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Turner’s 1836 Alpine Crossing and the Little Ice Age Portrayed in Val Veny and Val Ferret; a Geography of the Sublime

Martin P. Kirkbride, Susan P. Mains et Vanessa Brazier
Traduction(s) :
La traversée alpine de Turner en 1836 et le petit âge glaciaire dépeints dans le Val Veny et le Val Ferret (massif du Mont-Blanc) [fr]


The English artist J.M.W. Turner made his second visit to upper Val d’Aosta in 1836, after which he produced several significant paintings. Here, we accurately locate two of these works and relate them to the climatic and geomorphological environment of the time. We combine critical geomorphological and cultural geographic analyses to derive a more holistic appraisal of Turner’s artistic motivations and methods in his Alpine works. The first is a watercolour of Mont Rouge de Peuterey from across the Glacier du Miage. The second is a major oil painting re-imagining of the 1717 Triolet disaster which conflates the complex geomorphological processes of this rock-ice avalanche and subsequent outburst flood into a single dramatic scene. Turner’s visit coincided with the mid-nineteenth century maximum advance of glaciers in the region allowing him to witness dynamic geomorphological processes in close proximity. The precise viewpoints of these scenes demonstrate that Turner spent some time in the area to seek out preferred locations and that he was aware of considerable details of local history. The paintings speak of an immersion in the environment of the time, and their study yields fruitful insights into the complex relationships between geography and landscape art.

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The first truly integrative geomorphological research in Val Veny and Val Ferret has been the work of Philip Deline. His contribution to our understanding of high alpine morphodynamics has been characterised by remarkable attention to detail applied to an inclusive understanding of process history, of which outstanding contributions have been to document debris-covered glacier evolution and catastrophic rock slope failures (e.g. Deline 2005, 2009). We wish to express our gratitude for his friendship, kindness, and scientific collaboration, and for sharing his ‘sublime’ landscape with us over many years.

Texte intégral

We thank Charlotte Topsfield and Amy Kerr at the National Galleries of Scotland for access to sources, and Christopher Baker for earlier discussions on the Vaughan Bequest. Field assistance in Italy was provided by JLBK and ZAK. We gratefully acknowledge two anonymous reviewers whose constructive comments improved the earlier version of this paper.


1Landscape art enables the viewer to instantly travel across space and time. Creative depictions of varied locations, seasons, diurnal contrasts, and events have encouraged a longstanding fascination with how (and why) the captured scenes have been rendered, what wider events are suggested, or the key intention of the artist. The importance of how we represent, analyse, and create our relationships with landscapes has garnered significant attention in geographic studies (Cosgrove 1987). The relationship between landscape art and geography provides an intriguing tale of the shifting paradigms within the discipline more broadly. This has led to a re-evaluation of artistic depictions of physical and cultural landscapes, shifting from earlier descriptive interpretations of distinct material settings to analytic studies that explore wider aesthetic, economic, political, and social relationships in which art is set, highlighting possible links between multiple timescales and locations (Hawkins, 2011). For many years explorations of landscape art were more popular within human rather than physical geography. More recent studies have focused on connections between both human and physical geographic topics through analyses of spaces that combine social and physical science perspectives on place and art. Research exploring the geographies of art has combined science, humanities and social sciences approaches to offer innovative methods for more holistic and critical landscape journeys (Dixon et al. 2012). The role of creative practice—not only as a topic, but as a methodological tool—has also become a site for fruitful collaboration (Hawkins, 2019).

2Art can communicate abstract ideas and emotions by grounding them in specific landscapes. A skilled artist can focus a public’s attention on details that are at once both particular and suggestive of wider forces at play. One such figure is the celebrated English artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner RA. This paper combines critical geomorphological and cultural geographic analyses focusing on two of Turner’s paintings produced in 1836. These works were chosen for the unusual opportunity they provide for examining ways in which terrain and emotion can be woven through artistic and field-based geographies. Specifically, we explore two key questions:

  • In what ways can fieldwork—as an academic and artist—produce new ways to document and understand landscapes?

  • How can field observations and art enhance our understanding of climate, material landscapes and emotion?

