(By Elis Gwyn Jones)
Penegoes, in Montgomeryshire, was a pleasant place to live in, and the rectory was an attractive house, especially for children. There was a garden to play in and trees to climb in the orchard, paths to wander along and a choice of three rivers to fish. There were trout to be caught when the smaller streams were swollen after rain, and the big river, as the children called it, attracted fishermen from afar. Richard’s parents were not rich, but not too poor either, and his sister, his brothers and himself would sometimes go to stay with relatives at Leeswood near Mold in Flintshire. When staying there, as at home, the children would have to go to church on Sundays, and their grandfather on their mother’s side had also been a rector.
It was in church during services that Richard first began to make drawings. His mother often said that he had started when very young, and when he grew up he could hardly remember a time when he had not been making some kind of pictures. Perhaps he took a bit of chalk with him to church and discovered that the chalk made clear marks on the dark covers of the old books. Soon he was drawing everywhere and with everything that he could find. All his life he was fond of chalk as a medium for drawing, and when he was a boy in Penegoes he learnt to use charcoal, which he made for himself when the gardener came to trim the willows in the hedges and to make bonfires at the bottom of the orchard on early winter days. With the dark charcoal and the white chalk he could make lifelike drawings of people and animals, and people soon came to know of his ability and to ask him for pictures. One old angler brought the biggest fish he caught in the river Dyfi for him to draw, and the picture was expected to be exactly the same size as the fish, so that the fisherman could use the drawing by “the parson’s boy” as proof of the big fish that he could catch.
Richard discovered some of the possibilities of colour when he borrowed his mother’s box of watercolours. His mother had little time to herself for painting, so that the borrowed paint became his private property that the sister or brothers did not dare to touch. ‘You are lucky to be a parson’s son’, his father would say as he gave him his daily supply of paper for painting, and of course there must have been few houses at the beginning of the eighteenth century, or for many years later, with plenty of paper for children to write or draw. Nobody stopped him from carrying on with his hobby on Sundays, but before he was seven he came to know the strict rules of time and education.
It was not too bad yet as he did not have to go to school, but for years he would go to his father’s study for lessons each morning. In the afternoon he would have work to prepare, then to his father again in the evening to show his written work or to recite what he had learnt. At the age of thirteen he knew a great deal of Greek and Latin, and his father, John Wilson, must have been an excellent teacher. Richard could obviously learn Latin, at least, as easily as he could draw. Many years later in London, someone said of him that he was the only man apart from Sam Foote the actor, who could recite parts of the verse of Horace, the Latin poet, from memory at an instant’s notice and on any subject you cared to mention!
Richard Wilson’s parents were wise to recognise their son’s exceptional talent in art and gave him every encouragement. His father also noticed his interest in Greek and Roman history, and gave him illustrated books describing classical buildings. He was quickly able to cop§ pictures from the books that were better than the originals, and to please his father he made his own pictures to illustrate the poetry of Virgil and Horace. Some interesting influences’ began to appear in these illustrations, and his father was not quite sure that Richard was doing the proper thing in putting a Greek temple from the books into a picture, surrounded by the green trees of the Dyfi valley and with Aran Fawddwy in the background.
At fifteen it was time to think of his future. He laughed at the suggestion that he should become a tax-collecting officer like his eldest brother, and laughed more loudly when it was hinted that he should become a priest like his father, his grandfather and elder brother. In fact everyone knew what career he was destined for, and although he himself would have been quite content to develop his talent at home in Wales, his parents thought it better that he should be given a firm grounding in his, profession. Without training he would have to depend on odd jobs such as painting inn-signs or coats-of-arms on wealthy noblemen’s carriages, and although there were a few schools or academies of painting in London, the usual system for a young man really interested in painting was to become apprenticed to a professional painter. That is how some of the great English painters like Hogarth and Gainsborough had started their careers. That was how it was arranged that Richard Wilson should start, and this meant that he had to go to London.
Money was needed to pay for his apprenticeship and for his food and lodging in London. This was more than his parents could afford, but there was a relation on his mother’s side of the family, Sir George Wynne of Leeswood, who was so interested in his work that he had assured them of his help, whatever career he chose.
