J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Two Sketches of the Tunnel of Les Échelles 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 73 Recto:
Two Sketches of the Tunnel of Les Échelles 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXIII 73
Pencil on white wove paper, 185 x 114 mm
Stamped in black ‘CLXXIII 73’ top right, ascending right-hand edge
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
This page contains two sketches of the tunnel of Les Échelles, also known as the ‘Tunnel de la Grotte’, a passageway through the Chartreuse Mountains just east of the village of Les Échelles in Savoy. This impressive feat of nineteenth-century engineering had been undertaken on the orders of Napoleon who considered the existing ancient route of the Voie Sarde (Sardinian Way) too inconvenient and time-consuming for the movement of troops and artillery. According to contemporary guidebooks the resulting gallery excavated out of the limestone rock face was ‘twenty-five feet high’ and wide, and nearly ‘one thousand feet long’, ‘forming a carriage-way, along which two diligences fully loaded may pass abreast’.1 At the time of Turner’s visit, the tunnel, which was the first built in the French Alps, had only recently been constructed (1804–17) and in fact the official inauguration was not held until 1820. However, the passage was obviously in use during 1819: the lower study shows the entrance to the tunnel but the upper drawing depicts the dark and craggy interior. Turner scholar Eric Shanes has suggested that the sketches might relate to a later watercolour study of an unidentified mountain tunnel (Tate D25213; Turner Bequest CCLXIII 91).2
Napoleon was responsible for a number of similar road improvements and shortcuts across Europe and Turner seems to have been very interested in the various Alpine schemes, most notably taking a detour from the Italian Lakes in order to view the recently built Simplon Pass (see the Turin, Como, Lugarno, Maggiore sketchbook, Tate, Turner Bequest CLXXIV, and the Passage of the Simplon sketchbook, Tate, Turner Bequest CXCIV).

Nicola Moorby
March 2013

See for example Brockendon’s Road Book from London to Naples, London 1835, pp.59–60, and John Murray, A Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland and the Alps of Savoy and Piedmont, London 1838, p.326.
Shanes 1997, p.98, under ‘Industrial scenery’, no.91.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘Two Sketches of the Tunnel of Les Échelles 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, March 2013, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, August 2013, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-two-sketches-of-the-tunnel-of-les-chelles-r1142971, accessed 25 November 2015.