Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Blue Rigi: Sample Study


Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour on paper
Support: 230 x 326 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 330

Display caption

Turner created a sequence of watercolours showing Mount Rigi seen from the same spot across Lake Lucerne. Each evokes the light effects of different times of day. The results were quite unlike the conventionally Picturesque’ charms of the landscape paintings that dominated the art market and exhibitions.

Even Ruskin seemed a little uncertain what to make of the series ;he wrote
‘I cannot tell why Turner was so fond of the Mount Rigi’. For many modern viewers such designs bring to mind the Impressionist painter Claude Monet's later painted series.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

Turner painted the composition on white wove paper, without any initial pencil drawing, using transparent watercolour washes. The materials were not analysed. The blue washes have faded and the original hue must have been bluer, as can be deduced from a darker blue visible along the upper edge, once covered by a window mount. Yellow washes may have faded. Furthermore, the paper will have yellowed over time at least to a slight degree, so the overall appearance will now be more yellow than it was meant to be.
The subject was copied by a practised watercolourist, Charlotte Caspers,1 using some of the studio pigments surviving in large volumes in the Turner Bequest, hand-ground in gum arabic, the medium Turner used on many occasions. These were applied to a reproduction ‘Turner white’ paper made for research purposes from linen and cotton fibres, glue-sized by dipping as were Turner’s own papers, and therefore with a similar thickness, and absorbency. Turner’s paper has a finer structure and is darker in tone: more buff coloured. Prussian blue, chrome yellow, gamboges (deep yellow), yellow, brown, purplish red and more typically red madder lake were used from the studio pigments, and two later nineteenth-century watercolour boxes were used to provide bone black and burnt umber. The reconstruction was started with a graphite pencil sketch for the general outline, a necessary substitution for the thought processes of another artist when a copy is being made. The paper was not ‘stretched’, that is, taped down on a flat surface before it was wetted, and when de-ionised water applied with a sponge, it immediately developed some disturbing distortions. There is evidence for Turner’s use of taping in only a few works in the Bequest, but it facilitates the use of glue-sized paper, for an artist much less familiar with its response than was Turner.
The painting is well planned and is painted less spontaneously than other Rigi studies such as Red Rigi: Sample Study (Tate D36060; Turner Bequest CCCLXIV 214). During the painting process, the mountain was developed from different transparent layers. Soft colour transitions are essential in this work to create the right atmosphere. They are achieved by the application of a fluid paint and later application of small, relatively dry paint strokes. Occasionally a broader use of the brush can be observed. Colour contrast between yellow and blue is important to the tonal structure of this watercolour and can be compared to the tonality of many of Turner’s other watercolours made during the 1820s and thereafter.

Charlotte Caspers
December 2008

Revised by Joyce Townsend
March 2011

Charlotte Caspers, ‘Reconstructing 19th-Century British Watercolour Paint’, unpublished thesis for postgraduate course in conservation of easel paintings with specialisation in ‘Historical Reconstructions and Painting Techniques’, Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg (SRAL), Maastricht 2008, pp.66–7.


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