Sir George, who knew a man in London prepared to take apprentices, arranged everything. Richard was to go to Thomas Wright, a portrait-painter. So the sixteen-year-old boy from Penegoes in Montgomeryshire set out on the long journey to London. Years later he himself would be teaching young painters coming to him anxiously or confidently at the beginning of their careers, in the same way as he went then to London, accompanied by his father to sign the agreement, to be bound apprentice for six years in the workshop of Thomas Wright.
The square of Covent Garden in the middle of London was a very different place from the village of Penegoes, and there in one of the houses of Bedford Ground the famous painter Samuel Scott lived for some years. He was about ten years older than Richard Wilson, but as fellow-artists living in the same social circle they knew one another well. At the end of the six years apprenticeship, when Scott left Covent Garden, Richard moved into this convenient house. He had to pay a high rent, about forty pounds a year, as much as the wages of two or three ordinary labourers, but for a professional painter of portraits, and that is what he now set out to be, it was important in order to attract suitable patrons that he should have a good address. It was to the house, to the painting-room, that sitters came to have their portraits painted, except when they invited the artist to their homes. Then he might spend days or weeks in a country mansion, combining work with the pleasures of society.
Through his mother’s relatives among the nobility in Flintshire he soon came into contact with families who could commission a portrait painter. Wilson was twenty-five when Robert Myddleton of Chirk Castle wrote in his account book two days before Christmas 1738: ‘Today paid Richard Wilson for a drawing of myself in a gilt frame, £6-16-6. We notice that Robert Myddleton this time paid for a drawing, probably in charcoal and chalk. Another Welshman whose portrait he painted during this period was Richard Owen of Ynysmaengwyn in Merioneth, and the painting is to be seen in the National Museum in Cardiff, which has the largest existing collection of Wilson’s work. By the age of thirty-five he had become friendly with Dr. Ayscough who was tutor to Prince George (late George III) and the Duke of York, and painted a number of portraits of the princes.
Did he sometimes long for the country and for natural scenery? Perhaps, but parts of London were open and rural enough in the eighteenth century. One day, on the bank of the Thames, he was looking towards the North and observing the effect of sunlight on the stonework of the new Westminster bridge, and began to make small studies of the scene in preparation for a larger painting. At the time he must have had in mind the work of Canaletto, who painted a number of similar scenes, and perhaps the work of Samuel Scott, the previous occupant of his house in Covent Garden. He greatly enjoyed depicting the bridge and its reflection in the water, and went into detail with the timber centering under five arches of the bridge, showing that the bridge was new and that building work upon it was not quite finished. On the left of the picture he included Westminster Abbey, and on the right St. Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by some Roman or classical looking buildings, in the distance. There are boats on the river, apparently not busily engaged in work, but rather like romantic ornaments upon the water. A man and a woman stand on the quayside in the foreground, while a ray of brilliant sunlight falls across two other men building or repairing a boat on the bank. He took pleasure also in painting the row of trees on the left, not only because they happened to be there and offered some convenient shadow on one side of the picture, but because he always liked painting trees.
One of the most eminent painters in London at that time was William Hogarth. He made penetrating pictures of the life of the city, showing its evil and satirising its faults, and with some of his friends he had established an academy or school for artists in St. Martin’s Lane. Richard Wilson joined the school in spite of the high fees, but he was earning a good deal of money by then and he liked to attend meetings in his most colourful clothes, especially his waistcoat of green satin with its edging of gold lace. It was a great privilege for him to be invited to contribute two paintings to the newly built Foundling Hospital, especially as Hogarth and Gainsborough were among those who were invited. He painted two circular pictures, one of the new building and the other of St. George’s Hospital, and Hogarth arranged an exhibition of the paintings contributed to the hospital, perhaps the first public exhibition of pictures to be held in London.
He did not stay in London all the time, however, and on one journey he made some splendid pictures of the port of Dover and its castle on the cliff. When we look at one of these pictures today in Cardiff we can enjoy what is perhaps the most thorough picture of the ordinary buildings of his time that he painted in his whole career. This painting is also interesting for the small study in it of an artist sitting in front of the scene and putting it on his canvas. He seems to be in fine clothing, and wearing a three-cornered hat. Beside him there is another figure, perhaps a friend having a leisurely chat. Perhaps Richard Wilson included himself in the picture, to remind himself of the time when he was happily earning his living painting portraits but could still go out to paint landscapes from time to time, while enjoying, as in the picture, the company of a friend.
