We’re all familiar with the idea of the Grand Tour, where young elite men were sent to finish their education touring the great classical and Renaissance sites of Italy. This had been going on since the mid-17thc but the Napoleonic Wars bought most European travel to a halt. Suddenly many people turned to a home tour and began to discover their way round Britain instead.
And now it wasn’t just rich young men who went touring. So did quite a few women, including Anne Rushout, a wealthy aristocrat and amateur artist, whose life I looked at a few months ago. She sketched her way through north Wales as well as keeping an account on her journal. It wasn’t her first trip to the principality, nor was she a rare example of a female tourist.
As Charles Heath noted in The Excursion down the Wye from Ross to Monmouth … (1795) “Whether it was owing to the unsettled state of affairs on the Continent, which rendered travelling, if not unsafe, at least disagreeable; or to that well founded curiosity which excites the Man of Observation to survey its attractions, certain it is that Monmouthshire has …been honoured with a very large share of public notice.”
And of course it wasn’t just Monmouthshire. An enthusiasm for discovering the remoter parts of the British Isles had been going for quite while too as I showed in an earlier post . It was coupled with the “discovery” of picturesque scenery, as well as the Romantic movement and the Celtic Revival in Britain. It also helped that in the remoter parts of Wales many people spoke no or little English which meant there was all the excitement and charm of being somewhere that was “foreign” without the difficulty of crossing the Channel.
The first evidence we have of Anne visiting Wales is in 1802 when she was 34. There is a manuscript account of her trip thought to be in private hands but as far as I’m aware unseen recently and certainly not published anywhere. One of her paintings from the trip was sold at Christies in 2009 and is fascinating because it shows a scene on the Wye with what I think is a “river cruise” boat which took two days to meander from Chepstow to Ross. She later recorded Goodrich Castle on its promontory overlooking the river Wye, on a hand painted teacup.
She went again, this time to mid-Wales in 1805 and this time we have a partial account of her itinerary, although only a small part has been written up by Geoffrey Bright in the 1958 Transactions of the Radnorshire Society while the rest is in private hands or missing. But you get a sense of the difficulties early tourists/ travellers faced from this note of one 15 mile journey which took 7 hours by carriage.
We quitted Hafod and entered upon the most frightful road that can be imagined… all the way was dreadful, steep pitches and frightful precipices with torrents running in all directions.
At last the road became so bad that we began to despair of getting on at all and in one place the carriage was set fast between the rocks, one horse was thrown down and another taken out. At last, by mere dint of pulling, our horses got it up. A Welch drover came by who told us we were then six miles from Rhaider, so we sent Edward on for four post horses, a Guide and a lantern. As it began to grow dusk, we continued to walk on, and when it became quite dark waited in the carriage till the Guide came’.
There are no known sketches of other trips to Wales until 1830. That one is recorded patchily in her sketchbooks, which are now at Yale. It makes one wonder if she had several sketchbooks on the go at the same time because several places are not included at all, and the order of others is erratic.
The north Wales she visited was very different to the one she had first seen at the turn of the century. Massive infrastructure projects, many by Thomas Telford were opening up much faster communication routes not only along the coast but also into Snowdonia, and it seems Anne was interested in seeing and sketching them.
Anne was 62 at the time and began her trip from her home at Wanstead in Essex going through the Midlands and making her first recorded stop at the relatively newly built mansion and pleasure grounds of Alton Towers, now home to the famous theme park.
The 15th Earl of Shrewsbury had begun work on his gothic fantasy house to replace the existing Alton Castle in about 1801, a rare major building project in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, although he couldn’t move in until 1814. It was really only at that point that work started on laying out extensive formal gardens which were even more fantastic in the original sense of the word. The earl died in 1827 and at the time Anne visited, his nephew the 16th Earl still had not moved his principal seat to Alton, although he carried on extending the garden. Only a fire at Heythrop his other main residence caused him to relocate to Alton in 1831 and to call in Pugin to further extend the mansion.
