Tag Archives: Thomas Gray

Pre-Romanticism: Ruined Abbeys, Erotic Dreams and Strange Visions

29 Oct

In this post we’ll explore Pre-Romanticism through its main themes and occupations; ruined abbeys, erotic dreams and strange visions. There’s a strong Gothic vibe in early Romanticism; dreams, visions, vampires and hallucinations, and artists sought inspiration in myths and ballades of the past, Celtic and Germanic fairy tales, and everything that evoked the spirit of the Middle Ages. Compared to the flashy second generation of Romanticism, art of Pre-Romanticism is shrouded in thousands of veils, in it an insurmountable mountain, a misty lake in a desolate countryside, it’s a dream of Albion. Pre-Romanticism is a gentle plant that grew from the imagination of the people of the North; from their gloom soothed by the roaring of the sea and their melancholy which enabled them to look within and to transcend the darkness of their surroundings.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794

Romanticism developed very early in British art and literature. In the same years when fashion and interior design were ruled by Rococo exuberance, and visual arts were dominated by Classical ideas imposed by the French painter David, a new sensibility was arising from the mists of Albion. Strongly opposing the cold and rational age of Enlightenment, artists of the new generation, represented by Thomas Gray, James Macpherson and Ann Radcliffe in literature, and Henry Fuseli, Turner and William Blake in visual arts, praised imagination and strong feelings, and advocated the return to nature. ‘Sturm und Drang’ in German literature and writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were also very important in creating the new spirit.

These artists found inspiration in everything otherworldly, dreamy and shrouded in mystery. All of a sudden, the artistic and literary stage of Europe was swamped with vampires and other ‘dreadful creatures’ (a tendency further developed by Mary Shelley). Proneness towards melancholy, strange visions, thoughts of death and transience, sleep and dreams, old ruins, long forgotten castles – all these themes suddenly pervaded the artistic landscape. Interest in the cold and gloomy North revealed to early Romanticists the beauty of old Icelandic sagas, the charms of the Scottish bard, the allure of dark Germanic, Celtic and Scandinavian legends and fairy tales, and drew their attention to everything ‘Gothic’; sombre, gruesome, frightening, because that’s how the folkloric and historical legacy of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages was perceived as.

Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794

Old ruins

As I’ve already mentioned, old ruins were an interesting subject for painters to incorporate in their sublime landscapes, and for poets they served as starting points for contemplation about life and death. William Wordsworth wrote verses inspired by the famous Tintern Abbey, and J.M.W. Turner captured its delicate beauty overgrown with ivy a few time. We could say that this ‘old ruin’, a symbol of some other times, was a muse for early Romanticists. You can easily picture a young man resting in the shadow of the Abbey, thinking of his lovely maiden, treasuring a lock of her hair, and thinking of the day they will finally be together. You can also imagine the Abbey in the stillness of the night, above it the shining full moon and stars. Ruins were popular because they were perceived as ‘pictures of despair and destruction’, further developing the sensibility of sublime.

1790-91-henry-fuseli-the-nightmareHenry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1790-91

Erotic Dreams

Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote that ‘Gleams from remote world visit the soul in sleep’, and the main focus of Fuseli’s art lies in dreams. He believed they were the most unexplored areas in art, which isn’t really a surprise because, firstly – how do you paint dreams, and secondly – until Romanticism there wasn’t really a concept of artist as a genius, a visionary, and because they were considered mere craftsmans, themes of their artworks were limited.

This isn’t the original version of this painting. Due to the popularity of the original, painted in 1781, Fuseli painted a few more versions and this is one of them. It shows a young woman sleeping and experiencing a nightmare. In a restless sleep, her arms are stretching, her golden ringlets falling down. Poor maiden, as helpless in her sleep as a virgin from one of Hammer production vampire films. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. Fuseli took inspiration from Germanic folkloric beliefs that demons and witches posses people who sleep alone. Lady’s pose was considered rather erotic when it was painted, but Fuseli was known to have had a collection of erotic drawings that might have served as an inspiration.

Still, what’s so appealing about this painting isn’t the composition or the colours, but its ability to anticipate the hidden and restless world of nightmares and the unconscious.

1790s ‘The Wandring Moon.’ Watercolour by William Blake (1757-1827).

William Blake (1757-1827), The Wandering Moon, Watercolour, 1816-20

Strange Visions

Eternity is in love with the creations of time.‘ (W.Blake)

Ah, finally, the visionary, the revolutionary-mystic, the rebel, the pot-head of Romanticism – William Blake, important for poetry and paintings alike.