In 1750 he decided to go to Venice. Everyone today knows something of Italian art and the importance of Italy’s long tradition in painting. Venice was the home of notable painters even as late as the eighteenth century, but it was even more important as a great Italian city providing unlimited opportunity to look at paintings. Richard Wilson knew that it was the custom for a portrait painter, as he himself then was, to go to Italy in order to perfect his craft by studying the works of the masters. He found enough money to set out.
So Richard Wilson arrived in Venice in the middle of the eighteenth century. The works of the masters were not plentiful in England, nor in Wales certainly, and on the other hand British painting
was little known in Europe. There had been fine art in Britain in the Middle Ages, mainly in stained glass and illuminated manuscripts, but the art of painting had been for centuries of less importance here. Foreign painters such as Holbein and Vandyke had become prominent in England, but the painting of England and Wales was of little interest to Europe until Hogarth, Wilson, Reynolds and Gainsborough were born within thirty years of each other about the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Theirs are the four most important names connected with the history of painting in Britain in that century.
It would be pleasant to think that Richard Wilson knew some of the young men at home in Wales who were as important as the painters he knew in London, but that their interests were very different. Wales was occupied with the Methodist revival, but perhaps he knew little of those remarkable men Howel Harris, Daniel Rowland and William Williams, Pantycelyn, three who were almost exactly the same age as himself.
He might certainly have felt at home had he met two others of his fellow-Welshmen, one of whom, Richard Morris, lived in London at the time, with his brother Lewis a frequent visitor.
It was a time when poets and writers and painters were fond of looking back to the cultures of the past, in regarding the antiquities of literature and art with great respect. Lewis Morris was such a writer and antiquary, and it was of the antiquities of painting and y architecture that Richard Wilson was thinking as he stepped ashore in Italy, repeating to himself the poems of Horace that he had learnt as a boy.
He applied himself to the study of Italian painting and the work of Titian in particular. He was also busy with portrait painting, but there were some signs of a change in his work. Portrait-painting was his business still, but he began to be increasingly interested in landscape. Was it the move to a new country that accounted for the change? Possibly, but that sort of effect would take longer to show: and it is more likely that he was influenced by the work of his new friends. One of these, Francesco Zuccarelli, was a very popular landscape painter, and before long he and Wilson admired each other’s work so much that they exchanged pictures.
After spending a year in Venice he moved to Rome. The journey was pleasant, in the company of his friend William Lock, and on the way he worked constantly. He had a supply of thin white drawing paper, pockets full of black and white chalk, and though he worked swiftly the drawings that he made on the journey show quite clearly the exact way the two men went from Venice to Rome.
In Rome there was no shortage of friends. The fashion then was the Grand Tour, and wealthy young noblemen from Britain flocked to Rome. Surrounding them were the hangers-on who were quick to see a chance of making money by acting as agents, selling pictures and antiques to the visitors. One of these agents, Thomas Jenkins, a painter educated in London, became a great friend of Richard Wilson and helped him sell his paintings. He began to paint portraits in Rome, some of them looking rather different from his early portraits in London, and showing that he had learnt a lot from his study of the masters in Italy. He too had his portrait painted, by Anton Rafael Mengs.
He began to spend more time working out of doors, painting landscape. He explored the countryside around Rome and took lodgings in a house on the outskirts as well as in the city itself. He drew houses and landscape and made studies of sculpture and architectural ornament. Then he met Claude Joseph Vernet the French landscape painter who was responsible for making him give up portrait painting and devote himself to landscape painting. Vernet, like Mengs who had painted Wilson’s portrait, observed the very thing in his work that they were attempting to express in their work. Their search was for the feeling of antiquity, so highly regarded in the eighteenth century, and Vernet was so convinced that Wilson’s work possessed this quality that he too was eager to exchange paintings with him. What better indication of his fellow-artists’ opinion of his work could any painter desire? Vernet believed that Richard Wilson’s paintings were as good as his own, if not better, and when he was complimented by some Englishmen he begged them not to mention his landscapes when they already had ‘so able a fellow as Wilson’ as their countryman.
