Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Chapel of William Tell, for Rogers’s ‘Italy’


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 241 × 306 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 155

Catalogue entry

This vignette, engraved by Robert Wallis, appears as the end-piece to the second section of Rogers’s Italy, which concludes with a lengthy reflection on the life of William Tell.1 The Swiss national hero is perhaps best known for successfully shooting an apple from atop his son’s head. Legend has it that he was arrested in the early fourteenth century for defying the tyrannical Austrian bailiff, Baron Gessler. On the way to prison, however, he escaped and assassinated Gessler, sparking the rebellion that led to Swiss independence from the Habsburg empire. Although there is no historical proof that Tell actually existed, his tale has been central to Swiss national mythology since the sixteenth century and a chapel has long stood on the spot where he is said to have leapt ashore to escape his enemy. By the early nineteenth century, Tell had become a symbol of republican freedom, both in Switzerland and throughout Europe, and his story would have been familiar to many of Rogers’s readers. This is perhaps most clearly evidenced by the success of Friedrich von Schiller’s republican drama, Wilhelm Tell (1804–5) and the resulting opera by Gioachino Rossini (first performed in 1829).
In Italy, Rogers celebrates Tell’s defence of liberty, making several references to the chapel on the Lake of Lucerne:
Yet there is,
Within an eagle’s flight and less, a Scene
Still nobler if not fairer
That Sacred Lake withdrawn among the hills,
Its depth of waters flanked as with a wall
Built by the Giant-race before the flood;
Where not a cross or chapel but inspires
Holy delight, lifting our thoughts to God
From God-like men, men in a barbarous age
That dared assert their birth-right,
That in the desert sowed the seeds of life,
Framing a band of small Republics there,
Which still exist, the envy of the World!
Who would not land in each, and tread the ground;
Land where Tell leaped ashore
(Italy, pp.6–7)
Comparison between this vignette and Turner’s earlier sketches of Tell’s chapel suggests that the artist made a deliberate decision to focus on the chapel for the purposes of this illustration. Prior to this time, Turner had produced three views of Tell’s Chapel. The earliest of these, Tell’s Chapel, Lake of Lucerne, circa 1794–7 (British Museum) was produced long before Turner’s first visit to Switzerland and was probably based on a drawing by John Robert Cozens (1752–97). The other two works are sketches that Turner made while on a boat tour of the lake in 1802 (see Tate D04730, D04731; Turner Bequest LXXVI 70, 71). All of these images pay far more attention to the dramatic scale of the surrounding landscape rather than to the chapel itself. By contrast the vignette is more concerned with the architecture of the building. Turner has made two small pencil studies of the steeple of the chapel in the margin at the bottom right-hand side of the illustration. There is also a potential preliminary study (see Tate D27622; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 105).
Samuel Rogers, Italy, London 1830, p.8; W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. vol.II, London 1913, no.349. There is one impression in Tate’s collection (T04633).
Adele Holcomb, ‘J.M.W. Turner’s Illustrations to the Poets’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of California, Los Angeles 1966, p.57.
Luke Hermann, Turner Prints: The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, Oxford. 1990, p.187.

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

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