3This paper provides new reflections on Turner’s works, combined with field observations by the authors over a number of years. We reflect on how fieldwork—or the grand art tour of the past—heightens the experience of aesthetic and environmental conditions. The act of walking through landscapes and noting observations can be integrally interwoven with simultaneous reflections on artistic representations of a similar or related setting. The historic artistic tour is therefore not only observation from a distance, but potentially part of a transformative embodied process, a process with which Turner was particularly concerned. Artistic representations also provide important historical documentation of changing environmental conditions, at times unwittingly providing unanticipated detail that enhances our appreciation of current physical landscapes.

4The settings for Turner’s paintings are Val Veny and Val Ferret, valleys branching from the head of Val d’Aosta and bounding the immense south-eastern flank of the Mont Blanc Massif. Their landform record of glacier fluctuations and slope activity is one of the richest in the alpine region and includes evidence of multiple extreme events. In 1802 Turner made his first journey across the Col de la Seigne and into Val Veny (Hill 1992) but, probably due to poor weather, he sketched and painted little in the upper valley. Perhaps this led him to return in 1836, aged 61, when he again crossed the passes from Les Contamines (Figure 1) and travelled through to Courmayeur (Moyle 2016). This time several notable paintings were worked up from his field sketches. For such a famous artist, little is known of how Turner used his time in the area despite meticulous research ahead of a major exhibition of his work in Aosta (Hill, 2000).

Figure 1

Figure 1

The Mont Blanc massif and the location of places mentioned in the text. The route of Turner’s 1836 journey is indicated by the dashed line. Grey shading represents glaciers and black lines are major ridges. The locations of the two paintings discussed in the text are shown by stars.

5Turner’s visits were part of a wider interest in the Mont Blanc region shown by landscape artists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Notable among these are paintings of the Mer de Glace by de Loutherberg, Jean-Anthoine Linck and Samuel Birmann (Figure 2; Nussbaumer and Zumbühl 2012; Tremblet 2016). In Val Veny and Val Ferret, works by d’Ostervald (1821–1822), Raoul-Rochette (1926), Forbes (1842) and Hogard (1849) illustrate the contemporary form and extent of the major glaciers (Imhof 2010). Many of these works are sublime representations of mountain form and light which faithfully depict topography in clear light. This tradition culminated in the minutely detailed paintings by Birmann in 1823 (Nussbaumer and Zumbühl, 2012). In this paper we show how Turner’s very different style from his contemporaries reflects his desire to represent the mountain environment in novel ways.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Advances and retreats of the Mer de Glace (Vallée de l’Arve) during the main phase of the Little Ice Age, and the ages of terminal moraines deposited at glacial culminations. The periods of activity of the main artists active in the Mont Blanc Range is indicated (adapted from Nussbaumer and Zumbühl, 2012).

6The two paintings we discuss are from Turner’s 1836 tour, one from each valley. We have located each viewpoint used by Turner by matching topographic features between his paintings and our photographs taken in the field (cf. Nüsser and Schmidt 2021). Using these newly identified locations, we interpret each painting in terms of the artist’s motivation in the context of the climate and landscape of the time, thus providing new perspectives on his travel and work.

Turner’s Alpine Crossing in 1836; Climate and Landscape

7Turner crossed from the Arve Valley into upper Val d’Aosta in 1802, via the Col de Voza, Col du Bonhomme and Col de la Seigne (Figure 1). Poor visibility may explain his post-Napoleonic war return 34 years later in the company of Munro of Novar (Hamilton, 1992; Hill, 1992; Moyle, 2016). Though this leg of the 1836 tour was more productive, the precise locations of individual sketches have required a great deal of reconstruction by art historians: the leaves of Turner’s original sketchbooks were later separated and reused, causing difficulty in dating and locating sketches to identify the artist’s route and viewpoints (Herold, 1997). As a result, some works have been wrongly ascribed or are of unknown location (Hill, 2000).

8Though Turner himself would have been unaware, the timing of his 1836 visit had a significant influence on his experience and his subject matter. The climate of the 17th to late 19th centuries was cool and snowy, causing glaciers to advance and retreat repeatedly. There were seven major advances between 1600 and 1860 CE including two around 1820 and 1850-1860 across the western Alps (Pelfini, 1999; Zumbühl et al., 2008). In the Arve Valley, culminations of the Mer de Glace were reached in 1821 and 1852 (Figure 2), and for the Miage Glacier in 1820 and around 1860 (Imhof, 2010). The Mer de Glace advanced around 400 m then retreated around 250 m between Turner’s two visits.

