G. Schmocker, almost certainly Gottfried Schmocker (b. circa 1854)
“Davos in the Snow”
A pair of landscapes, oil on canvas.
Painted circa 1880
Both signed and inscribed (lower right): G Schmocker / Thun and dedicated (lower centre): Im Andenken v. Deinem Bruder Simon Rosenstein [In Memory of your brother Simon Rosenstein]
Framed size 54 cm. x 72 cm. each.
These striking views of Davos can be dated to about 1880, owing to the size of the town at that period and also to the construction of the Grand Hotel Belvédère, which features in the central right-hand side of one of the oils and whose name is emblazoned on its wall. The hotel was first opened in 1875 at which stage it looked the same as that described here. Later, during the late 1880s much of the Belvédère was rebuilt, emerging as a much larger building that, known today as the Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvédère, can still be seen and enjoyed at Davos.
Before describing the two works in more detail as well as the history of Davos, it is worth discussing the artist who was responsible for these two oils. The identity of G. Schmocker initially posed a mystery. However, we knew that Schmocker came from Thun (as inscribed below each of the signatures) and since the two views date to circa 1880, the artist probably would have been born during the mid nineteenth century. There were at that time several families named Schmocker living in Thun and a number of individuals whose first name began with G. After careful research, the most obvious candidate to emerge is Gottfried Schmocker, who was born at Thun and baptised there on 30th April 1854. He was the son of Rudolf Schmocker and his wife Elisabeth née Furer. Gottfried’s five elder siblings were also born, baptised and raised in Thun; they were Anna (baptised 1842), Margaritha (baptised 1845), Elisabeth (baptised 1848), Rosina (baptised 1849) and Rudolf (baptised 1853).
Little else is known of Schmocker, nor have other of his works come to light except for two slightly smaller views of Davos (both as here signed G. Schmocker), which were sold at auction in Zurich, 7th November 1981. We also know that Schmocker was happy to share his art since this pair of oils were given as a gift to the brother or sister of the late Simon Rosenstein (as inscribed below the two signatures). It is possible that Simon Rosenstein had been a guest at the Grand Hotel Belvédère since it is the only building in these paintings to have its name so clearly featured. Alternatively, Rosenstein may have stayed at another of the Davos guesthouses but more likely he was once a patient at one of the town’s sanatoriums, for which Davos first gained its renown.
Schmocker perfectly captures Davos’s charm when covered in snow and caught in sunlight against a clear blue sky. Set on a broad plain and flanked by all sides by the Swiss Alpine mountains, Davos is the highest town in Europe, standing at 1560 metres above sea level. Davos belongs to Graubünden, a canton originally settled in the thirteenth century by inhabitants of the Reformed Church. Up until the mid nineteenth century Davos was still a quiet Alpine community but thereafter numerous visitors came, firstly because of its curative powers and subsequently to enjoy the winter sports; as a result, Davos expanded to meet the needs of patients and holiday makers.
It had been long considered that owing to its fresh dry air, high altitude as well as its sheltered position that protects against the harsh north and east winds, Davos had special healing properties. The town’s repute as a rest spa was propelled to fame owing to Alexander Spengler (1827-1901), a German physician. Having studied medicine at Zurich University, he settled in Davos in the early 1850s, where he married and began treating the town’s inhabitants, especially the poor. Over the years Spengler discovered that the region’s air and altitude actively protected against tuberculosis, which until the introduction of antibiotics could prove fatal. Spengler’s first winter spa patients arrived at Davos in February 1865. They were a doctor and a book dealer who he treated at the Strela Hotel since it was one of the few of the town’s buildings to have heated rooms. Since they made such a rapid recovery more patients went to Davos, where they were treated by Spengler and his friend and colleague Willem Jan Holsboer (1834-98) at the newly built Spengler-Holsboer Spa. It opened in 1868 as the then largest of the town’s sanatoriums where patients were exposed to the air and made remarkable recoveries. More curative spas were to follow; likewise guest houses were also built within the town to accommodate the influx of visitors.
