A few months ago I wrote about the change in attitudes to ‘wilderness’ and ‘untamed’ landscapes in the 18thc in a post concentrating on the Lake District. This week I want to turn to Wales which became another 18thc scenic landscape ‘discovery’.
In the main, up until the mid-18thc, the principality had largely been considered remote and inaccessible to travellers, especially English ones. No-one was interested in, or went to, ‘wild places’ so why should they go to Wales? The answer was provided by Thomas Gray in his poem The Bard written in 1757 about the conquest of Wales by Edward I in the 13thc whch effetively extinguished Welsh independence. Gray researched medieval history and literature and consequently The Bard – albeit rather long-winded and flowery to modern ears – helped overturn ignorance and formed one of the foundations of both the Romantic movement and the Celtic Revival in Britain.
This new appreciation of landscape was part of the revival of interest in both British and specifically Welsh history. Just as the British ‘discovered’ their Saxon roots so the Welsh ‘discovered’ their supposed links to the ancient Britons. It led in 1751 to the foundation of The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion [from ‘cyn-frodorion’ or ‘earliest natives’]. Antiquarians began seeking out historic sites and ruins, whilst ‘tourists’ sought out ‘sublime’ experiences in Snowdonia and other mountainous areas, to rival those of the Alps. It all helped ensure that Wales became part of the itinerary of many British landscape painters.
So where did this all this start? We could go back to the mediaeval chronicler Gerald of Wales, or the early antiquarian William Camden, but generally these early writers were more concerned with ancient monuments and history than landscape. In terms of an aesthetic appreciation of the scenery, however, there seems to be little evidence before some letters from the 18thc cleric Thomas Herring,
Herring was Bishop of Bangor [and later became Archbishop of York and then Canterbury] and he wrote to friends about his travels between 1737-41 through the remoter and most inhospitable parts of his diocese which included Snowdonia. Since most 18thc bishops, especially of poor rural dioceses, were complete absentees the fact that Herring visited North Wales at all was rare enough, but his correspeondence, finally published in 1770 [but unfortunately not available on-line] showed how much he appreciated the natural beauty that he saw on his “very romantic and most perilous journeys” and was in awe of it.
“The face of it is grand and bespeaks the magnificence of nature, and enlarged my mind so much, in the same manner as the stupendousness of the ocean does, that it was some time before I could be reconciled to the level counties. Their beauties were all of the littlest; and , I am afraid, if I had seen Stowe in my way home, I should have thrown some unmannerly reflections upon it; I should have smiled at all the little niceties of art, and beheld with contempt an artificial ruin, after I had been agreeably terrified with something like the rubbish of creation…”
“At our feet ran a stream as clear as crystal, but large and foaming, over vast stones rudely thrown together, of unequalled magnitudes, and over it to a wooden bridge which could scarce be said to made by the hand of art…. I proceeded in this magnificent place, till our prospect was closed, though much illuminated , by a prodigious cataract mountain, that did, as it were, shut the valley. All these images put me much in mind of Poussin’s drawings, and made me fancy myself in Savoy at least, if not nearer Rome…” [Herring, Letter 3.11.1738]
But Herring was exceptional. and thee are no other contemporaray descriptions. Indeed, as you might have guessd from the images so far, even the first artist that I can find recording the Welsh landscape is Richard Wilson (1712-82). Born in Montgomeryshire Wilson began by following a conventional early career as a portraitist, whilst only dabbling with landscapes as a sideline. His picture of the ruins of Caernarfon Castle, was painted before he followed the usual artists’ route to Italy in 1750, but, as you can see, he had already started romanticizing. In fact Caernarfon was a busy port, rather than the virtually deserted backwater he portrays, so perhaps he was already ahead of the game demonstrating the presence of the ancient past in contemporary Wales.
On his return from Rome in 1757 Wilson not only churned out real or imaginary classical Italianate scenes, which he called “good breeders” but, more significantly from our point of view, he played a pioneering role in the artistic discovery of his native principality, even if sometimes he made it bear a striking resemblance to Italy.
