suit his composition. As Cecilia Powell notes, it would have been impossible for Turner to see up the Meuse from this viewpoint, though this did not deter him from depicting the bridge and the river in the middle distance, marking out the latter with daubs of blue gouache.1 The most ‘fanciful’ aspect of the gouache is, Powell writes, the total elimination from the composition of the formidable citadel of Huy which dominates the city from a vertiginous promontory above Notre-Dame.2 Powell proposes that Turner’s omission of this conspicuous symbol of military power amounts to a deliberate re-portrayal of Huy as ‘a picturesque old town, free from external threats’.3
In fact, owing to its strategic location, the citadel must have invited significant political and military upheaval for the people of Huy. In this much-contested region, the fortress became the dominion of whichever European power had control of Walloon at the time. Huy and its citadel had been under French rule, for example, during parts of the reign of Louis XIV. The Dutch, on the other hand, gained this territory and rebuilt Huy’s citadel into a mighty artillery barracks. 4 The citadel, then, could easily have stood as a symbol of the protracted episodes of war in which the Low Countries were embroiled.