J. M. W. Turner, The Great Fall of the Reichenbach, in the Valley of Hasle, Switzerland, 1804
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Turner painted the Reichenbach Falls before they became famous as the setting for Sherlock Holmes' apparent death at the hands of Professor Moriarty. But to what extent were they 'famous' already, before Conan Doyle visited the falls in 1893, or even before Turner arrived in 1802? The Tate has a sketch by Turner made earlier, in the mid 1790s, after a painting by John Robert Cozens. The Tour through Switzerland made in 1776 by connoisseur Richard Payne Knight, accompanied by Cozens, influenced later itineraries and it was around this time that the Reichenbach Falls became a destination for early Alpine tourists. In Leslie Stephen's book on the Alps, The Playground of Europe, he refers to the way geographical features become cultural destinations. Looking back to geologist Gottlieb Sigmund Gruner's Die Eisgebirge des Schweizerlandes (1760) he notes that the Reichenbach Falls had already become an 'object of interest', separated off from the surrounding landscape, whereas the Rigi (a mountain now particularly associated with Turner) was still a mere 'phenomenon of nature'.
We visited the Reichenbach Falls on a misty day last month and, as you can see from my photographs, it is still an impressive landmark. Here is Conan Doyle's description in 'The Final Problem'.
It is indeed, a fearful place. The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour. We stood near the edge peering down at the gleam of the breaking water far below us against the black rocks, and listening to the half-human shout which came booming up with the spray out of the abyss.
The Reichenbach Falls can easily be reached from the village of Meiringen (although to keep Dr Watson away from the action, Conan Doyle made the distance further). There in the village, next to the Sherlock Holmes museum, Leslie Stephen is commemorated in a dramatic statue. He looks full of energy, very different from how I usually think of him, as Virginia Woolf's bearded Victorian father, the model for Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. Up at the falls there is a plaque, put up in 1991, commemorating the centenary of Holmes's encounter with Moriarty. It refers to what Conan Doyle later decided had really happened on that narrow path: 'At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891.' Thus fiction changes how we experience a landscape. The lure of particular places is often down to their association with stories and myths, but here we can trace the process over the course of just a few years - from the Reichenbach Falls' preexisting fame, which brought Conan Doyle here in the first place, to their dramatic role in an event that shocked the reading public, and then, after Holmes was brought back from the dead, their subsequent fascination as a site of speculation, which shows no signs of dying away.