9These centuries of extended glaciers comprise the so-called Little Ice Age (LIA), a period marked by series of severe winters, cool summers, and an increased frequency of westerly gales (Grove, 2003). The period 1818 to 1890 corresponds to Wanner et al.’s (2000) Little Ice Age Type Event 1, characterised by cooler mean annual temperatures and higher precipitation associated with high snowfall and avalanche frequency (Imhof, 2010), as well as the last two significant LIA glacial maxima in the Alps. In Val Veny and Val Ferret, glaciers extended from the flanks of the Mont Blanc massif to the valley floor, and their steep icefalls would have experienced highly visible, audible serac falls and ice avalanches. On the lower valley sides, snowmelt and rainfall triggered debris flows (bouldery slurries of considerable density and destructive power), evidence for which would have been abundantly visible on valley floor fans and in hillside gullies. Accessible glacier fronts terminated on bare bouldery forelands of recently deposited moraine ridges across which vigorous summer meltwater streams flowed. It was into this environment that Turner hiked, his senses stimulated with the scale of the landscape, the sounds of rivers and rockfalls, and the smell of wet ice and grit.

Val Veny: Mont Rouge de Peuterey from L’Arp Vieille

10From the Col de la Seigne (Figure 1) Turner and Munro descended into upper Val Veny and crossed the plain of Lac de Combal. Here, the Glacier du Miage and its immense lateral moraines rise 180 m above the valley floor to form a barrier across the valley, creating a natural defensive position used during the Napoleonic Wars. The moraines would have hindered Turner’s view of the highest peaks. However, a short ascent up the hillside opposite opens an uninterrupted view across the glacier and upwards to Mont Blanc itself. We can only imagine what impact the scene had on Turner when he saw the full height of the mountain range. The vertical rise from the valley floor (1572 m at Frêney) to Mont Blanc’s summit (4808 m) compares with the greatest height difference that can be seen anywhere in the world and would dwarf anything Turner had experienced before.

11The view portrayed in this watercolour has previously proved difficult to locate. It was thought to be the Mythen in Switzerland, then Monte Rosa (Baker, 2008) until Hill’s (2000) research identified it as Brenva Glacier viewed from the chapel of Notre Dame de la Guérison in Val Veny. Here, we place the exact viewpoint at a point 8 km further up the valley, close to ruined buildings at a summer pasture called lower L’Arp Vieille (2023 m elevation), which lies on the route of the modern Tour de Mont Blanc as it climbs above the Combal plain (Figure 3). The view spans the lower Glacier du Miage to the minor (but impressive) red granite peak of Mont Rouge de Peuterey (2941 m) with a perspective up a glacial trough towards a distant sunlit snow-covered summit. (Figure 4).

Figure 3

Figure 3

Aerial images showing the locations of the two paintings discussed in the text and associated place names. (a) Val Veny and the lower Glacier du Miage. (b) Val Ferret, with dotted lines indicating the maximum Little Ice Age length of the Glaciers de Triolet and de Pré de Bar. The solid line and arrows indicate the distal extent and route of the 1717 Triolet rock avalanche.

12We can identify topographic features in the painting to pinpoint the viewpoint precisely. In terms of the identification of the viewpoint, the right foreground has a key diagnostic feature, a resistant layer of light-coloured rock which caps the scree- and scrub-filled gully facing the painter (which is very steep and is foreshortened in Turner’s perspective). This same rock outcrop is visible in the right foreground of our 2012 photograph (Figure 4). The slope immediately behind it is set back and in shade and indicates that Turner descended part way into the gully itself, apparently to obtain a foreshortened perspective to bring the summit of Mont Blanc into view. This is significant, because it is much easier to sit on the gentle grass by the buildings than to descend the dangerous gully (our photograph was taken from the top of the gully side). Turner made no attempt to make the foreground appear close to its true angle. Rather, its foreshortening serves to emphasise the immense and very steep granite walls across the valley and bring into perspective the highest sunlit snowy peaks. Although key features in the foreground and distance reveal the location, it is however difficult to reconcile the perspective employed by Turner with the actual alignment of topographic features in the distant view. In particular, the glacial trough to the left (west) of Mont Rouge de Peuterey should be the Frêney cirque. In the painting, this is represented as a view directly upwards to snowy summits, yet in the field we noted that such a view is only visible up the adjacent Brouillard cirque. If it is accepted that our interpretation of the viewpoint is accurate, it follows that Turner has employed artistic licence in his composition.