Amongst his patrons was the rich young nobleman Ralph Howard, later the Earl of Wicklow. He bought the work of Italian and foreign painters in Italy, and Richard Wilson painted four pictures for him. His friend Thomas Jenkins brought his work to the attention of another patron, Lord Dartmouth, who or photography itself the art of painting was expected to be very versatile. A landscape might either be an accurate record or more of an expression of the painter’s feelings; there were paintings that celebrated historical or mythical occasions, while others laughed at man’s folly and perversity. There were also paintings of exciting or dramatic incidents.
A word often used of one kind of painting is ‘picturesque.’ It is a word in common use, but can be used in different senses. To begin with, it may be used to describe a scene in nature, meaning that it looks like a picture. We would hardly call a factory or a power-station picturesque, perhaps, though today we might as well use the word to describe old mine-workings or a quarry tip. Usually, however, we take the word to mean that a scene reminds us of a framed picture. It may include, for instance, trees and rocks and old en romantic-looking buildings, or colourful boats in an ancient harbour. When the word was originally used to describe landscapes it meant the kind of pictures associated with the masters of landscape in the seventeenth century, especially Claude Lorraine or Gaspard Poussin. Later, quite reasonably, it came to be used of the work of the followers of the early landscape painters.
The picturesque style had been popular from the middle of the seventeenth century. It was introduced into Rome by foreign painters, but the one who was probably most responsible for popularising the style was the unique Salvator Rosa, painter, poet, actor and musician. His work brought out the dramatic side of the picturesque, and there was a wide market for such pictures in Europe in the second half of the seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth century.
In Italy Richard Wilson met painters like Zuccarelli who worked in this tradition, and that accounts for his interest in painting dramatic incidents. He wanted to use his talent to interpret a landscape or another subject in a way that was acceptable in European countries at the time, and he may have realised that with his intense memory of the rocks and mountains of Wales he was as well-equipped as anyone to paint dramatic pictures. When he painted ‘The Murder’ he was working in the style of Salvator Rosa, making not merely the figures but the whole picture dramatic, as if the rocks and trees and shadows were acting and moving, and that in rather a frenzied manner.
How much, one wonders, of this tendency would remain with him when he returned to Wales and looked again at the earth, the sea and the sky of his own country?
In the six years that he spent in Rome, Richard Wilson became an important landscape painter. We do not know how many of his pictures were painted in Italy, since some of them, although on Italian subjects, could well have been painted after he left the country. During his stay in Rome he did not work mainly in the city but on the outskirts in the gardens of the great houses, as if he were still a countryman at heart. His favourite haunts were the Alban hills and the lakes, and he went twice to Naples, climbed Vesuvius and visited the island of Ischia. He succeeded in what he had set out to do, won the respect of his contemporaries, and had pupils. He did not lose money either, for he left London with eighty pounds and came back with a hundred.
In the years that he spent in London, Venice and Rome, Richard Wilson had looked at a great number of pictures, and he was well aware of the kind of work that was of real interest to him. Others thought highly of his opinion, and when he was asked who he thought to be the greatest landscape painters he is said to have replied, ‘Why, sir, Claude for air and Gaspar for composition and sentiment. You may walk in Claude’s paintings and count the miles, but there are two painters whose merit the world does not yet know, who will not fail hereafter to be highly valued. Their names are ‘Cuyp and Mompers’.
It would be wrong to suppose that he claimed to paint in the same way as the painters that he mentions; he simply says that he admires them. And yet, all authorities agree and refer to Claude whenever Wilson is mentioned, and since he himself was so enthusiastic about him it is worth asking what kind of painter Claude was that he should speak so highly of him. Sir Kenneth Clark wrote this about him: ‘There was something in Claude’s gentle poetry, in his wistful glances at a vanished civilisation and in his feeling that all nature could be laid out for man’s delight like a gentleman’s park, which appealed particularly to the English connoisseurs of the eighteenth century . Sometimes his principles of composition, with their wings and stage trees, offered too easy a formula, but Wilson, at his best, understood the chief lessons of Claude, that the centre of a landscape is an area of light, and that everything must be subordinate to a single mood’.
Claude Lorraine was born in 1600 in France, but spent most of his life in Rome. He painted romantic and poetic pictures composed on strict basic principles. He put dark colours in the foreground, light green in the middle distance and a blue sky to suggest infinite distance. He arranged trees on each side against the light and it is characteristic of his paintings that we are aware in them of looking into the light. When we see little figures in Wilson’s pictures which have apparently no purpose beyond being part of the picture that is also how Claude placed figures in his paintings.
