St Florent le Vieil. JMW Turner (stamp issued for the artist’s bicentenary, 1975)
When the doors of France re-opened to English travellers at the end of the Napoleonic war, topographic artists took their sketchbooks in search of the picturesque. “In France one lives in the imagination of the past. In England everything is new …” wrote William Hazlitt in Notes on a Journey through France and Italy (1826). “You need to project your romanticism on another country,” says Julian Barnes in similar vein, nearly two centuries later.
Most visitors stuck to the north coast, Normandy and Paris, but in 1826 Turner spent two weeks travelling up the Loire from Nantes to Orléans, drawing furiously as he went, as part of a long tour of north western France. In his fifties, the artist was at the height of his powers.
The project bore fruit in a book, Wanderings By The Loire, published in 1833 as part of a Rivers of France series, with 21 engravings after Turner’s watercolours and text supplied by Leitch Ritchie. The Scottish journalist travelled the Loire in the opposite direction six years after Turner, but wrote it up so as to give the impression that the two observers travelled together: “our eyes were fascinated by a far-off tower…” etc
Perhaps because few great oil paintings resulted from it, Turner’s Loire journey ranks low in the public awareness of his work, but it was a great success at the time, fuelling the popularity of the Loire which Walter Scott had started with Quentin Durward (1823), the story of a Scottish archer in the service of Louis XI at Tours.
A high proportion of the best river views are from the early part of the trip, and it has been suggested that after the cliffs of the so-called Angevin Corniche, the Touraine landscape was not dramatic enough to fire the artist. The practicalities of the journey may have had more to do with it. Turner’s sketchbooks suggest that he travelled by steam boat from Nantes to Angers – a new service – and by coach after that. Coach travel gave fewer opportunities for sketching en route, other than in towns between stages.
It was a time of transition for Loire navigation, and Turner’s boat trip gave him the opportunity to dwell on the juxtaposition of steam and sail – always a popular theme in Turner studies. Are we to infer melancholy reflections on the sun going down on a golden age? “People talk a great deal about sunsets,” Turner himself wrote, “but when you are all fast asleep I am watching the effects of sunrise far more beautiful. And then, you see, the light does not fail, and you can paint them.” In a famous view, the sun that lies low over the water near Mauves is up stream (to the east).
The Loire near the Coteaux de Mauves
Saumur, Amboise and Blois also supplied the desired ingredients – castle, hill, town, river, bridge, boats, people – the artist subtly improving the landscape. The château at Amboise looks as though it stands hundreds of feet above the river, not sixty. John Ruskin, who owned the work, was inspired to make a yet more exaggerated romantic picture of Amboise, the castle fortifications soaring heavenward as if in some giddy Bavarian fantasy.
Amboise. John Ruskin
One thing Turner will have seen from the boat is Les Folies Siffait at Le Cellier: a complex of terraces, exotic pavilions and fake fortress ruins above the river, perhaps inspired by ornamental gardens in the Italian Lakes. Portmeirion sur Loire was under construction as he sailed past. The place was much derided by contemporaries, terraces were destroyed for the construction of the railway, and the rest gradually disappeared, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, beneath brambles and bushes, for one hundred years. A handsome prince turned up in the end, however, and put a strimmer to the brambles. Restoration of Les Folies Siffait is in progress.
Between Clermont and Les Mauves. Engraving after Turner.