Madame de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine),writes that people living in the North were more prone to melancholy, at the same time naming it as the reason that made their imaginations more vivid, more restless than it was with nations in the South. I’ll quote the book: ‘The people of the North were less engaged in pleasure than in its opposite sensation; and this rendered their imagination more fertile: the prospects of nature had almost unbounded influence over them; but it affected them as it appeared in their climate, always dark and gloomy.‘ (Madame de Staël, The Influence of Literature Upon Society, Volume 1, page 271)

William Blake is one of the finest examples of fertile imagination of the people of the North, as his poems and drawings were not only original and unique, but also very strange, mystic and flamboyant in terms of colours and ideas. His lonely and unreachable imagination produced drawings and watercolours that perfectly combine themes from Milton, Dante and the Bible, made with a prophetic vigour in strong and bitter colours. As an example of Blake’s wonderful imagination I’ll mention his portrayal of a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell, Canto V, where he shows two sinful lovers, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, painted in deep blue and luminous white greyish shades. Namely, Dante reserved the second circle of hell for sinful lovers; Cleopatra, Paris, Helena, Tristan, Paolo and Francesca, who are carried away by the wind as a symbol of passion that guided them during their lives. Blake here used the motif of wind and created the composition as strange as it is imaginative.

1824-27-william-blake-the-lovers-whirlwind-francesca-da-rimini-and-paolo-malatestaWilliam Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

I love Pre-Romanticism, the mystic gloominess of it, and I have to stress this point again – it is characteristic for Northern nations; mainly England and Germany. While the playful, sweet and flowery aesthetic of Rococo ruled the court of France, British artists had already dipped their fingers in the sea of Pre-Romanticism, and later elaborated it to the finest detail because they naturally had an eye for wild and untamed nature, picturesque seashores, lovely gardens lush with greenness. Even Thomas Gainsborough added a slight romantic sensibility in his portraits by painting nature as a background, whereas his French peers preferred a salon to showcase their wealth and luxury. Even with painters such as John Constable who are a tad more traditional with landscapes, you see that romantic spirit. In his painting ‘Stonehenge’ he chose to capture the old, mysterious pagan ruins, and the wild majestic sky over them. I think with Romanticism and British art and literature, it was just a question of time when it would raise to the surface, but it was a sensibility deeply woven into the art of the island. I’ll quote Madame de Stael again, it’s a bit long citation, but I couldn’t resists adding it because it perfectly captures the spirit of Pre-Romanticism.

Melancholy poetry is that which accords best with philosophy. Depression of spirits leads us to penetrate more deeply into the character and destiny of man, than any other disposition of the mind. The English poets who succeeded the Scots bards, added to their descriptions those very ideas and reflections which those description ought to have given birth to: but they have preserved, from the fine imagination of the North that gloom which is soothed with the roaring of the sea, and the hollow blast that rages on the barren heath, and, in short, every thing dark and dismal, which can force a mind dissatisfied with its existence here, to look forward to another state. The vivid imagination of the people of the North darting beyond the boundaries of a world whose confines they inhabited, penetrated through the black cloud that obscured their horizon, and seemed to represent the dark passage to eternity.‘ (page 271)*

1835-stonehenge-john-constable-1John Constable, Stonehenge, 1835

If you survived reading this very long post, I congratulate you!

Romantic Welsh Landscapes – Paul Sandby and Richard Wilson

29 May

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)

1775-1800. A Welsh Sunset River Landscape by Paul Sandby, showing rather better weather than most 'sublime' landscapes1775-1800. ‘A Welsh Sunset River Landscape’ by Paul Sandby

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

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.

1800. Paul Sandby - Pont-y-Pier near Llanroost, Denbighshire1800. Paul Sandby – Pont-y-Pier near Llanroost, Denbighshire

In Romantic art, nature—with its uncontrollable power, unpredictability, and potential for cataclysmic extremes—offered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought.

1789. Paul Sandby - Conway Castle1789. Paul Sandby – Conway Castle

1800-1809. Paul Sandby - Welsh Mountain Study1800-1809. Paul Sandby – Welsh Mountain Study

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.

1770s Richard Wilson - Caernarvon Castle1770s Caernarfon Castle – Richard Wilson

1770-71. Richard Wilson - Dinas Bran from Llangollen1770-71. Dinas Bran from Llangollen – Richard Wilson

1766. Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, Richard Wilson1765-67. Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle – Richard Wilson

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.

1774. The Bard - Thomas Jones1774. The Bard – Thomas Jones

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.

Romantic and Picturesque Tintern Abbey – Its Effect on Art and Poetry

29 Nov

Ruins of the Tintern Abbey situated in Southeast Wales inspired many poets and artists, from Wordsworth and J.M.W. Turner to Lord Tennyson and Ginsberg. Once representing the architectural developments of the day, Tintern Abbey was abandoned and doomed to solitude and decay, but the spirit of this once magnificent Abbey, resistant to transience, still resides, woven into these old stone walls.

Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-18511794. Ruins of West Front, Tintern Abbey by J. M. W. Turner

Tintern Abbey is situated on the Welsh bank of river Wye; a river which forms the border between Monmouthshire in Wales and Gloucestershire in England. It was founded by Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow on 9th May 1131. Tintern Abbey was the first Cistercian monastery founded in Wales, and only the second to be founded in all of Britain.The present-day remains of Tintern is a mixture of building works covering a 400-year period between 1131. and 1536, thought very little of the first buildings remained. Abbey was mostly rebuilt in the 13th century in the ‘Geometrical‘ style; first period of the Decorative Style; part of English Gothic Architecture. Tintern Abbey, as it is seen today, represented the architectural developments of its day, being built of Old Red Sandstone in a typical Cistercian ground plan which is charasterised by a cruciform plan and a rectangular shaped apse. The Abbey put Roger Bigod, 5th Earl of Norfolk’s coat of arms in the glass of the east window in token of gratitude as he was a generous benefactor in the rebuilding of the Abbey.