Among the largest guest houses was the Grand Hotel Belvédère, which Schmocker features in the centre of one of these paintings. Built by J. C. Coester, a German visitor to Davos with the intention of encouraging English visitors and English-speaking guests, the Belvédère was opened in 1875 with its foundation stone having been laid by Mrs Bradshaw Smith from England. Among the more famous guests to have enjoyed the Belvédère were the celebrated British authors Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). Stevenson first went to Davos for his health and in fact finished his most famous novel Treasure Island in Davos. Arthur Conan Doyle, renowned as the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, first went to Davos in 1894 with his wife who was suffering from a lung disease. While she was being treated he took advantage of the snow-covered mountain slopes and was one of the first to use wooden skis recently transported from Norway. When Doyle wrote about his experiences in The Strand magazine, his words immediately popularised the sport and in particular Davos; as a result he captured the imagination of a whole generation of the English elite, many of whom were keen to experience Davos for themselves.
Another significant author to enjoy Davos was the German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) who initially visited the town in May and June 1912 while his wife Katia was a patient at the Schatzalp (now a hotel), which like many other sanatoriums had open terraces where patients could lie out on mattresses to get the full benefit of the air. Built in 1900 in the Art Nouveau style, high up in the mountains overlooking Davos itself, the Schatzalp provided the inspiration and setting for his celebrated novel The Magic Mountain which Mann began working on between 1913 and 1915 and then after a long break returned to once more. It was finally published in 1924 to great acclaim and five years later Thomas Mann received the Nobel Prize for Literature. In addition to famous authors came artists such as the German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) who moved to nearby Frauenkirch in 1918 and during the following year began painting the surrounding snow-covered mountains and steep slopes and whose paintings can now be seen at Davos in the Kirchner Museum.
In addition to the Belvédère, both of Schmocker’s oils portray at centre stage St Johann Church with its distinctive tall spired tower. The oldest part of the church dates back to the thirteenth century while the tower, reaching up into the heavens, was erected in 1481. In 1909, after these paintings had been executed, the nave was rebuilt to accommodate an expanding congregation though the old pulpit from 1719 was retained. Soon after the nave was enlarged, the present stained-glass windows by the Swiss painter Augusto Giacometti (1877-1947) were installed in 1928.
The spire of St Johann is tall and steep, unlike some of the surrounding buildings that we see here which have flat roofs. These were characteristic of Davos architecture, since the flat Alpine roof was designed to help deflect avalanches and also to ensure that the snow that had settled on the roofs did not slide off onto the roads. These needed to be kept clear for the horse drawn sleighs that brought so many visitors to Davos, especially before the town’s first railway station was opened in 1890. Another characteristic of the town, as seen here, was that many of the guesthouses as well as spas or clinics were built with wide windows so as to allow as much sunlight and fresh air in rather than the smaller windows found in other Alpine towns and villages, where the intention was to keep the cold out. In one of the works Schmocker features in the foreground a huntsman with his gun and dog beside him. Just below them are three small log cabins, the lower part of which was made from stone and rubble while the upper part of the walls and roofs were made from wood. They were used to store hay for use by cattle and sheep during the winter months while during the summer months, sheep and cattle were taken up into the higher pastures to graze.
Schmocker’s two oils depict Davos at a time when the town was already known to the outside world but before building development had really begun. By the end of the nineteenth century numerous wealthy European visitors were already benefitting from treatment, rest and recuperation at its spas and sanatoriums. At the same time visitors were enjoying some of its sporting activities and soon Davos was at the forefront in the development of modern winter sports. Among more famous sporting events was the first historic sledge race held at Davos in 1883. To that can be added the Parsenn Derby; this downhill ski race was organized for the first time in 1924 by two local ski clubs - the Davos Ski Club and the Davos English Ski Club, at the suggestion of the Englishman Fred W. Edlin. Ten years later in 1934, the first T-bar ski lift in the world was opened on the Bolgen; it had been designed by the Zurich engineer Ernst Gustav Constam who registered his invention with the patent office in 1930 and when put into practise at Davos, was to revolutionise the sport of skiing. As Schmocker so clearly shows, from the earliest days skaters could enjoy gliding over the frozen water; even today Davos has one of the world’s largest natural ice rinks. 1921 saw the foundation of the Davos Hockey Club which remains one of Switzerland’s finest ice hockey teams. In 1923, Davos presented the first Spengler Cup (named after Alexander Spengler), which is the oldest and most famous international ice-hockey tournaments in the world. Today Davos, like the nearby resort of Klosters, continues to attract visitors from all over Europe from Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton to Emma Thompson and Bono. Some come to attend the World Economic Forum, others to benefit from its healing air while others come to enjoy the wealth of winter sports that Davos has to offer.