The gardens were formally opened to the public to help defray expenses as early as 1839, but, unless she was connected in some way to the Talbot family, Anne would have seen the gardens in the same way as Jane Austin characters, where respectable visitors could ask to be let in or shown round tipping the housekeeper or gardener for the privilege. She did three double page sketches taken from one side of the valley.
She reached Liverpool and sketched the city from the other side of the busy Mersey, before visiting Birkenhead and then Chester.
The first place recorded in Wales is Gwrych Castle which looks fairytale like surrounded by forest and set against the mountains but her sketches did not manage to convey its huge size. It had been built between 1812 and 1822 by Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh who must have had flights of medieval fancy. He had long wanted a castle and with the fall of Napoleon in 1814 travelled to France, Italy and even Egypt seeking inspiration. He inherited his mother’s family’s ancestral seat at Abergele, then an ancient, rambling house ripe for rebuilding. Large parts were finished by 1825 when he married Lady Emily Lygon, daughter of the 1st Earl of Beauchamp but he carried on adding to the castle right up until his death in 1861.
Anne had relatives who lived not far away and she called on the couple, noting that he was “a most good natured and intelligent man [and] building a most curious house which he took great pleasure in showing us.” Later he “took us on a most beautiful walk, the scenery there is perfectly delightful… Afterwards we took sketches which interested Mr Hesketh very much.”
After the usual ups and downs Gwrych fell on hard times in the post-war period, then still harder ones ending up being asset-stripped and badly vandalised. The story of its rescue is as much a fairy tale as the building itself and since 1997 the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust have been battling first to acquire and then to undertake a massive conservation programme. They seem to be succeeding and their website is an inspirational read for everyone involved in trying to protect and restore historic landscapes and buildings, although opinions are divided over it being used as a site for I’m a Celebrity…
Anne carried along the coast road to Conwy where Thomas Telford’s suspension bridge, only built in 1826, the same time that Hesketh was beginning work at Gwrych, was the centre of attention.
They went on to another of Telford’s recent engineering marvel in north Wales: the Menai Bridge.
Begun in 1819 it was the world’s first major suspension bridge and had only opened in 1826. Anne sketched it before crossing and visiting the castle at Beaumaris, and later the local copper mines in the Parys Mountains which were also something of a tourist attraction.
From Anglesey the party must have continued to Caernafon before turning inland and heading for Snowdonia along the road through the Llanberis Pass which had only been completed in 1828. Before that the intrepid traveller could only take a carriage partway, before having to take a boat up the lake.
Although there are no sketches of Caernarfon there is one of the early 13thc Dolbadarn Castle which stands on a rocky knoll overlooking the waters of Llyn Padarn.
Its ruined state and romantic situation made it a popular destination for painters interested in Sublime and Picturesque landscapes while the inn nearby was a starting point for an ascent of Snowdon where tourists could hire a guide for 7 shillings and a pony for another 5 to take them up.
After passing along the new road through the Pass of Llanberis – seen below in contemporary painting by David Cox…
… Anne’s next stop was where she painted Snowden itself “from the garden at Capel Curig” but doesn’t give a clue as to where the garden was or who it belonged.
My internet sleuthing didn’t supply the answer but with many thanks to the encyclopaedic knowledge of Glynis Shaw of the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust, I now know it was Plas y Brenin – which is now the National Outdoor Centre – but was then the Capel Curig Inn – where building work began in 1798 for Lord Penrhyn.
It was not a private house but a replacement for a small existing inn which acted as a post house where horses could be exchanged. From surviving travellers reports the original inn would not have done well on Trip Advisor. “It was “a miserable hovel” with “apartments of terrible aspect, it seems a place for murder, bloody sheets and thieves!!” And the food was no better “We got here some eggs, bacon and dreadfully bad new ale. They told us they had some dried goat, but though the house was rather famous for this species of food, we declined having any.”
So perhaps its no wonder that Lord Penrhyn commissioned Benjamin Wyatt, a well known London architect who already had the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and large extensions to Apsley House to his credit, to do something better.
Wyatt’s brief was to design a larger and more impressive building, with a private section for Penrhyn himself, but mainly to help satisfy the accommodation needs of the increasing number of tourists attracted by the rugged beauty of Snowdonia.
