Joseph Mallord William Turner

Two Sketches Among the Mountains near ?Mont Cenis; and an Inscription by Turner

1820

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Artist
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Medium
Graphite on paper
Dimensions
Support: 128 x 98 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Reference
D16644
Turner Bequest CXCII 2 a

Catalogue entry

This page contains two rough sketches depicting views of buildings amidst mountains. However, the most notable feature is a lengthy inscription by Turner relating to the appearance of the landscape in front of him. The text reads as follows:
Men clearing away snow for the | Carrige [sic] Women and Children b[?egging] – | the Sky pink – the light and the cool Many | rather warm – Trees are all cover with | snow the Trees in the distance, and wood [?quite] darker1
It is generally believed that this description of snowy conditions and the accompanying sketches relate to Turner’s return journey across the Mont Cenis pass in January 1820.2 The weather in northern Italy was unusually cold at this time and contemporary witnesses noted the excessive amount of snow which fell upon the mountain.3 More particularly, the art historian and Turner scholar James Hamilton has suggested that they record a particularly dramatic moment during the artist’s travels when his coach was overturned amid the mountains and he was obliged to walk in the snow as far as Lanslebourg.4 Turner later immortalised the experience in a dramatic watercolour, Snowstorm, Mont Cenis 1820 (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery) which he inscribed with the date of the incident, ‘15 January 1820’.5 The details recounted here do not really accord with the reported facts of the ordeal which required the artist and his fellow travellers to climb out of the window of the carriage and to avoid becoming involved in a fight between their driver, guide and the local cantonnier (see the introduction to the sketchbook).6 Nevertheless, the description is likely to date from the same crossing of the Mont Cenis pass and the rough character of the draughtsmanship testifies to the difficult conditions faced by travellers in the Alps. Furthermore, Turner scholar Cecilia Powell has noted that the composition of Snowstorm, Mont Cenis watercolour includes a visual motif derived from one of the sketches on this page, specifically ‘the dramatic effect of a dark house seen against a backdrop of white snow’.7

Nicola Moorby
April 2013

1
The present transcription differs slightly from those of Finberg 1909, p.571, Butlin, Wilton and Gage 1974, p.187, and Hamilton 2003, p.79.
2
See for example Butlin, Wilton and Gage 1974, p.187, Gage 1987, p.66 and Powell 1987, p.107.
3
See Powell 1987, p.205 note 50.
4
Hamilton 2003, p.79. Turner later described the incident in a letter to James Holworthy, 7 January 1826, reproduced in John Gage (ed.), Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 1980, p.97. See also Gage 1987, p.66 and Powell 1987, p.103.
5
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.345 no.402, reproduced.
6
See Gage (ed.) 1980, p.97.
7
Powell 1987, p.107.

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