If the element of the picturesque is seen in some of Wilson’s pictures, more of them exhibit what is to be found in the work of Claude that is an intense feeling for antiquity and a classical attitude. The classical attitude is not easy to define, but in pictures it can mean that there will be references to buildings in the style of ancient Greece and Rome, together with the tranquil dignity associated with those styles of architecture in the eighteenth century.
It is hard to discover the influence of Mompers, as he called him, on his work, but the other Dutch painter that he admired, Albert Cuyp, is of great importance. As Eric Newton said, light in pictures was a seventeenth century discovery, and Cuyp was one of the many painters of the Netherlands who delighted in manipulating the effects of light in their pictures. This too derived from Claude, and the concern with light emerges in Wilson’s work after his return to England and Wales.
Before his return to London he had thought of taking a house in the country as he did while in Rome, but it was to Covent Garden that he returned, to a house in the Grand Piazza, where he would be amidst the bustle of people all day and night. His name came to be associated with the place, and he was referred to as ‘Mr. Wilson of Covent Garden, the famous landscape painter’. Indeed he was so well received after his return from Italy that he would have been sorry to move out into the country. His fame after his success in Italy had arrived home before him.
He settled in London, and in the house in Covent Garden there was a painting room for himself, a large room for exhibiting pictures, and rooms for his pupils.
It was now his turn to take students in the same way as he had come to Thomas Wright. We learn something of the type of student that came to him from the memoirs and biography of Thomas Jones. Born at Trefonen, in the parish of Cefnllys in Radnorshire, his family later moved to Pencerrig in the parish of Llanelwedd in the same county. He too had been a pupil at St. Martin’s Lane academy, and he was twenty when he came to Richard Wilson in 1763. He stayed with him for two years, paid fifty guineas for his tuition, and was a good student. He received prizes three times from the Society of Artists, and like his master he went to Italy and lived for some years in Naples and Rome. He was a landscape painter, and about seventy of his works were shown in exhibitions. Being a pupil meant that one was free to imitate the master’s work without any sense of shame, since copying and imitating were the usual methods of study.
Thomas Jones became a successful imitator of his master’s work, and sometimes some of his pictures were sold in public auctions as the work of Richard Wilson. He continued to imitate him many years after he had left, and when he first went to Rome the scenes were quite familiar to him because he had entirely absorbed his master’s Italian paintings. He inherited the Pencerrig estate after his brother and was High Sheriff of Radnorshire. He exhibited with the Royal Academy and with the Society of Artists.
Thomas Jones was genuinely interested in painting as a gentleman of talent, but Richard Wilson had friends and admirers also among the completely professional artists. One of the most prominent was Joseph Wright of Derby, as he was known, who often came to visit him when he was in London. Joseph Wright was one of the pioneers of pictures concerning scientific experiments, deeply interested in the effect of lamplight and candlelight, but he too copied and imitated Wilson’s pictures.
The artists connected with the Foundling Hospital, the institution for which Richard Wilson, before he went to Italy had been invited to contribute paintings, held an annual dinner. From these meetings came the idea of the United Society of Artists, and he was elected a member of the committee. The aim of the society was to hold regular exhibitions and to raise money to help artists in need. In nine years he showed thirty-six paintings at the society’s exhibitions. By 1768 the artists were ready to establish the Royal Academy. Joshua Reynolds was the first president of the academy, and Wilson was one of the foundation members. From 1769 until within two years of his death he continued to send pictures to its exhibitions.
Now in London, and looking back upon his experience in Italy, he regarded himself as one who depended upon landscape painting for his livelihood. It would still be possible for him to be a portrait painter, but he sought for no more work in that direction. It is true that he earned some commissions for portraits, but it soon became known that he was now known as a landscape painter, and he displeased some of his friends and patrons who considered that he had neglected the fashionable and profitable world of portrait painting.
