The Rhinefall at Schaffhausen was one of the highlights of Turner’s Continental tour in 1802 and his last experience that summer of the forces of nature at their most sublime. In Paris on his return journey he described the scale of the falls to Joseph Farington: ‘The Great fall at Schaffhausen is 80 feet, – the width of the fall about four times and a half greater than its depth. The rocks above the fall are inferior to those above the fall of the Clyde, but the fall itself is much finer.’1
Working on the spot, managing as best he could to avoid the spray, Turner made sketches from near the falls in his Swiss Figures and Fonthill sketchbooks (Tate D04817; Turner Bequest LXXVIII 18a and Tate D02203, D02206–D02208, D02229–D02230; Turner Bequest XLVII 26, 29–31, 52–3). Then he crossed to the west bank of the river and made five drawings on large folio sheets, already prepared with a grey ground, which he had brought from London; the others are D04876–D04879; Turner Bequest LXXIX B–E.
David Hill imagines Turner spending ‘at least a full afternoon’ at work on the large drawings.2 This view, taken from beside the falls, was probably the first to be made. Laufen Castle, with its gabled walls, stands on the opposite bank of the Rhine. The main focus is on the architecture of the castle and other buildings alongside the river. Having drawn these, Turner worked his way round to the right, choosing viewpoints further downstream.
Turner knew the painter P.J.de Loutherbourg (1740–1812) well and probably remembered his picture of the Rhinefall painted after a visit to Switzerland in 1787–8 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). One of Turner’s large drawings (D04878; Turner Bequest LXXIX D) is similar in depicting the falls head on, parallel to the picture plane. However, in his other drawings Turner sought out closer or angled viewpoints that emphasise their scale and drama. Even so, none of these drawings served directly for his picture Fall of the Rhine at Schaffhausen exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1806 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston);3 this takes the viewer to the riverbank, immediately in front of an onslaught of water that would have made it impossible to draw, especially on a large sheet of paper.