View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
This ethereal study of a moonlit Lake Brienz was based on a pencil sketch in the Rhine, Strassburg and Oxford sketchbook used in 1802 (Tate D04774; Turner Bequest LXXVII 34), which Turner labelled with the initial ‘F’, indicating the commission from Walter Fawkes for the finished watercolour (private collection)1 variously dated c.18062 or 1809.3 Turner included ‘2 Brientz. Moonlight’ in a list of French and Swiss subjects written on the back of a random pencil drawing (Tate D08253; Turner Bequest CXX m).
Turner made his initial pencil drawing from a boat, looking towards the town of Brienz, on the left, and the Brünig Pass. His boat trip must have ended after dark and this broadly washed study concentrates on atmosphere and reflection, without much detail; the town is a faint silhouette of darker colour and there are none of the boats present in the finished version.
The exact identity and title of the Fawkes watercolour is uncertain; Wilton gives a separate listing for the Town of Brienz, Switzerland exhibited by Fawkes at his London house at 45 Grosvenor Place in 1819, but acknowledges that this could have been the lake scene.4 Turner may have planned the moonlight view, showing boats approaching Brienz at evening, as a pair with a morning scene taken from the town’s quay with a boat setting out, which he dated 1809 (British Museum, London);5 together they would have recalled a day’s excursion on the lake such as the one he made to the castle of Ringgenberg, of which he also made a watercolour for Fawkes in 1809 (Taft Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio).6 However, the dated view of Brienz quay was not bought by Fawkes.
The white wove paper is watermarked ‘1801’. To achieve depth of nocturnal colouring, Turner seems to have given much of the sheet a preliminary wash of grey, leaving a circle untouched for the moon.