Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons

exhibited 1810

On display at Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 902 x 1200 mm
frame: 1350 x 1660 x 165 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

Dramatic Alpine scenes were a stock feature of Sublime landscape. Though Turner had visited the Alps in 1802, there is no evidence that he visited the area represented in this picture, or that he actually witnessed an avalanche. Instead, the stimulus for creating this scene may have been reports of an avalanche that occurred at Selva in the Grisons in December 1808, killing twenty-five people. Yet far from attempting reportage, Turner creates an almost abstract scene of overwhelming elemental forces.

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

109. [N00489] The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons Exh. 1810

Also known as Cottage destroyed by an Avalanche
Canvas, 35 1/2 × 47 1/4 (90×120)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (9, ‘Avalanche’ 4'0"×3'0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. Turner's gallery 1810 (14); Tate Gallery 1931 (56); Amsterdam 1936 (158); Amsterdam, Berne, Paris (repr.), Brussels, Liege (16), Venice (repr.) and Rome (repr.) (18) 1947–8; Rotterdam 1955 (50); Tate Gallery 1959 (346); Detroit and Philadelphia 1968 (116); Paris 1972 (261, repr.); R.A. 1974–5 (87); Hamburg 1976 (16, colour pl. 3); Hague 1978–9 (vii, repr. in colour); Munich 1979–80 (219, repr.); Paris 1983–4 (27, repr. in colour); Birmingham 1984.

Lit. Ruskin 1843 and 1857 (1903–12, iii, p. 239; xii, pp. 122–3); Thornbury 1877, p. 378; Armstrong 1902, p. 218; MacColl 1920, p. 9; Whitley 1928, p. 177; Davies 1946, p. 185; H.F. Finberg 1951, pp. 384, 386; Finberg 1961, pp. 167, 472 no. 151; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 31, pl. 48; Lindsay 1966, pp. 106–7; Lindsay 19662, p. 21 n.; Reynolds 1969, p. 83, colour pl. 63; Gaunt 1971, p. 5, colour pl. 10; Watson 1971, pp. 113–14, pl. 36; Herrmann 1975, pp. 20–21, 229, colour pl. 56; Russell and Wilton 1976, pp. 17–18, repr. in colour on cover; Wilton 1979, pp. 95, 153, pl. 101; Mattheson 1980, pp. 393–4, pl. 11; Wilton 1980, pp. 98–9; Paulson 1982, pp. 77–9, pl. 41; Paulson 19822, p. 141, pl. 93.

Exhibited with the following lines, which anticipate those attributed by Turner to his Fallacies of Hope, first quoted in connection with Hannibal crossing the Alps (No. 126 [N00490]):

‘The downward sun a parting sadness gleams,
Portenteous lurid thro' the gathering storm;
Thick drifting snow on snow,
Till the vast weight bursts thro' the rocky barrier;
Down at once, its pine clad forests,
And towering glaciers fall, the work of ages
Crashing through all! extinction follows,
And the toil, the hope of man—o'erwhelms.’

As Jack Lindsay has pointed out, these verses and the reference to the Grisons recall a passage from ‘Winter’ in Thomson's Seasons. John Gage suggests that the verses may also echo Job xiv, 18–19, and also the Paraphrase on the Book of Job edited by Sir Richard Blackmore (2nd ed. 1716).

It is not known if Turner visited the Grisons when he was in Switzerland in 1802. In any case it is probable, as Dr. Amstutz has pointed out, that Turner had heard about the avalanche that took place at Selva in the Grisons in December 1808, a disaster in which 25 people were killed in one cottage alone (see Russell and Wilton, loc. cit.).

Turner was probably also inspired by two paintings of avalanches by de Loutherbourg in the collections of his patrons, one, of c. 1800, in the collection of Lord Egremont (still at Petworth, repr. illustrated souvenir The First Hundred Years of the Royal Academy, R.A. 1951–2, p. 53), the other, dated 1803, exhibited at the R.A. in 1804 and sold to Sir John Leicester in 1805 (now Tate Gallery; see The Tate Gallery Report 1965–66, pp. 19–20, repr.; also Herrmann 1975, repr. pl. 55). However, as Ruskin noted in his Notes on the Turner Gallery at Marlborough House 1857, ‘No one ever before had conceived a stone in flight’; de Loutherbourg's pictures and the verses of Thomson deal only with the power of falling snow. A contemporary review of Turner's gallery in the Sun of 12 June 1810 noted that the picture ‘is not in his usual style, but is not less excellent’.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984