There’s a little-noticed exhibition at the British Museum at the moment full of watercolours and drawings of the Swiss Alps.
It’s part of a collection amassed by Robert Wylie Lloyd, a businessman, art collector, entomologist and keen mountaineer, described in his 1958 obituary as ‘a remarkable and picturesque character who belonged essentially to the Victorian age’.
His love of the Swiss Alps saw him foster a collection of over 5,000 Swiss prints and books, considered today to be the finest in the world, and was gifted to the British Museum on his death.
The exhibition is a choice selection, ranging from grand vistas of the natural world to scenes from urban life.
Probably the most famous natural feature to be included in the exhibition is the drawing of the magnificent Reichenback Falls, which were famous even before the location was chosen by Arthur Conan Doyle for Sherlock Holmes’s fateful meeting with Professor Moriarty.
An etching made by Heinrich Rieter is dated to around 1794, and later hand-coloured and signed in 1802.
A dramatic drawing of a sixty-metre deep geologic fault in France shows an area known as the Perte du Rhône, where the mighty Rhône river would vanish in hot summers. It doesn’t happen anymore after a dam was built nearby in the 1940s, which seems a pity.
A painting of the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in the Mont Blanc region reminds you how small man is compared to the power of nature, with dramatic peaks rising around and the ice carving out its own path through solid rock.
There’s also some detail about how the prints were created, with notes that a patented method allowed for faster productions of more popular prints by using fine dotted lines that could be quickly filled in with watercolour. A couple of examples are included where the dotted lines are still visible.
A couple of prints seen side by side are amusing. One shows the noted mountaineer, Horace Bénédict de Saussure descending from Mont Blanc, and is a rare survivor as it accurately shows the older and rather portly de Saussure sliding down on his backside. The print was suppressed in favour of the other version showing a younger thinner fitter de Saussure striding over the snow.
Pastoral scenes are in abundance, even if I find it difficult to believe that a farming family lived in one of the buildings shown, as it’s not far short of the size of a mansion house. Just made from wood instead of stone. It’s a beautiful watercoloured etching though.
It’s not all mountains and farms either.
There’s a wonderful drawing of the town of Bassel in 1744 showing the sweeping curve of the river Rhine and the town clustered on the riverbank and the bridge across the Rhine.
There’s a watercolour duo showing a Swiss soldier leaving home and later returning. These before/after compositions are a recurring theme in 18th-century art, sometimes quite explicit here, or sometimes two different landscapes intended to be seen and compared to each other.
The chapel of William Tell is included, without apple, but as he is actually a much more important figure in Swiss independence than most of our recollections of his apple antics. Do look out for the 1785 etching of an Easter procession in Bern, if only for the remarkable wig worn by the Hurispiegel in the parade.
Overall, it’s a lovely collection of prints of the Alpine region, with many almost looking as if they could easily double up as adverts for Swiss tourism. I didn’t count, but from memory, there’s about 40 prints on display.
The exhibition, Enticing Peaks Swiss prints from the Lloyd Bequest, is free to visit and open until 30th January. You don’t need to book tickets to visit the Museum, but it is advised in case you arrive when they are busy.
Note that the exhibition is in a room next to the paid-for Hokusai exhibition, and maybe I was unlucky, but the security guard didn’t know there’s another exhibition in the room available as well. To his credit, he checked without too much fuss, but you might need to explain that you want to go through the doors without a ticket and turn right instead of left.