Figure 4a

Figure 4a

Turner’s watercolour presently titled “Brenva Glacier from the slopes of Le Chetif, above Courmayeur, Val D' Aosta”, actually a view of Mont Rouge de Peuterey across the Glacier du Miage.

Reproduced under the terms of​licenses/​by-nc/​2.0/​

Figure 4b

Figure 4b

Photograph across the lower debris-covered Glacier du Miage to the Aiguille Rouge de Peuterey. To the right, the moraines of the Brenva Glacier and the peak of the Grandes Jorasses (with cloud). Note the linear rock outcrop which appears in the right foreground of both images.

13The painting is a study of a calm Alpine scene which the angle of shadow shows to be early morning. The misty light enhances the architecture of the immense mountain range. Hill (2000) suggests the painting was made in the field and that the refined working of the paint indicates 2–3 hours of work. L’Arp Vieille comprised a cluster of buildings including cattle shelters and a formerly quite substantial ruined two-storey stone house which may have been in use at the time (Figure 5), and it is possible Turner spent a night there to allow him to paint the scene in morning light. Turner’s brush and line work are suggestive of mountain form and light, with details presented sparingly. The whole composition has an immediacy capturing the stillness and grandeur of the scene. Small suggestions of details draw the eye to the sunlight catching the comparatively gentle slope of the rock outcrop in the foreground, and translucent face of the sunlit ice wall of the Miage Glacier with rising mist scattering the light. The Miage Glacier appears to fill the valley floor, blocking any way to the mountains. Shafts of light and shade cut across the lower mountain buttresses to the base of Frêney trough. Near the centre of the painting we are drawn to the incongruous dark red bulk Mont Rouge de Peuterey, which casts a deep purple shadow over the chasm of the cirque. The perspective leads the eye far upwards towards an ethereal bright mountain summit set against blue sky.

Figure 5

Figure 5

The former pastoral hamlet of lower l’Arp Vieille above Val Veny with the Aiguilles Noir and Rouge de Peuterey in the background. The summer dwelling was the two-storey building on the right.

14Baker (2008) notes the delicate use of colour here, and its interaction with the slanting shadows. The focus is on the buttress of Mont Rouge de Peuterey and its jagged rock arête projecting into Val Veny, between the hazy purple spurs to the right (north-east) and the Frêney chasm in deep shadow, drawing the eye upwards to the sunlit upper slopes of the Aiguille Blanche (4112 m). The dramatic rock pyramid of the Aiguille Noir de Peuterey, the most eye-catching peak visible from this viewpoint (Figure 5), is omitted. A tiny part of the lower Brenva Glacier is visible at the right foot of the buttress. The middle distance forms the floor of Val Veny, here completely occupied by the irregular bouldery mounds of the surface of Glacier du Miage. Facing, half-illuminated by the morning sun, is most likely a steep ice slope near the true right margin of the glacier, capped by a bouldery veneer, rising above the lateral moraine itself. A surface boulder cover portrayed by Turner in 1836 is consistent with Deline’s (2005) reconstruction of transient fluctuations in debris cover and with the timing of Turner’s visit between glacier readvances. Such glaciers are noisy, with constant stone fall clattering down the melting ice walls in summer. In 1836 bare ice walls would have been exposed where the thickening glacier was overriding the moraine crest. This unusually large and dynamic environment would have appealed to Turner’s fascination with the sublime.

Val Ferret: The Triolet Disaster Reimagined

15This major work (Figure 6) represents one of Turner’s most ambitious attempts to portray high-energy natural processes in the mountains and is the only oil painting derived from his 1836 journey around Mont Blanc. For most of its history the location of the scene remained unknown, and contemporary critics dismissed the work as a flight of fancy. Turner’s painting appears to be situated from a viewpoint on the southern flank of Val Ferret to the east of the village of Planpincieux. We have sought the viewpoint from the Tour de Mont Blanc trail between cattle shelters at La Lèche (1902 m) and Séchèron (1924 m). Our photograph (Figure 6[b]) is an approximation of the viewpoint, the exact spot being difficult to pinpoint due to the absence of foreground references in the painting. We have annotated key topographic reference points to match the painting, which depicts enough of the form and scale of the Grandes Jorasses and northern Mont Blanc range to allow identification of individual rock buttresses and glaciers. Glimpsed between areas of snowfall we can see the Glacier de Triolet, Glacier Pré de Bar and the Col Ferret, looking over into Switzerland. The glaciers extend to the valley floor and are accurately represented for the time (Imhof, 2010).