In the very early 1770s, he had a number of major commissions, notably from his distant cousin, Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, a Tory MP and owner of Wynnstay near Wrexham. This was one of the largest and most important 18thc landscape parks in Wales, although the original house was rebuilt in the 19thc.
The Victorian mansion has now been turned into apartments but the grounds still retain many of its historic features many of which are thought to have been commissioned by Sir Watkin from Richard Woods and Capability Brown. Sir Watkin had been on the Grand Tour in 1768 and clearly had an eye for a good landscape, and he invited Wilson to stay and paint at Wynnstay.
Sir Watkin was a great supporter of Welsh artists and was proud to promote Wales and Welsh culture to others. In addition to his support of Richard Wilson he welcomed Paul Sandby, often known as “the father of English landscape painting”, to Wynnstay in 1770 and 1771 and paid him five shillings a time for drawing lessons, although Sandby charged two guineas a day extra for the inconvenience of leaving London!
Sandby later spent 3 weeks travelling with Sir Watkin through the mountains of North Wales, and then in 1773 he went touring in South Wales, this time with Sir Joseph Banks who had recently returned from his circumnavigation of the world with Captain Cook, and was now exploring nearer home.
These trips, one of the first sketching tours of the Welsh landscape, led to Sandby publishing two volumes of aquatint engravings: XII views in Wales in aquatinta from drawings taken on the spot in south-Wales in 1775 and a similar set of views in north Wales, dedicated to Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, in 1776. These were influential in the development of Wales as a destination for artists, as were two more series of aquatints of Welsh subjects published in 1777 and 1786. Many of these can be found by searching the British Museum Collections web pages.
Another early exponent of Wales and its scenery was Anthony Devis who featured in other recent posts. Devis began working in Wales in 1755, and exhibited atmospheric views, often in charcoal on coloured paper, drawn mainly in the valleys of South Wales at the Free Society of Artists shows in the early 176os.
The next influential writer was Thomas Pennant, of Downing Hall in Flintshire where he had “laid open the natural beauties of the place”. A keen gardener, naturalist and antiquarian Pennant had already toured Scotland and the remoter parts of England, and published accounts of some of these journeys, when he turned his attentions back to his homeland. The first volume of Tour in Wales was published in 1778 and it was followed by a Journey to Snowdon (part one in 1781 and part two in 1783). Although mainly concerned with the usual antiquarian pre-occupations of history and monuments there were also comments on natural history and botany and the occasional glimpse into his appreciation of the landscape.
At Pont Gilan, for example, he noted: “beyond this point the valley acquires new beauties: the road runs at the foot of a brow, of a stupendous height, covered with venerable oaks, which have kept their stubborn station, amidst the rudest of rocks, which every now and then show their grey and broken fronts, amidst the deep verdure of the foliage of trees which so strangely find nutriment amongst them. The growth of the oak, in forcing its roots downwards frequently rends these vast strata, whose fragments appear scattered at the base, of most amazing sizes. The whole scenery requires the pencil of Salvator Rosa; and here our young artists would find a fit place to study that great painter of wild nature.”
And at Cader Idris… “the day proved so wet and misty, that I lost enjoyment of the great view from the summit. I could only see the spot I was on was a rude aggregate of strangely disordered masses. I could at interval perceive a stupendous precipice on one side where the hill recedes inwards, forming a sort of theatre, with a lake at the bottom… this was so excellently spread by the admirable pencil of my countryman Mr Wilson.”
Then in 1782 Wales became the subject of the first of William Gilpin’s famous travelogues: Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, which was based on his journeys in 1770. It opens with a section about why people travel, before explicitly suggesting visiting an area simply to examine its scenery “by the rules of picturesque beauty.” “Observations of this kind”, he continued, “have the better chance of being founded in truth, as they not the offspring of theory but are taken immediately from the scenes of nature as they arise.”
And after that Wales was well and truly on the tourist trail…
More about this in a later post…