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Making space for Turner in Luzern, Switzerland


By Ron Smith


The majestic scenery and clear blue waters of the lake reflect on the MV Brunnen as it comes back to Luzern from a trip down the lake.
The majestic scenery and clear blue waters of the lake reflect on the MV Brunnen as it comes back to Luzern from a trip down the lake.

Luzern is a really bonny town in a beautiful location. It sits at the end, the outflow, of a great lake. Behind it towers the mighty Pilatus mountain (easily accessible by boat, trolley bus, and cable car) while facing it across the lake is the wonderful Rigi mountain.

The outflow of the lake is a mighty river, the Reuss, which, like the lake, is so clean it is blue. The longest arm of the lake points down to the Gotthard Pass, for centuries one of the few ways to reach Italy.

Until the coming of the railways traders and travellers came this way to take a boat down the lake, to continue on over the pass. Luzern was quite a miserable place. Scruffy inns were along the river bank, and travellers just stayed long enough to change horses. It is hard to imagine Luzern like that when you see it nowadays.

Industrialised Britain was the first to create the wealth that resulted in people having the money to go abroad – we invented tourism! Switzerland is so beautiful that it was the most popular place to visit, and Luzern was the firm favourite.

One man could see the potential for tourists and built a hotel at Schwannen Platz (where the lake swans congregate, as they still do today) and is the only one with a view across the lake to the Rigi. It opened in 1835 and he paid to have the lake boats land here, especially the first steam paddle boat in 1837.

Today a fleet of boats, including five majestic elderly paddle steamers, ply the lake.

Luzern at sunset, curving round the end of the lake, with the bulk of the Pilatus mountain as a background.
Luzern at sunset, curving round the end of the lake, with the bulk of the Pilatus mountain as a background.

It was here, in 1802, that the English painter JMW Turner came during a tour to discover dramatic places to paint. The light and shade and scenery captured him, as it has thousands of tourists ever since.

In 1819 the Arts Association was formed in Luzern, and today, 200 years later, it still operates and supports the KKL art museum on the edge of the lake by the railway station. Until the October 13 this year, they have a significant display of Turner’s paintings on display, including works that are rarely seen.

During his many visits to Luzern, he seemed to be incessantly painting the Rigi mountain in many variations of storm, light, wind and rain. His Blue Rigi was purchased by the Tate Gallery for £5.2 million. It shows the Rigi at dawn with the sunlight behind it.

More than 100 paintings of his are on display, the moody Rigi, the dramatic mountain passes, and furious sea pictures are all so well laid out in the purpose-built KKL. This is a black glass, oblong flat-roofed building (personally I don’t like it – but see for yourself when you go there) that is excellently organised to have the space and light to perfectly display works of art. See www.kunstmuseumluzern.ch

A rare survivor, one of Turner’s sketch books, complete, open display in the KKL, Luzern.
A rare survivor, one of Turner’s sketch books, complete, open display in the KKL, Luzern.

Turner was a business man too. He made loads of sketches and watercolours, and one of his sketch books is on display. These sketches were sent back to the UK for his agent to tout around and obtain sales. Turner would then paint them to order.

Luzern is an inspiration. The lake, the old town with its remaining city walls, lion monument, glacier garden and wonderful buildings inspired and continues to inspire many people.

The lake boats are very popular. Turner himself used them a lot to see different landscapes and angles, and today they take you to dozens of lakeside towns and villages, with cable cars or funiculars to the various summits with wonderful views of mountains and lakes. The city itself is always buzzing with a top-class public transport system (hotels give you a Luzern card for free use of public transport in the city area) and free wi-fi is available throughout the city.

One of the main streets leading from the main lakeside railway station is Gotthard Strasse, and here is another oasis of art, the Rosengart Collection. It is housed in an old bank building. Its origin is an interesting story. The late Siegfried Rosengart, an art dealer, gradually acquired paintings and drawings on his own account, and brought his young daughter Angela into the business. The collection grew – purely paintings that they liked themselves, mostly Picasso and Klee. They knew the artists personally.

The marvellous Angela Rosengart explains the way that the art collection grew, and how the Foundation will ensure that it survives intact.
The marvellous Angela Rosengart explains the way that the art collection grew, and how the Foundation will ensure that it survives intact.

Angela decided to form a foundation to keep the collection together and care for it in perpetuity. In 2002 the collection opened its doors and has proved to be very popular. One hundred works of Paul Klee are displayed in the basement, 30 paintings and numerous works on paper by Picasso are on the first floor. There are others by Monet, Renoir, Chagall, Cézanne and many others. It is a remarkable story, and to find out more, visit the gallery, and look at www.rosengart.ch

Luzern has such a lot going for it, and these art exhibitions are the cherry on the cake. You should go there at least once in your life!

The stately old paddle steamer awaits passengers at the quay at Luzern, the large flat roof behind is the KKL art museum.
The stately old paddle steamer awaits passengers at the quay at Luzern, the large flat roof behind is the KKL art museum.

Need to know

From Inverness or Aberdeen KLM flies, via Amsterdam, to Zurich. The airport railway station has direct trains to Luzern, taking 1hr 10mins. For more information see www.luzern.com and the ever helpful people at Swiss Tourism London (www.myswitzerland.com) can help with travel, accommodation and ideas.



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