Turner's first visit to the Alps took place in 1802, during the short Peace of Amiens with France. He had already explored the mountain scenery of Wales and Scotland and knew that the mountains of the French Savoy, Switzerland and Val d'Aosta would be altogether more magnificent. For this trip he was financed by a consortium organised by the Earl of Yarborough and possibly including his future patron Walter Fawkes, and was accompanied by Newbey Lowson of Witton-le-Wear, County Durham. He entered Switzerland at Geneva and left at Basel (see maps, Russell and Wilton, op. cit., pp. 34-5, and Hill 1992, p. 12), setting off from London in mid-July 1802 and returning via Paris, where he arrived at the end of September. He produced finished watercolours based on sketches made during his tour up to as late as 1815, and returned several times in later life.
This watercolour is based on a sketch formerly in the 'St. Gothard and Mont Blanc' Sketchbook (Turner Bequest LXXV) but now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Wilton, op. cit., p. 341, no. 360, illustrated pl. 103; Brown, op. cit., p. 122, no. 40, illustrated in colour), but, as Hill (2000, loc. cit.) points out, the actual view of Mont Blanc is further up the valley from Fort Roch, with Le Chelif in full view; no sketch from this point can be traced. Fort Roch, which is known locally as Pierre Taillée, is near the village of Leverogne; the precipitous valley shown in Turner's watercolour, some 50 metres above the River Doire, has now been replaced by a modern road which goes through a tunnel at this point (for a photograph of the main site see Hill, 1992, p. 75 and 2000, p. 184).
A list of commissions in Turner's 'Greenwich' sketchbook (TB C11) of circa 1808-9 includes, under the name 'Ed. Lascelles', the work 'Fort Rock', priced at 60 guineas. However, the watercolour seems never to have gone to Lascelles, finishing up in the collection of Sir Walter Fawkes at Farnley Hall; Hill suggests (2002, loc. cit.) that this happened at the same time as Fawkes acquired ten other watercolours from Turner in 1809. Eric Shanes, however (Royal Academy exhibition catalogue 2000-1, loc. cit.), dates the work to circa 1814 for stylistic reasons.
In 1815 Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy a watercolour of the same size and general composition but dramatically illustrating The Battle of Fort Roch, Val d'Aosta, Piedmont, 1796 (Tate Gallery, TB LXXX-G; Wilton op. cit., p. 345, no. 399, illustrated in colour pl. 105; Hill 1992, p. 75, illustrated in colour p. 77; Brown, op. cit., p. 124, no. 41, illustrated in colour p. 125). The R.A. catalogue printed a long extract from Turner's manuscript poem The Fallacies of Hope (reprinted in Wilton, Hill, etc., loc. cit.), but no such battle seems actually to have taken place as Napoleon invaded Italy well to the south. Turner presumably imaginatively identified the drama of an Alpine battle with the sensational site, described in J.L. Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, 1838, as a place where 'the road rises hundreds of feet above the bed of the Doire, which is seen foaming below through its redrained course; and from the summit of this pass, Mont Blanc at the head of the valley closes the scene with its masses as a magnificent barrier. The view is strikingly beautiful. The road, thus carried over the precipices, crosses in some places deep rifts in the mountain side; over these chasms, platforms are placed, which, being removed, would cut off all communications by this road, and oblige an army to make a considertable detour to descend by other points into the Val d'Aosta. A peep over the parapet wall, or through the platform into the depth below, excites a shudder.'
It has been suggested that this second watercolour was created as a pendant so that the two watercolours would act as War and Peace. In the Tate watercolour the violence of the battle is echoed by the storm above the valley and the wildness of the mountains; a body, grieving figures and a blasted tree echo the associations with death. By contrast, in the second watercolour depicting 'Peace' the sky is calm and the mountains look serene.
The group of large Swiss watercolours resulting from the 1802 trip are among the greatest achievements of Turner's career and represent a pivotal moment in European landscape painting, the turning point from the classical tradition to a developed romantic sensibility. At Fawkes's 1819 exhibition of his Turner collection at his London residence, in which the present watercolour was included, the Alpine subjects excited the most attention. The Literary Gazette wrote: 'By the magic of this pencil, we are brought into regions of such bold and romantic magnificence, and introduced to effects of such rare and awful grandeur, that criticism, were it fit in such a place, is baffled.'