Figure 6a

Figure 6a

Turner’s oil painting “Snowstorm, Avalanche and Inundation – a Scene from the Upper Part of Val d’Aosta”. Oil on canvas

Art Institute of Chicago. Reproduced under the terms of Creative Commons Zero designation.​image-licensing

Figure 6b

Figure 6b

Photograph from La Lèche of Val Ferret showing the peaks of the Grands Jorasses, Mont Gruetta and the Col Ferret at the valley head. Glaciers which in Turner’s time reached the valley floor have now receded into high cirques in the background.

16The question here is whether Turner has merely imagined a scene, as previous critics have assumed, or whether this painting is in fact a reimagined depiction based on an actual event. The association between the painting and the 1717 Triolet disaster, a large rock avalanche (Porter and Orombelli, 1980), was first made by Hill (2018). Here we expand on Hill’s interpretation with reference to scientific studies of the rock avalanche and its aftermath. Accurately locating the viewpoint of the painting supports the argument that Turner probably was inspired by descriptions of this natural catastrophe. This would be consistent with his interest in active rockfalls and avalanches and would explain why he diverted from his route through upper Valle d’Aosta to seek a specific viewpoint above Val Ferret.

17The “avalanche” represented in Turner’s work is a conflation of a sequence of catastrophic geomorphological events that took place on and after 12 September 1717. Initially, a large rock slope failure detached from the range crest at the Aiguille de l’Eboulement (3599 m) generating a rock and ice avalanche down the Glacier de Triolet for 7 km to cover up to 2.9 km2 of valley floor (Porter and Orombelli, 1980; Deline and Kirkbride, 2009; Akçar et al., 2012). The disaster killed seven herdsmen and their cattle but did not overwhelm any permanent settlements. The ice/debris barrier dammed the Doire de Ferret to impound a shallow lake, which drained the following summer as the ice matrix melted in the debris dam and could have flooded downstream pastures. The debris covering the lower glacier reduced the melt rate to cause a small readvance of the glacier (Deline and Kirkbride, 2009). The loss of human life and livestock would have constituted a social and economic disaster in a marginal subsistence economy, probably forming a salient element of local history in the century before Turner’s visits.

18Discovering an accurate location again informs our understanding of how Turner operated, as this trail reaches between 300 and 400 m above the valley floor. His viewpoint is accessed from Neyron in Val Ferret (Figure 3), well off the route from the Col de la Seigne to Courmayeur along Val Veny. Turner appears to have made a special trip to find such a view, which we presume was motivated by local narratives of the 1717 catastrophe, rather than painting from cursory sketches made in passing. He may even have taken advantage of rudimentary summer lodgings available in the high pastures from which he could have worked with no time pressure, as at L’Arp Vieille.

19The painting itself conflates the sequence of avalanche and later outburst flood (Deline and Kirkbride 2009) into a single dramatic scene. While this has previously been described rather dismissively as a fantastical scene of the sublime from Turner’s imagination, recognising an association between the painting and the 1717 event suggests otherwise. Descending white “avalanches” from the left of the scene appear to be based on steep icefall tributary glaciers which frequently release serac avalanches of large ice blocks that become pulverised during their noisy descent. Turner paints them not as powder avalanches but as tumbling ice blocks (cf. a similar depiction elsewhere, Turner 1810). Elsewhere they appear almost like waterfalls, which seems fanciful, but perhaps reflects a narrative history of the flood released by failure of the avalanche dam. Dating of moraines of the main glaciers above Val Ferret shows that in 1836 several glaciers (Pré de Bar, Triolet, and possibly also Gruetta and Frébouze) descended to the valley floor and, close to their maximum glacial extents of the entire Little Ice Age, would have had similar configurations to those depicted in this scene and been spectacularly visible from the La Lèche—Séchèron pastures.

20An analysis of the painting based on the identified viewpoint reveals several elements of the contemporary state of the climate and glacier extent in Val Ferret, and of the “imagined” scene actually drawing on explanations provided to the artist by local people. Turner clearly sought out this viewpoint to best illustrate the disaster in its full fury with his characteristic artistic flourishes. As Herold (1997, p. 94) puts it,

This vision of the power of nature over human life stands in stark contrast to the classically beautiful landscapes… which Turner was also painting at that time.


