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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Battle of Fort Rock, Val d'Aouste, Piedmont, 1796 exhibited 1815

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Battle of Fort Rock, Val d’Aouste, Piedmont, 1796 exhibited 1815
Turner Bequest LXXX G
Watercolour and gouache with scraping out on white wove paper, 696 x 1015 mm
Signed and dated ‘I M W Turner 1815’ towards bottom left corner
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
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.
In his list of Turner’s exhibited watercolours, C.F. Bell was uncertain whether the Fawkes watercolour or the present one was shown in 1815 and described the latter as a ‘replica’ despite its very different narrative.8 The battle puts the matter beyond doubt, as do the lines from Turner’s manuscript poem The Fallacies of Hope printed in the Royal Academy catalogue;
The snow-capt mountain, and huge towers of ice,
Thrust forth their dreary barriers in vain:
Onward the van progressive forc’d its way,
Propell’d, as the wild Reuss, by native Glaciers fed
Rolls in impetuous, with ev’ry check gains force
By the constraint uprais’d; till, to its gathering powers
All yielding, down the pass wide devastation pours
Her own destructive course. Thus rapine stalk’d,
Triumphant; and plundering hordes, exulting, strew’d,
Fair Italy, thy plains with woe
As Andrew Wilton has pointed out,9 the verses suggest a connection between the 1815 watercolour and the painting Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps shown at the Royal Academy in 1812 (Tate N00490).10 The earlier picture presented Hannibal’s onslaught on Italy as the historical counterpart to Napoleon’s and was shown with similar lines from Fallacies echoing the nature-poetry of James Thomson’s Seasons. In his own verses, Turner draws a parallel between the corrosive forces of war and nature. Whereas in 1802 he had witnessed scenery of savage grandeur only recently fought over by French, Russian and Austrian armies, in 1815 he could reflect on the end of the Napoleonic era and the enduring drama of nature, or, in Wilton’s words, its ‘superiority and indifference’.11
As well as Fort Rock, Turner showed three earlier or previously exhibited watercolours, all from Fawkes’s collection, as a retrospective of his Alpine tour in 1802 and the larger body of work derived from it. A tranquil Lake Lucerne, from the Landing Place at Fluelen, Looking towards Bauen and Tell’s Chapel, Switzerland (on the London art market in 2007)12 was similar in format while two upright subjects, The Passage of Mount St Gothard, Taken from the Centre of the Teufels Bruch (Devil’s Bridge), Switzerland (Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal)13 and The Great Fall of the Reichenbach, in the Valley of Oberhasli, Switzerland (Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford)14 presumably flanked the two landscapes. Although two dated from 1804, Eric Shanes has suggested that these three watercolours were bought directly from the show by Fawkes, and that he did not buy Fort Rock as well because he already owned Mont Blanc, from Fort Roch.15
The present writer has suggested that a large unfinished watercolour of the St Gotthard road (Tate D04897; Turner Bequest LXXX D) might have been a putative companion to Fort Rock since such a pairing would contrast peacetime travel through an Alpine pass with its recent role as a battleground,16 in much the same way as the Fort Roch watercolours themselves do.
Unlike the other watercolours shown in 1815 Fort Rock was unsold, and remained so. However, Shanes makes the very interesting suggestion that Francis Hawksworth Fawkes (Walter’s son) borrowed the watercolour from Turner and lent it with the artist’s permission to the 1839 Leeds exhibition; Shanes notes that this included (as no.75) The Battle of Fort Rock and that the title was wholly inappropriate to the peaceful Mont Blanc, from Fort Roch which F.H. Fawkes still owned.17 However, the watercolour was certainly in Turner’s possession at the time of his death, for it was found blocking up the window of an outhouse at his London house, ‘placed there no doubt to save window tax’ according to the Revd. William Kingsley.18
Burnet and Cunningham gave a rather ambivalent description of the watercolour:
A deep ravine, animated by the hot conflict of contending armies, and the flash of artillery mingling with the thunderbolt. It is full of life and movement; and there are glimpses of the mountain scenery that are most suggestive of alpine recollections; but the general effect does not appear to be successful. The attention is too divided by parts; and one of the grand elements of success, unity, and concentration of effect, is here lost. The mountains, the clouds, and the smoke, are all so mingled that it requires an exertion of the attention to extricate them, and therefore the effect is inconsistent with sound art.19
Ruskin, while judging Fort Rock ‘the most striking drawing of the first period in existence’, also thought it ‘a little overlaboured, and too much divided in the Alpine distance; and, on the whole, poor in colour’. He added that he had no time to ‘analyse so important a work’.20
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.
Technical notes:
Peter Bower states that the paper is a ‘smooth surfaced and strongly sized, Double Elephant paper’, apparently made as writing paper. Bower adds that Double Elephant was the largest size of writing paper available, but was not often made.
John Gage describes the ‘sculpturesque manipulation of [the] wash’ and ‘very marked use of scraping and wiping out’ in this and other earlier exhibition watercolours, noting that these methods later gave way to a lighter, fresher palette and handling.
The watercolour is darkened and discoloured.

David Blayney Brown
February 2012

How to cite

David Blayney Brown, ‘The Battle of Fort Rock, Val d’Aouste, Piedmont, 1796 exhibited 1815 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, February 2012, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, September 2014, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-the-battle-of-fort-rock-val-daouste-piedmont-1796-r1147471, accessed 24 May 2024.