Petworth collection highlight: De Loutherbourg's Storm and Avalanche near the Scheidegg in the Valley of Lauterbrunnen

Storm and avalanche by Philip James de Loutherbourg

Featured in the Grand Tour Christmas and acquired by the 3rd Earl, Philip James de Loutherbourg's Storm and Avalanche near the Scheidegg in the Valley of Lauterbrunnen was thought by critics as the time to be 'one of this artist's very best' works.

Featured in the Grand Tour Christmas and acquired by the 3rd Earl, Philip James de Loutherbourg's Storm and Avalanche near the Scheidegg in the Valley of Lauterbrunnen was thought by critics athe time to be one of this artist's very best” works.

This striking canvas was actually listed as A Waterspout in the Mountains of Switzerland and exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1809. Contemporary reviewers, such as the Cabinet in June of the same year, recalled an earlier version of the theme, which De Loutherbourg had displayed at the Academy in 1804 (now at Tate): “This is a very poetical landscape, one of those subjects possessing grandeur and motion, in which this artist so eminently excels ... it is a very worthy companion to his Avalanche”. The Literary Panorama found the work “truly distressing, and one of this artist’s very best”.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, the Alps – previously considered an ordeal to be endured – started to become a tourist destination in themselves, and the Rhine area began to rival Italy in cultural appeal. De Loutherbourg seems to have visited Switzerland in around 1769-71, again in 1787, and perhaps also in 1802-03. This new-found appreciation of the rugged, raw, remote qualities of the Alps went hand-in-hand with a growing fascination with romantic scenery and the concept of the Sublime: a contemporary aesthetic trend which De Loutherbourg can be seen to be exploring here. Essentially, it seeks to evoke awe, danger and horror in the viewer by dramatising the overwhelming power of nature.

With this wild scene, the artist deliberately departs from the conventional genre of peaceful, pastoral landscapes and instead depicts a landscape in action. Avalanches were a popular pictorial trope by which to conjure up the terror and energy that would become central to the Sublime mode of painting. Here, the violent, monumental, inexorable force of nature – shown through his imaginative treatment of craggy rocks, tumultuous waters, glowering clouds and rushing snow – is strikingly contrasted with the, feeble, frantic figures in the foreground, which appear inconsequential in comparison. 

The theatrical feel of the picture is a hallmark of De Loutherbourg's style; after all he was equally as famous for his secondary career as a set designer. Having emigrated to London in 1771, he produced innovative and illusionistic stage effects for the actor and playwright David Garrick's Drury Lane theatre, which attracted widespread admiration. In 1781, he devised an entertainment called the ‘Eidophusikon’ – a miniature mechanical theatre where spectacular effects were created on a small-scale set by means of lamps, gauzes, mirrors, screens, transparencies, smoke and musical accompaniments.  

J.M.W. Turner was so inspired by this painting, having seen it during his first stay at Petworth in 1810, that he responded by creating his own scene of destruction: The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons (1810, Tate). Around this time, the two artists became neighbours in Hammersmith, and Turner frequented De Loutherbourg's house so often that his wife banned him from visiting, in case the younger artist was trying to steal her husband's secrets! There are obvious parallels between the two canvases – their shared subject, comparable size, and strong diagonal lines slicing across the picture plane  but Turner has eliminated the petrified people, plunging the viewer right into the eye of the storm, and compelling them to experience its devastating energy at first-hand.

To see this piece first-hand why not visit Petworth's Grand Tour Christmas where we've dressed rooms of the house as countries in Europe. You'll find Storm and Avalanche in the Red Room.