21The two works discussed here represent the ends of a spectrum of approaches that encompass Turner’s original take on the “sublime” as defined by Riding and Llewellyn (2013):

the sublime is many things: a judgement, a feeling, a state of mind and a kind of response to art or nature.

Yet both paintings demonstrate a common theme concerning his choice of location and use of perspective to express what the meaning of the landscape was to him, rather than merely to capture its appearance (cf. Hawkins 2008). He attempts to project not only a visual sense of awe, but the cacophony of crashing sounds in pictorial form, as well as the visceral sense of scale. While sublime landscapes seek to represent overwhelming beauty and awe-inspiring grandeur, significantly the chemical use of the term symbolises the transformation from solid to vapour—a process also dramatically communicated through Turner’s dreamlike canvases.

22With regard to the watercolour, it would seem that Turner deliberately chose l’Arp Vieille to paint from (having scrambled into the gully!) so that he could look directly up the full height of the Frêney cirque to the peaks above. The choice of his preferred viewpoint and its general awkwardness and lack of comfort suggest that Turner was seeking to convey something far more than a picturesque view. Here Turner presents us with something more immersive and atmospheric, a misty light-filled vision of heaven (the white mountain) set above an unforgiving and inaccessible rock and ice landscape of giddying height. Turner uses beams of light and shade, and scatters colour through mist to suggest light filtering through stained glass cathedral windows, with enormous mountain buttresses sweeping up like columns leading to a glimpse of a shimmering light-flooded heaven.

23It has become clear to us, through these and other works, that Turner was fascinated not only (or even primarily) by the form of alpine topography but by the dynamism of alpine processes, particularly hazardous ones. He used his artistic skills to observe and record what he saw, both imagining catastrophic natural events as they happened and, more often, sketching and painting the devastation they caused. After his 1802 visit he had painted avalanches and their terrible consequences for the inhabitants (Turner, 1810). Everywhere in such steep terrain there are reminders of the jeopardy faced by local people. He would have seen dwellings built against rock outcrops, designed to let winter snow avalanches ride over the buildings. Turner’s previous works (e.g., Turner, 1803) record how he observed the shredded and broken trees and piles of broken razor-edged boulders left by high-energy gravitational processes such as rockfalls and avalanches. These offer constant reminders of the dynamic nature of such places, and no doubt Turner would have heard the sharp sound of seracs falling from ice cliffs high above and seen their avalanches of pulverised ice blocks, and the clattering rock falls and their dust plumes in the high gullies. As they travelled beside large rivers, Turner and Munro would also have heard (and felt) the percussion of rocks moving as bedload in the powerful meltwater rivers. And, of course, in all his travels Turner keenly observed storms. Summer thunderstorms are frequent when sun-warmed slopes convect air violently upwards in the later part of a warm alpine day.

24With these sights and sounds so firmly part of the travellers’ experience, it is not surprising that Turner sought to see for himself the scene of the 1717 Triolet rock avalanche and flood. To gain a vantage point overlooking the scene of this natural disaster, Turner again climbs steeply above Val Ferret and positions himself to view across the slopes where the rock avalanche spread down the valley. Munro later reported (Hill, 2000, p. 263) that Turner’s modus operandi was to work,

generally a good deal higher so as to obtain more distance and more of a bird’s-eye view.

25There is no record of what sketches or paintings Turner completed on site (Hill 2000), only the subsequent “Snow-storm, Avalanche and Inundation” painting (Figure 6) completed sometime later.

26This large oil painting provides a dramatic counterpoint to the watercolour completed on-site in Val Veny. The towering mountain on the left of the painting is lost in darkness and shadow. Snow, cloud and mountain merge ominously and seem to topple over like a breaking wave about to crash down on the cowering people in the foreground. Either side of the darkness, light penetrates the turbulent atmosphere and catches the frenzied tossing of ice and water and boulders that appear to cascade down the Frébouze Glacier and the river. Turner uses the weather in this landscape to create a dynamic vortex echoing of his unsettling painting of Loch Coruisk (Turner, 1831-1834) and in later work (e.g., Turner, 1842; Ibata, 2008). In both of the paintings from Val Veny and Val Ferret Turner immerses himself in the Alpine experience of the places he visited. From identifying the locations Turner used for these two paintings we can suggest with some confidence that the artist made deliberate choices on where he positioned himself to sketch and paint, to enhance the effects he sought in his works.

