Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Battle of Fort Rock, Val d’Aouste, Piedmont, 1796

exhibited 1815

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 696 × 1015 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXXX G

Display caption

This watercolour, representing a semi-fictional encounter during Napoleon''s invasion of Italy in 1796, was exhibited by Turner at the Royal Academy in 1815 to mark the end of the Napoleonic War. Years later, however, when his Queen Anne Street house was in decline, it was observed by visitors blocking up a broken window. This neglect was not unique, for a picture, Fishing upon the Blythe-Sand, also on display in this gallery, was seen in use as a cat flap.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

This spectacular exhibition watercolour originates in a coloured study (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge),1 usually said to have came from Turner’s St Gothard and Mont Blanc sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest LXXV)2 and subsequently in the collection of John Ruskin. An inscription by Turner ‘Le Fort de St Rock Valley de Aoust’, assigned by Finberg to a different subject from the sketchbook (Tate D04637; Turner Bequest LXXV 45), may relate to the Fitzwilliam drawing. Its subject was recognised by Ruskin as the ancient road between Derby and Runaz known locally as the Pierre Taillée. Clinging to the side of the gorge of the River Doire, the road ran past Fort Roch. Today the narrow track is replaced by tunnels but can still be walked on foot, and it is possible to see how rocky outcrops were once bridged by planks that could be raised for defensive purposes. In the background Mont Blanc rises into cloud.
From the study, Turner first made a signed but undated watercolour, Mont Blanc, from Fort Roch, in the Val d’Aosta; this was originally intended for Edward Lascelles but was bought instead by Walter Fawkes (private collection).3 It shows the site in peaceful conditions, the drama arising entirely from the scenery; in the foreground two girls in the costume of Alpine villagers peer over a parapet into the ravine, as if to share the viewer’s astonishment at its depth. Travellers and a mule pick their way cautiously along the track. Since it corresponded to Turner’s experience of the place during the Peace of Amiens in 1802, this watercolour must be the ‘Armistice Rock’ included in a list of works made or planned for Fawkes, recorded in the Greenwich sketchbook (Tate D06824; Turner Bequest CII 52).
By contrast the 1815 watercolour follows the Romantic trope observed by the literary critic Alan Liu in relation to the poetry of William Wordsworth; recollecting a Swiss mountain pass primarily as a military site.4 To the dramatic scenery Turner adds an imaginary battle during Napoleon’s invasion of Italy via the Alps in 1796. The narrow pass teems with soldiers, an explosion flashes behind an overhanging rock, and in the foreground a young mother and her child tend a wounded man. All this is imagined as no such encounter is known to have taken place at Fort Roch and early commentators suggested that Turner had become confused with fighting at Fort Bard, just beyond the Great St Bernard Pass. In 1800, before their victory at Marengo, the French were blocked in a narrow defile at Fort Bard on their way to retake Italy but, mounting their cannon on the roof of a nearby church, managed to blast their way clear. Renaming the watercolour ‘Fort Bard’, Walter Thornbury dated the battle to 18005 and John Burnet and Peter Cunningham to much earlier, 22 January 1794.6 In his notes for the Marlborough House catalogue, John Ruskin merely stated that he ‘believed [Turner] meant Fort Bard’.7 Turner did not visit Fort Bard in 1802, but passed nearby. Arguably, neither fort was the most obvious setting as the St Gotthard Pass had witnessed the hardest fighting, including an epic battle between the French and Russians in 1799.
Wilton 1979, p.341 no.360.
However, Peter Bower has established that some other drawings allegedly from this source and outside the Turner Bequest are on a different paper.
Ibid., p.341 no.369.
Alan Liu, ‘The History in Romanticism’, in Duncan Wu (ed.), Romanticism; A Critical Reader, Oxford 1995, pp.108–9.
Thornbury 1862, p.390.
Burnet and Cunningham 1859, p.117.
Ruskin on Pictures; Cook 1902, p.229.
Bell 1901, p.49.
Wilton and Mallord Turner 1990, p.145.
Butlin and Joll 1984, pp.88–90 no.126 (pl.131).
Wilton and Mallord Turner 1990, p.145.
Wilton 1979, p.342 no.378; Sotheby’s sale, London, 4 July 2007, lot 7.
Ibid., p.341 no.366 .
Ibid., p.341 no.367.
Shanes 2000, p.693.
Turner in the Alps, p.184.
Shanes 2000, p.693 note 20.
Euskin on Pictures; Cook 1902, p.421; Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.268.
Burnet and Cunningham 1859, p.117.
Ruskin on Pictures; Cook 1902, p.229; Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.268.

David Blayney Brown
February 2012

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