‘I feel as old as the Welsh hills that I love
And yet as empty as the sky above
I am as mournful as the stillness of the sea
I am so full of sorrow
Can something set me free?‘ (Nicky Wire)
Wales, Romanticism and Nicky Wire’s lyrics; three things that I love finally amalgamated! Did I really need another reason to write this post?
The first thing one can notice in the painting A Welsh Sunset River Landscape is a rather different atmosphere than in the usual ‘romantic landscapes’. Romanticists were infatuated with sublime; wild landscapes, storms, mists, mountains and old ruins; anything unusual and unexplored fascinated them. This painting, however, shows a rather better wetter; Sandby beautifully captured the end of a sunny day – golden sky, mountains and a castle in the background, boats sailing out of the harbour and a dash of trees in the foreground; a scene awfully picturesque but not even a tad bit sublime.
The already mentioned fascination with wildernesses along with a typical romantic wanderlust, prompted British artists to travel to wild and unexplored areas, such as Wales which was discovered by artists and wanderers even before the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands became hot-spots of Romanticism. Spirit of Romanticism first came to the fore in landscape painting and British artists became infatuated with untamed scenery as early as in the 1760s. The situation was different in France where the Neoclassical style was dominant.
1808. Paul Sandby – Pembroke Castle
Paul Sandby, an English painter, made his first recorded visit to Wales in 1770. He made three trips to Wales all together; in 1770 and 1771 he visited North Wales and painted the famous Caernarfon Castle, and in 1773 he toured South Wales in the company of Joseph Banks, an English botanist and naturalist. His three short journeys resulted in many pencil sketches, watercolours and oil paintings.
Sandby’s paintings represent the very essence of what the artists found inspirational in Wales and its magnificent nature. From castles and old ruins, sublime mountains and lakes of the north, to the splendid coastline, picturesque hills, the meandering waters of the River Wye and the famous Tintern Abbey; the seductive beauty of Wales compelled artists to capture it on canvas. I already wrote a post about Tintern Abbey – ‘Romantic and Picturesque Tintern Abbey – Its Effect on Art and Poetry‘, so don’t be shy, check it out as it is connected with the topic of this post.
‘In Romantic art, nature—with its uncontrollable power, unpredictability, and potential for cataclysmic extremes—offered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought.‘
Apart from artists that found inspiration in Welsh landscapes, there was an artist native to Wales who decided to capture its historic and natural beauties – Richard Wilson. Although tremendously influential in his time, even awarded with the title ‘the father of British landscape painting‘ by John Ruskin, painter Richard Wilson and his beautiful landscape paintings have largely been forgotten. Wilson was born in 1714 in Penegoes, Powys, Wales, as a son of a clergyman. He lived in Italy from 1750-57 and that’s when his interest for landscapes blossomed.
Inspired by the Baroque artists Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, Wilson painted Italian and later Welsh landscapes, in turn inspiring many young artists such as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner who later formed the core of Romanticism in British art. Young Turner searched for the exact spots Wilson had painted from so that he could recapture Wilson’s dramatic work. Constable copied Wilson’s technique of moving focus from the building to the scenery.
Richard Wilson’s painting ‘Snowdon from Llyn Nantille’ is particularly interesting to me, not as much aesthetically as symbolically. In the foreground we can see three boys, three meaningless figures compared to the vast landscape surrounding them, but the background brings us something lavishing – Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. The clouds are drifting around its snow-capped peak, while the lake surface reveals to us the reflection of the mountain. The summit of Snowdon is said to be the tomb of a giant Rhitta Gawr in Welsh folklore. Also, in Arthurian legends, Sir Bedivere threw Excalibur into a lake identified by some as Glaslyn on the slopes of Snowdon. Arthur’s body was later placed in a boat in the same lake to be carried to Avalon.
Another Wilson’s painting, Dinas Bran, shown above, is interesting because it shows the medieval castle Dinas Bran. Again, in Arthurian legends castle Corbenic, the domain of the Fisher King, is identified with a number of places, one of them the Dinas Bran castle itself. If you like the TV series ‘Merlin’ you must have seen the Fisher King’s castle in the episode ‘The Eye of the Phoenix’, one of my favourite episodes. I’m certain that this is not something Wilson had in mind when he painted Snowdon but I just wanted to include these little details because Welsh folklore and Arthurian legends are something that I’m interested in.
And finally, one peculiar painting that fully embodies the spirit of Romanticism – ‘The Bard’, painted in 1774 by Thomas Jones, another native Welsh artist. Once a pupil of Richard Wilson, Jones became a respectable landscape painter in his own right. The Bard is described as a ‘prophetic combination of Romanticism and nationalism‘ as it shows the emerging combination of the Celtic revival and Romanticism. The painting, inspired by Thomas Gray’s poem of the same name, brilliantly captures the mood of the poem. The poem and the painting make a great pair, combining elements of sublime, picturesque and Gothic, they foreshadowed the Romantic movement.