27In his search for the sublime in Val Veny and Val Ferret Turner uses his skill in perspective to show the vastness of the staggering height and architectural complexity of these mountains, while compiling his keen observations to portray the power of geomorphological processes and weather. In an age of new and challenging ideas about natural history and geology (e.g., McKirdy, 2022), Turner depicts the hard realities of the Alpine environment, seeing barriers to travel by glaciers and inaccessibly steep mountains as well as hazards from dynamic processes that rework the landscape without regard for human life. In searching for the sublime, Turner presents us with a stark “geological” vision of an unforgiving landscape that can be both heaven and hell. If Turner’s Val Veny (Figure 4) is a vision of a new understanding of heaven, it is only a brief glimpse of a far-off place that cannot be reached: a place to gaze up at in awe. In contrast, hell is forever present in Turner’s rendering of Val Ferret (Figure 6). It is a depiction of the fraught reality and jeopardy the inhabitants faced by living in a dangerous valley.

28Turner’s mountain visions can be seen as blurring the assumed boundaries between the serene and catastrophic, divine and mortal, or science and art. These latter binary frameworks were widespread in contemporary popular culture (and in many ways continue to be), but they posed challenges for complementary approaches towards geographic understanding. It could be argued that Turner’s art and fieldwork combine geomorphological knowledge with creative practice to produce landscapes that resonate with viewers more accurately in terms of the range of emotions felt, and physical scale of these dynamic settings. By attempting to synthesise rather than separate the material and emotional, his paintings move far beyond orthodox technical or scientific sketches that replicate faithfully the exact metrics of the mountain landscape onto the page.

29Turner uses colour, light, and perspective, and a familiarity with material settings to tell a landscape story. Similarly, commenting on a slightly later painting, Smiles (2020, p. 181) notes that light as a narrative device continues to feature prominently in Turner’s work:

Turner’s vivid representation of that strengthening light is thus not just a record of a natural phenomenon, or simply a way of binding all the parts of the picture together, but a narrative incident, too, that lets the sun almost become one of the dramatis personae in this moment of revelation. The relations that structure pictures like this support its narrative coherence as well as its pictorial harmony.

30Light and colour create time and space: the visual deixis tells us that this story has started before we viewed it and will continue once we are gone. Each of these facets invokes an emotional resonance and dynamism that encourages a curiosity about what we are watching. In terms of how the paintings are constructed, this is not an ad hoc process. There is a structure to the ways in which colour and light become part of Turner’s methods of integrating recent events and landscape particularities so that a wide range of audiences connect with them in ways that they may not otherwise. His attention to specific aspects of the painted valleys highlights new information about their location, particularly their ongoing importance as sites that not only symbolise the threat of environmental dangers historically, but the ongoing negotiations of landscape compromises due to current climate change. By combining fieldwork as well as creative practice we are able to engage with

[…] The experience of being-in and moving-through landscapes rather than [solely] understanding their symbolic content (Hawkins 2011, p. 466).

31Art and fieldwork also highlight that understanding landscapes is a process, a key part of which is negotiating the physical challenges and limitations of specific sites, as well as the missing stories. As Vickery (2015, p. 340) reflects,

Art is able to stand, to be present and act amongst the world, casting up a reflection into the deeply and dirty, usually more-than-human materiality that makes up our landscape(s); landscapes that are inherently marked by absences and that can only ever be partially known and beheld.


32This paper builds on complementary connections between scientific geomorphology and cultural geography to analyse Turner’s representations of space and emotion. We have located the viewpoints of two important works, from which on-site observation provides a different perspective and understanding of how the artist conceived the material and social spaces of the Little Ice Age landscape. By travelling through the mountains to experience the shifting nature of the scenes he sought to sketch and paint, Turner’s genius was to capture a multi-sensory emotional response to the sublime, which stimulates in the present-day student of his work a comprehension of the (often violently) changing environmental conditions of his contemporary scenes, made at a time of climatic severity and advanced glaciers.