About half a mile off the main Shrewsbury to Holyhead road, along which coach services ran to London from the 1820s, it has some of the best views of Snowdon, over Llyniau Mymby.
The new Capel Curig Inn quickly became a popular stopping-off point Anne’s name is in the visitors book and her diary relating to the trip is apparently in Senate House Library of London University.
As an account of another trip in the local paper, The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality, for July 31st 1828 shows she was one of a constant stream of travellers who passed by, walked in the gardens, admired the view, took refreshment and stayed overnight.
The gardens were not actually that extensive. After all they could hardly compete with the view. They were described in 1816 as “very narrow, and contain only a gravel walk with a few flower beds on each side, but from its length and number of lauristinuses, roses etc, with which it is filled, it has on the whole a very agreeable appearance”
There are more descriptions and reviews of the new inn and its gardens, not all that favourable – perhaps because the expectations of tourists had been raised in the intervening years – on the Sublime Wales website.
Passing Swallow Falls, another famous picturesque beauty spot that attracted artists they called on Lord Gwydir at Gwydir Castle where she sketched the view from the garden, but not, as far as we know, the house itself or its grounds.
That’s a great pity on several counts because Gwydir is one of the finest Tudor houses in Wales and has Grade 1 listed gardens.
Situated near Llanrwst in the Conwy Valley, Gwydir had, when Anne visited, only recently passed by marriage along with the title to the Willoughby de Eresby family. Their main seat was [and still is] Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire but they used Gwydir as a summer residence from 1828.
They were in the process of investing a lot of money in the gardens employing Charles Barry who, amongst other things, created a knot garden in the form of a Tudor Rose in the courtyard. These alterations were made to extensive formal Tudor and Stuart periods gardens. There remain two 16th century arches, with associated walls and terraces, and many fine early trees, including fourteen pre-1700 yews and three surviving Cedars of Lebanon from the original twelve said to have been planted in honour of Charles I’s wedding to Henrietta Maria in 1625.
Anne “walked over the bridge built by Inigo Jones and walked up a steep hill to the chapel belonging to the Gwydir family. It was very old and curious once painted inside entirely with archangels and angels on either side… the gold work there was quite astonishing. The date of it was 1613.”:
Having taken in the surroundings she “descended to see the house which is very old fashioned and curious. There is a great deal of carved wood … the drawing room has lately had a good deal done to it … the flower garden is exceedingly pretty and in much better order than the house.”
Gwydir remained with the family until 1921 when it was stripped and sold. A disastrous fire followed and dereliction set in. Luckily it found new owners in the 1990s who have painstakingly restored it and bought it back to life. Their website tells the story.
From Gwydir Anne went to stay with her cousin Charlotte Myddleton at Chirk Castle on the Welsh/Shropshire border which meant passing through Llangollen, home of Lady Eleanor Butler, and Sarah Ponsonby, better known as the Ladies of Llangollen, who lived at Plas Newydd.
Anne was something of a bluestocking – well read, independent of thought and action. She had paid several visits to the pair on previous trips to Wales, and was probably one of their wide circle of correspondents although as far as I am aware there is nothing from them in her commonplace book [now in Lewis Walpole Library at Yale].
But this visit would have been a sad occasion, because Lady Eleanor had died the previous summer and, it would also be the last time she would see Sarah Ponsonby for she was to die the following year.
There is no surviving sketch of Plas Newydd their extraordinary house , nor of Telford’s nearby Pontcysyllte Aqueduct over the Dee completed in 1806, but there is a view of Castell Dinas Brân which rises steeply just outside the town.
From Llangollen it was presumably back home.
As I said in my earlier post Anne is not a great artist – as any comparison with the paintings by other artists makes clear – but she is competent and her work is, I’m sure, typical of many of the women of her class. She was clearly interested in the modern world as well as the picturesque landscape and its a great pity that her diary is not more easily accessible so that her thoughts could accompany her sketches. I know there are several people who have begun working on her journals and carrying out other research but maybe one day somebody will come along and assist them or even take Anne on as a PhD project. I think she deserves it.