However the Abbey was disestablished in 1536. under the reign of Henry VIII. His ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries‘ ended the monastic life in England and Wales that was cherished in this Abbey particularly for more than four hundred years. Valuables from the Abbey were sent to the Royal Treasury and the lead from the roof was sold. Decay of the buildings had begun.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-18511794. The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window by J. M. W. Turner

No one has shown interest in the history of the site in the next two centuries and it wasn’t until the mid eighteenth century that the interest arose again, as it was popular to visit ‘wilder’ parts of the country. Wye Valley, where the Tintern Abbey is situated, is particularly known for its picturesque and romantic landscapes, and was often visited by ‘romantic‘ tourists; poets, writers, painters and other ‘romantic fanatics‘. The Abbey was overgrown by ivy which was considered especially romantic.

In 1745. John Egerton, later Bishop of Durham, started taking his friends on boat trips down the valley. The area, however, became more widely known following the publication of works by the poet Thomas Gray who traveled throughout Britain in search of picturesque landscapes and ancient monuments which he did found, in places such as Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland. These elements were not particularly valued in the 18th century, at the peak of the Enlightenment era. Gray’s writing on these subjects, and the Gothic details in works such as Elegy and The Bard, foreshadow the Romantic movement. Lake Poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth taught people to value picturesque, Gothic and sublime. Some of the most famous poets, writers and artists of the day made the pilgrimage to the great sights such as Tintern Abbey, and were inspired by its romantic and magical sensibilities.

Wordsworth in particular was captivated by the area, having written a famous poem ‘Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey‘ or simply ‘Tintern Abbey‘ after a tour that took place July 13th, 1798. In the poem he expresses his fascination not only with Tinter Abbey, but with the River Wye also, and presented his philosophies on nature. Revisiting the natural beauty of Wye filled the poet with a sense of ‘tranquil restoration‘. He felt the ‘divine creativity‘ at these old ruins, gazing at the old red sandstone which changed colours from purple to grey in the sunset.

1790. Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard - Philip James De Loutherbourg1790. Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard – Philip James De Loutherbourg

Tintern Abbey inspired not only poets, but artists too, J.M.W. Turner most notably. Turner painted the Abbey many times, which is unusual as he favored painting seas and ships, but seems like he was powerless against the magical spirit of the old ruins. The wealth of decorative detail displayed in the walls, doorways and archways has surely been inspiration for painters, as it was for poets. Numerous other artists painted the abbey and made engravings, such as William Havell, Edward Dayes and William Henry Bartlet, but the most interesting among them is Philip James De Loutherbourg, a Franco-English painter famous for his landscapes and elaborate stage designs for London theatres.

In 1790. he painted a painting called ‘Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard‘ which is very romantic and melancholic in its sensibilities, but also very dark and nocturnal. A figure is standing in the overgrown ruins of an abbey, identified as Tintern Abbey, contemplating the remnants of an old painting showing the Resurrection. Above the figure of Christ is sundial which casts a long moonlight shadow which, along with the ivy overgrown ruins, old graves and sculls, suggests the imminence of death, but also the possibility of salvation. This painting shows another reason for the popularity of Tintern Abbey; its emotive historical associations with the Protestant Reformation. Many elements of the painting; ambiance itself, ruins of an old abbey, the nocturnal setting, the idea – inability to resist transience, make this painting a Romantic one.

1820s Tintern Abbey by William Havell1804. Tintern Abbey by William Havell

The popularity of Tintern Abbey did not fade in the Victorian era thanks to Lord Tennyson, a much respected Victorian poet, who, inspired by his visit to the ruins of the abbey, wrote a poem ‘Tears, Idle Tears‘ in 1847. He said the convent was ‘full for me of its bygone memories‘, and that the poem was about ‘the passion of the past, the abiding in the transient.‘ Lord Tennyson developed the similar theme as Wordsworth in his poem ‘Tintern Abbey‘ written almost fifty years earlier. The final verse of Tennyson’s poem however reveals the true reason for melancholy and tranquility. It was the unhappy attachment to Rosa Baring, the love of his youth, that provoked such deep emotions.

Tears, Idle Tears

 Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

   Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

   Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken’d birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

   Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!

1794. Edward Dayes, Tintern Abbey & the River Wye1794. Edward Dayes, Tintern Abbey & the River Wye

After inspiring artists and poets, and many other ‘romantic souls‘, old ruins of Tintern Abbey still reside in the picturesque and magical Wye Valley, old walls still change their colour from purple to gray in the sunset, Autumn rains still mourn over those sad ruins, wind still blows through the branches of hawthorn trees, old archways are still adorned by evening shadows in the dusk, moonlight still illuminates the old doorways and the spirit of the past pervades the old Abbey, now enriched with memories of many visits.