Mont Blanc from Fort Roch, Val d'Aosta
Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour with gum arabic and scratching out, the sheet extended along the lower edge, fragmentary watermark 'WHATMAN'
Signed 'J M W Turner R.A.' (lower left)
Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A
London, Grosvenor Place, Fawkes collection, 1819, no.33.
Leeds, 1839, no.75, as 'Battle of Fort Rock'.
London, Agnew's, Thirty-Eighth Annual Exhibition of Selected high-class Water-Colour Drawings, 1904, no. 215, as 'Val d'Aosta'.
London, Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, 1906, no. 208, lent by Sir Donald Currie.
London, Agnew's, Exhibition of Water Colour Drawings, 1924, no. 3.
London, Agnew's, Centenary Loan Exhibition of Water-Colour Drawings by J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 1951, no. 21, lent by Mrs E.G. Fergusson.
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Turner und die Schweiz, 1976-7, no. 22, lent by Agnew's.
York City Art Gallery, Turner in Yorkshire, no. 93, illustrated.
Toronto Art Gallery, Turner and the Romantic Landscape, 1995.
Aosta, Museo Archeologico Regionale, Joseph Mallord William Turner: Le Mont-Blanc et la Vallée d'Aosta, 2000, no. 46, illustrated in colour, p. 187.
London, Spink-Leger Gallery, Feeling Through the Eye: The 'New' Landscape in Britain 1800-1830, 2000, pp. 86-7, illustrated in colour.
London, Royal Academy, Turner: The Great Watercolours, 2000-1, no. 21, illustrated in colour.
Essen, Museum Folkwang, and Zurich, Kunsthaus, William Turner: Licht und Fabre, 2001-2, no. 47, illustrated in colour.
27¼ x 39½ in. (69.2 x 104.4 cm.)
F.H. Fawkes, Catalogue of oil-paintings and water colour drawings and sketches in water colour in the possession of F.H. Fawkes of Farnley Hall, manuscript catalogue, 1850 (collection: Victoria and Albert Museum Library).
L. Calder and Co., The Farnley Hall Collection of Turner Drawings in the possession of F.H. Fawkes Esq., 1864, illustrated pl. 4.
Athenaeum, 1879, p. 637. W. Armstrong, Turner, London, 1902, p. 240.
A.J. Finberg, Turner's Watercolours at Farnley Hall, London, n.d. , p. 22, no. 24, illustrated in colour, plate V.
A.P. Oppé, The Water-Colours of Turner, Cox & De Wint, London, 1925, no. 3, illustrated in colour pl. II.
J. Russell and A. Wilton, Turner in Switzerland, 1976, pp. 65, 135.
A. Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg and London, 1979, pp. 102-3, no. 369, pl. 104.
D. Hill, Turner in the Alps: The Journey Through France and Switzerland in 1802, London, 1992, pp. 74-76, illustrated in colour. Agnew's 1982-1992, London, 1992, p. 159, pl. 144.
D.B. Brown, Turner in the Alps, exhibition catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, and Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, 1998-9, p. 122.
D. Hill, Joseph Mallord William Turner: Le Mont-Blanc et la Vallée d'Aosta, exhibition catalogue, Aosta, Museo Archeologico Regionale, 2000, pp. 46, 77, 282, no. 46, illustrated in colour, p.187.
Commissioned in 1808 by Edward Lascelles of Harewood House, Yorkshire, for 60 gns, but not taken delivery of; Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, Yorkshire, circa 1809.
Rev. Ayscough Fawkes; Christie's, London, 27 June 1890, lot 58 (1000 gns. to Agnew's on behalf of Sir Donald Currie).
Sir Donald Currie.
Sir John Currie.
Mrs E.G. Fergusson, by descent from the above, to 1984, when bought by Agnew's from who, purchased by
Makepiece Investments Ltd.
Private collection, to 1999.
with Spink-Leger, London.