33Our geomorphological familiarity with his locations allows a salient aspect of his artistic motivation to emerge. It is clear he held a fascination for natural landscape-forming processes, and their dramatic alterations to the landscape. He expresses this aspect of the sublime through representations of the aftermath of geomorphological events as well as reconstructions of their immediate, catastrophic action in his avalanche-themed works. In this respect, it is to the valley sides that he directed his gaze while the high summits either remain hidden or appear to dissolve into the atmosphere through his mastery of light and cloud. It is the valley sides and floors where gravitational processes do their damage, most dramatically in the 1717 Triolet disaster which we suggest forms the subject of his Val Ferret oil painting. We also see this trait in other works in which avalanche-shattered trees and boulder debris dominate the foregrounds. In his watercolour of Mont Rouge de Peuterey, he uses the noisy barrier of the lower debris-strewn Glacier du Miage to elevate the rock slopes behind. As geomorphologists, we have been able to relate features illustrated in his Val Ferret painting to known elements of the 1717 event; the huge avalanche from the high cirque above the valley which devastated the valley floor, the subsequent outburst flood which, though it happened later as the avalanche debris dam failed, Turner included in the same scene; and the peril of the local people. We argue that this remarkable work was drawn from the local narrative history of this extreme event. The beauty and challenge of geography as a discipline is that such a diversity of topics and approaches come within its scope and can be brought together to provide more complex understandings of what we mean by “landscape”.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende The Mont Blanc massif and the location of places mentioned in the text. The route of Turner’s 1836 journey is indicated by the dashed line. Grey shading represents glaciers and black lines are major ridges. The locations of the two paintings discussed in the text are shown by stars.
Fichier image/png, 289k
Titre Figure 2
Légende Advances and retreats of the Mer de Glace (Vallée de l’Arve) during the main phase of the Little Ice Age, and the ages of terminal moraines deposited at glacial culminations. The periods of activity of the main artists active in the Mont Blanc Range is indicated (adapted from Nussbaumer and Zumbühl, 2012).
Fichier image/jpeg, 71k
Titre Figure 3
Légende Aerial images showing the locations of the two paintings discussed in the text and associated place names. (a) Val Veny and the lower Glacier du Miage. (b) Val Ferret, with dotted lines indicating the maximum Little Ice Age length of the Glaciers de Triolet and de Pré de Bar. The solid line and arrows indicate the distal extent and route of the 1717 Triolet rock avalanche.
Fichier image/jpeg, 187k
Titre Figure 4a
Légende Turner’s watercolour presently titled “Brenva Glacier from the slopes of Le Chetif, above Courmayeur, Val D' Aosta”, actually a view of Mont Rouge de Peuterey across the Glacier du Miage.
Fichier image/jpeg, 502k
Titre Figure 4b
Légende Photograph across the lower debris-covered Glacier du Miage to the Aiguille Rouge de Peuterey. To the right, the moraines of the Brenva Glacier and the peak of the Grandes Jorasses (with cloud). Note the linear rock outcrop which appears in the right foreground of both images.
Fichier image/jpeg, 821k
Titre Figure 5
Légende The former pastoral hamlet of lower l’Arp Vieille above Val Veny with the Aiguilles Noir and Rouge de Peuterey in the background. The summer dwelling was the two-storey building on the right.
Fichier image/jpeg, 275k
Titre Figure 6a
Légende Turner’s oil painting “Snowstorm, Avalanche and Inundation – a Scene from the Upper Part of Val d’Aosta”. Oil on canvas
Fichier image/jpeg, 625k
Titre Figure 6b
Légende Photograph from La Lèche of Val Ferret showing the peaks of the Grands Jorasses, Mont Gruetta and the Col Ferret at the valley head. Glaciers which in Turner’s time reached the valley floor have now receded into high cirques in the background.
Fichier image/jpeg, 173k
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Martin P. Kirkbride, Susan P. Mains et Vanessa Brazier, « Turner’s 1836 Alpine Crossing and the Little Ice Age Portrayed in Val Veny and Val Ferret; a Geography of the Sublime »Journal of Alpine Research | Revue de géographie alpine [En ligne], 111-2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2023, consulté le 11 décembre 2023. URL :

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Martin P. Kirkbride

Geography, Division of Energy, Environment and Society, University of Dundee

Susan P. Mains

Geography, Division of Energy, Environment and Society, University of Dundee

Vanessa Brazier

Formerly NatureScot, Cupar, Fife

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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