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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Chain of Alps from Grenoble to Chamberi c.1808

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Chain of Alps from Grenoble to Chamberi circa 1808
Turner Bequest CXVII Y
Watercolour on off-white wove writing paper, 190 x 268 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Etching and mezzotint by Turner and William Say, ‘Chain of Alps from Grenoble to Chamberi’, published Turner, 23 May 1812
Turner’s Liber Studiorum design is based on a pencil, watercolour and gouache study made on his first Continental tour in 1802, in the St Gothard and Mont Blanc sketchbook (Tate D04618; Turner Bequest LXXV 26). It is one of several Liber compositions derived from the book (see also Tate D08123, D08161, D08164; Turner Bequest CXVI V, CXVIII J, Vaughan Bequest CXVIII G; and Tate N03631; in addition, Mer de Glace1 may have been etched directly from another page). The present design shows the entrance to the Isère valley from above La Frette, between Lyon to Grenoble on Turner’s south-easterly route towards the Alps; the dark, rising ground in the original sketch is devoid of detail, though rough pencil marks at the left may indicate the vines developed here. In the distance are the mountains of the Chartreuse to the left (east) and the Vercors to the right (south-west).2 There are other views of the valley in the France, Savoy, Piedmont and Grenoble sketchbooks (Tate; Turner Bequest LXXIII, LXXIV). As David Blayney Brown has observed, the light in the St Gotthard sketch is ‘diffused’, whereas in the Liber design the sun is shown breaking through the clouds in rays from above.3 In the subsequent Liber engraving, the beams were further developed into two main bursts streaming down to the valley floor.
The scope of Turner’s view, heightened in the print with its ‘vast plain, outspread like a sea’, was praised by Stopford Brooke:
After the immensity of the plain, we are brought among the energy of the mountains. They rise and heave, range after range, ... From the mountains we climb the infinite of the sky, ... whence, to give the last touch to the vastness of earth and heaven, two ladders of light are let down to the outstretched fields below. ... Turner has drawn, not the chain of Alps and Grenoble, but his impression of the immeasurableness of Nature.’4
This was echoed by J.E. Phythian: ‘A few inches of stained paper suffice to give an impression of nature’s vastness.’5 Andrew Wilton has analysed the effect: ‘If a single mountain is sublime, a whole chain of mountains is infinitely more so. Turner here puts his subject into a context that is natural and proper ... It is not the actual scale of the mountains, but their promise of grandeur, that thrills us in this setting, as all English tourists first saw them.’6 By contrast, in Modern Painters Ruskin had ignored the Sublime backdrop and directed his criticism to the ‘vintagers’ in the foreground of the composition, as a case of Turner’s lack of sympathy for the non-British Liber subjects, punning that ‘like many other great men, [he is] overthrown by the vine.’7
The composition is recorded, as ‘10[:] 4 Chain of Alps’, in the Liber Notes (2) sketchbook (Tate D12158; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 24a), in a draft schedule of the first ten parts of the Liber (D12156–D12158; CLIV (a) 23a–24a)8 dated by Finberg and Gillian Forrester to before the middle of 1808.9 It also appears later in the sketchbook, again as ‘Chain of Alps’, in a list of ‘Mountainous’ subjects (Tate D12166; Turner Bequest CLIV (a) 28a).10
The Liber Studiorum etching and mezzotint engraving, etched by Turner and engraved by William Say, bears the publication date 23 May 1812 and was issued to subscribers as ‘Chain of Alps from Grenoble to Chamberi’ in part 10, together with the free Frontispiece (Rawlinson/Finberg nos.47–51 and 1;11 see also Tate D08150–D08152, D08154; Turner Bequest CXVII W, X, Z, Vaughan Bequest CXVII V). Tate holds impressions of the preliminary outline etching (Tate A01008) and the published engraving (A01009). It is one of fourteen published Liber Studiorum subjects in Turner’s ‘Mountainous’ category (see also Tate D08113, D08119, D08123, D08130, D08134, D08148, D08156, D08161, D08164, D08165; Turner Bequest CXVI L, R, V, CXVII C, G, T, CXVIII J, K, Vaughan Bequest CXVIII B, G).
Frank Short included this composition12 among his Twelve Subjects from the Liber Studiorum of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. Etched and Mezzotinted by Frank Short (published by Robert Dunthorne of the Rembrandt Gallery, London, between 1885 and 1888), the first series of his Liber interpretations (Tate T05048;13 see general Liber introduction).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.103–4 no.50; 1906, pp.121–2 no.50; Finberg 1924, pp.197–200 no.50.
David Hill, Turner in the Alps: The Journey through France & Switzerland in 1802, London 1992, pp.31, 168.
Brown 1998, p.42.
Brooke 1885, pp.[164], 165.
Phythian [1910], p.136.
Andrew Wilton, Turner and the Sublime, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto 1980, p.[173].
Cook Wedderburn III 1903, pp.236, 237.
Forrester 1996, pp.160–1 (transcribed).
Finberg 1924, p.xliii; Forrester 1996, pp.13–14.
Forrester 1996, p.162 (transcribed).
Rawlinson 1878, pp.6–8, 97–106; 1906, pp.[9]–11, 114–24; Finberg 1924, pp.1–4, 185–204.
Hardie 1938, p.48 no.7.
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986 – 88, London 1996, pp.70–71, reproduced p.70.
Technical notes:
The plume of smoke to the right of the sheet was stopped out, then washed over heavily; the stakes on the left were also stopped out, others being subsequently scratched out. Lights in the sky were made by washing and delicate scratching-out, and the snowy mountain tops were washed out. There is heavy scratching-out in the foreground and at the foot of the distant mountain range. The darks were made by a heavy medium-rich application of the same pigment, in a glossy medium. The overall very warm brown colour results from an Indian red pigment and a yellow-brown ochre.1 Given the similarities in ‘technique, pigment and subject’, it has been suggested that Turner may have intended the present design as a contrast to Peat Bog, published in the previous part of the Liber (see Tate D08148; Turner Bequest CXVII T).2
Joyce Townsend, circa 1995, Tate conservation files.
Forrester 1996, p.111.
Blank, save for inscriptions.
Inscribed in pencil ‘<Y>’ centre, and ‘D.08153’ bottom left
Stamped in black ‘[crown] | N•G | CXVII – Y’ bottom left
Thin tape and the residue of former mounting are evident all round the edges of the sheet.

Matthew Imms
August 2008

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Chain of Alps from Grenoble to Chamberi c.1808 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2008, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-chain-of-alps-from-grenoble-to-chamberi-r1131754, accessed 19 June 2024.