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  • image P108

Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775 - 1851)

St Huges denouncing Vengeance on the Shepherd of Cormayer, in the Valley of d’Aoust


Watercolour on paper

Height: 67.3cm
Width: 100.9cm

Inscription: Signed at lower right corner: J.M.W. Turner and also in monogram.

Museum number: P108

Curatorial note

In 1802 Turner took advantage of the Peace of Amiens to make a visit to Paris and then travel on to Switzerland and make a tour of the Alps. This took him over the Col du Bonhomme and the Col de la Seigne to Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley and back across the Great St. Bernard Pass to Martigny.1 On his return to London he lost no time in using his continental sketches to produce new large-scale works. This striking watercolour was one of two which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803 along with a number of oil paintings – the first fruits of Turner’s tour.2 It is a spectacular work, demonstrating to the full Turner’s virtuosity as a watercolorist. The scene is set in the Val d’Aosta, looking towards the town of Courmayeur, in the midst of a storm in which the mist lifts and the dark sky clears to reveal the dramatic outline of Mont Blanc. The subject itself is mysterious. St. Hugues (1053-1132) was the Bishop of Grenoble and a co-founder of the Carthusian Order. He gave land to St. Bruno for the abbey of the Grande-Chartreuse and is particularly famed for rigorously stamping out abuses in the Church and laity. This scene may relate to such an occasion or may be a misunderstanding of another local legend.3 The incident described in Turner’s title does not appear in the records of the life of St. Hugues and Courmayeur is some distance from where he was based.

This watercolour remained unsold after the RA exhibition of 1803 and was displayed again in the first exhibition in Turner’s own new private Gallery in 1804. David Blayney Brown has speculated that the creation of this Gallery, in Queen Anne Street, Westminster, may have been partly inspired by a desire to create the best possible display conditions for the grand finished watercolours he planned to produce from his Alpine studies.4 Soane played some, as yet unknown, role in relation to the Queen Anne Street premises in 1803 (see Helen Dorey, John Soane and JMW Turner: Illuminating a Friendship, 2007) and it was from the exhibition at the Gallery that Mrs. Soane purchased this drawing for £52.10s on 3 May 1804, a remarkable sum for a watercolour. Perhaps she felt that her husband, who had himself travelled through the Alps in 1780 (although not to Courmayeur) and been much struck by their grandeur, would particularly value this work.5 Turner himself may have urged her to buy it in his enthusiasm for the dramatic landscape around Courmayeur, which so impressed him that he revisited it in 1836 at the age of sixty-one.

This picture seems to be a rare example of a Turner watercolour which retains its original ‘close’ concave frame, ornamented with acanthus leaves and egg and dart.6 The use of a ‘close’ gilt frame elevates the watercolour to the status of an oil painting – a technique Soane used himself for his exhibition watercolours. A writer in The Builder in 1857 noted that ‘Turner always contemplated the union of the gold of his colour with the gold of his frame…he..used to urge the hanging of frames containing his drawings in groups, without intervals between the frames, so that nothing but gold might be seen in connection with the drawings’.7 The picture survived a proposal in the 1880s to provide it with a card mount and simpler frame and the original frame has recently been restored. Since 1999 St Huges denouncing the Shepherd of Cormayer has hung once again in the Picture Room Recess at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in the place of honour Soane chose for it on completion of his new gallery in 1824-25. As the south planes of the famous Picture Room are opened it is dramatically revealed at the heart of an arrangement that associates Turner with Watteau (L’Accordée du Village Soane P111 hangs immediately to its right) and surrounds his sublime atmospheric Alpine scenery with views of the ruined monuments of Rome and grand watercolours of Soane’s own architectural schemes.

1 For a full description of Turner’s tour of the Alps see David Hill, Turner in the Alps: The Journey through France and Switzerland in 1802, George Philip, 1992 and David Blayney Brown, Turner and the Alps 1802, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, 1998.
2 The other watercolour exhibited in 1803 was Glacier and source of the Arveron, going up to the Mer de Glace (Yale Center for British Art).
3 T.S.R. Boase in ‘English Artists and the Val D’Aosta’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. XIX, Nos. 3-4, 1956, points out that the tale of the Blessed Vuillerm de Léaval, Curé of Morgex, a neighbouring village to Courmayeur, in the sixth century, who converted the peasants by miraculously converting the waters of a fountain into wine. This episode seems to fit the incident Turner depicts.
4 David Blayney Brown, op cit.
5 Soane seems to have shared Turner’s appreciation of the sublime qualities of the Alps, noting in his travel diary the drama of the pine forests and torrents tumbling over immense mountains and the view of ‘black gloomy summits’ covered in ‘perpetual snow’. See Sir John Soane’s Architectural Education 1755-80, Pierre de la Ruffiniere du Prey, Garland Publishing, 1977, Chapter VIII.
6 See the entry on Frames in The Oxford Companion to JMW Turner, ed. Evelyn Joll, Martin Butlin and Luke Herrmann, OUP, 2001. The assumption that this was the frame on this watercolour when it hung in Turner's Gallery has recently been challenged (2015) by the discovery that it is identical to the frame on a watercolour of Soane's design for his wife's tomb, Soane P201, which hangs in the Breakfast Room at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields.
7 Gage, 1969, p.163 quoted in Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts ‘’Notes of Turner’s Picture Frames’, Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1998, pp.324-333.

[This entry is a revised version of the one written for the exhibition John Soane and JMW Turner: Illuminating a Friendship, Sir John Soane's Museum, 2007]

Exhibition history

Turner in the Alps 1802, Tate Britain, London, 24 November 1998 - 14 February 1999; Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Martigny, 6 March - 6 June 1999
Soane and Turner: Illuminating a Friendship, Sir John Soane's Museum, London, 26 January - 5 May 2007

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