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With JMW Turner in Honfleur

Match! From Mont Joli, across Honfleur to Pont de Normandie
Match! From Mont Joli, across Honfleur to Pont de Normandie

New to Honfleur?  Let us tell you about a special place we discovered quite by accident on probably our third visit. Drive or walk up Rue Charrière de Grâce, admire the Seine estuary from the Calvary.  You may not realise that you have left Honfleur and are now in Équemauville. Next pop into Notre-Dame de Grâce chapel and admire the many votive offerings, prayers for those who take on the challenge of the sea.

For hundreds of years the chapel has received prayers for sailors starting their perilous journeys, for those lost at sea and those found.  The first chapel was built here in 1023 by  Richard II Duke of Normandy in gratitude for not drowning after a particularly rough voyage. When the Duke’s chapel slipped into the sea in the 17th century, the chapel we see today was built well back from traitorous cliffs.

 Notre-Dame de Grâce, Équemauville by Honfleur
Notre-Dame de Grâce, Équemauville by Honfleur

Ghosts and a resurrection

Fast forward to 1940 and witness an unexpected rebirth. In June 1940 Abbe Montreuil fully expected evacuation so buried the chapel’s rare statue of Our Savour, clasping the globe in his left hand, in a coffin in his garden. When the expected evacuation didn’t happen an informal resurrection was performed.

Notre Dame de Grâce is still central to local seafaring life and the focus of an annual blessing of the local boats at Pentecost.  It feels as though quite a few of the old sailor spirits are hanging around so you may not want to stay long.

Inside Notre Dame de Grace
Inside Notre Dame de Grâce, Équemauville

To Mont Joli with Turner

Back outside, the chapel behind you, take a left.  Then soon left again along Mont Joli. At the end of this short track is one of the best views in Normandy. Joseph Mallord William Turner liked it so much he painted it twice.

Turner had first toured the continent when the 1802 Treaty of Amiens ended the war with France.  His visit to Normandy in 1832 it was his fourth, but possible the first since his father’s death in 1929.  A private, rather inarticulate man, William relied on his father William for companionship and for his help as assistant in his studio.  He lost his mother to the insane asylum as a child, the death of his father in 1929 left him bereft and for the rest of his life he suffered bouts of depression.

One genius, seven watercolours

In 1832 Turner was painting scenes of the river Seine for a book ‘The Rivers of France’ (link to some of the etchings from his paintings here).  On landing in Havre he stretched his brief across the estuary to visit Honfleur.

Honfleur, Normandy from the West c.1832 by Joseph Mallord William Turner, courtesy of Tate Gallery, London
Honfleur, Normandy from the West c.1832 by Joseph Mallord William Turner, courtesy of Tate Gallery, London

His seven Honfleur watercolours are now with the Tate, London, and can been seen online here.  Our sincere thanks to Clive at the Tate for all his help and advice and for kindly agreeing we could post some of the Honfleur paintings on our blog.

Happily there is nothing but joy in these brilliant watercolours. This is of course due to the loveliness of the subject but could also due to his deepening relationship with Mrs Sophia Booth.  Sophia, 25 years his junior, is his affectionate landlady in Margate and he has plans to visit later that year.  They will remain close, if unmarried, for the rest of his life.

Capturing our memories

Take a moment and you will see that these watercolour sketches by Turner are truly superb.  They don’t just capture Turner’s Honfleur, they capture ours.  The centre of this tiny port has somehow survived wars, fire, pirates and tourism with its soul and many buildings intact.

Have a look at this exquisite watercolour sketch of the quayside leading up the old Lieutenancy building, with St Catherine’s church in the background.  Any visitor to Honfleur would recognise this view today. William painted it in 1832. The same buildings rise up.  Traditionally rigged trawlers with red sails still visit Le Vieux Basin. Now lines of chairs and tables under huge umbrellas crowd the quay rather than barrels and boxes. But the old harbour is just as busy with chatter and commerce as it ever was.­

The Lieutenancy Building and surprisingly the Church of Sainte-Catherine at Honfleur, Normandy c.1832, JMW Turner, courtesy of Tate Gallery London
The Lieutenancy Building and surprisingly the Church of Sainte-Catherine at Honfleur, Normandy c.1832, JMW Turner, courtesy of Tate Gallery London

Then we looked again.  St Catherine’s church appears to have slipped down the hill and plonked itself on top of Le Cheval Blanc hotel.  A another view across to Mont Joli has added so many metres it could be a mountain.  ­Turner has capture the essence, then added something of the idealism all visitors add to their memories.

The last word – no words at all

We don’t have any words from Turner about Honfleur, he was not a great letter writer and avoided the verbose artistic explanations of his contemporary Constable.  All we have to go by are seven soft, intuitive, beautiful watercolours.  We think he rather liked it here.

So take a sketchbook with you to the viewpoint at Mont Joli, or down to the Vieux Basin, and join Turner in celebrating this remarkable town.

The Lieutenancy Building and Le Cheval Blanc in the distance - no sign of Church of Sainte-Catherine at Honfleur, Normandy
The Lieutenancy Building and Le Cheval Blanc in the distance by le Vieux Bassin – no sign of Church of Sainte-Catherine as it is up the hill to the left. In Honfleur, Normandy

2 thoughts on “With JMW Turner in Honfleur

  1. I’m loving your website. This has been really interesting having visited Honfleur recently. Also, the sad story of the death wedding on another page will stay with me. I’ve subscribed so I’m looking forward to more posts.

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