Although he lost some patrons, he found others, and he was highly esteemed by his fellow-artists. He could confidently carry on with the painting of his ‘classical’ pictures, knowing that there were those who would appreciate them, and that he would find purchasers. These were subject-pictures in the style of Claude, the subject being usually from the classics or from mythology. He painted a large picture of ‘The Destruction of Niobe’s Children’, a work which was characteristic of the way in which a painter was expected to deal with a landscape in the fashionable grand style. It showed the picturesque-dramatic style at its most tempestuous, the sky filled with immense clouds, with a high mountain in the distance; nearer the foreground were more mountains and fearsome crags, and a storm-beaten tree. Figures were placed centrally in pictures of this kind, and in this example there were figures of the children pleading for mercy, with the avenger aiming arrows at them from a platform of cloud.
The painting was exhibited with the Society of Artists, and when the master had composed a large work for exhibition there would be plenty of work for the apprentices and pupils. Sometimes they helped to make a copy of the picture, or assisted with parts of it, putting in figures perhaps. There were at least three versions of the painting, and the three were sold. Purchasers were usually rich members of the aristocracy, but a picture was sometimes sold to a firm of engravers who made copies for sale to the general public.
These were busy years, and there was more to the artist’s work than sitting comfortably with his paints in front of a landscape, or in the quiet of his painting-room finishing a picture. Richard Wilson had to look after his apprentices and pupils, and give them lessons. They were made to follow his method of painting, and it is said that he scolded them if they did not work hard. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘or you will never rival Claude’!
There were two classes of students, the apprentices and the pupils. The apprentices did a variety of jobs, from sweeping the floor to making copies of pictures, but the pupils, who paid high fees for their teachings were allowed more freedom from the everyday tasks. They had more freedom to continue with their own work, but Richard Wilson made use of the pupils too when some work of great importance was to be done.
Their assistance was especially needed when he began to receive commissions to paint decorations for houses, which meant direct painting on walls and ceilings. The work might be at a house far from London, and the first task was to visit the place and measure the room. The apprentices, and even the students, would prepare designs for these decorations, but the pictures would not be their own original work. Their master had plenty of pictures based on his work in Italy, pictures showing old Roman buildings or themes from Greek mythology. Those were the kind of decorations that the rich liked to have in their houses, though most of them would have preferred to be able to say that they had employed an Italian or French painter, except that Richard Wilson was still acceptable because his work could look very much like that of the foreigners. There were others again who thought highly of his work for an entirely opposite reason, that his pictures to them appeared more dignified and less superficial than those of some popular painters like his old friend Zuccarelli.
There was another kind of work, which he took up again after his return from Italy that did not require the assistance of pupil or apprentice. He sometimes liked to leave his house in the care of his servant and his senior pupils and set out by himself to draw from landscape. His landscapes were never again, because of his experience in Italy for one reason, likely to be exact and accurate descriptions of a particular place. Strangely enough it was in the early days when he depended upon portraiture that he made the descriptive landscape of Dover, which has the appearance of a scene faithfully recorded. Now that he was a professional landscape painter his landscapes, if they were to please his customers were expected to be more or less according to the more romantic fashion of the day.
However, the word used for accurate renderings of places, ‘topography’, means the drawing of a place.
There was a market for such pictures among the landed gentry who owned parks and great houses, and indeed our knowledge of the lands and buildings of the eighteenth century would be much poorer without the work of the topographic artists. Richard Wilson did few pictures that could be called strictly topographic, but many of his landscapes are accurate descriptions in his personal style. It would perhaps be better to call them decorative landscapes.
In the middle of the century it did not take long to walk out of the streets of London and into fields and open country. Richard Wilson spent much time wandering near London and in the Thames valley, and it was there, apart from his work in Wales, that he discovered most of his landscapes.
It is important to remember that pictures of Italian scenes still formed an important part of his work, but somehow, at least to our eyes, there is more vitality in the pictures that he made of England and Wales. Perhaps he grew tired sometimes of the Italian scenes, and that his journeys in Wales revived him. He travelled in most of the counties of Wales, in Flint, Denbigh, Caernarfon, Merioneth, Montgomery, Cardigan, Pembroke, Glamorgan and Monmouth. To him as a Welshman and an experienced painter there was special significance in the rivers, mountains and castles of Wales, but it was in the eighteenth century that Wales was discovered by artists, and English poets and writers, in addition to the landscape painters, came in great numbers to see the country. At first they came in search of ‘wild nature’, but the tour of Wales became a matter of fashion. The visitors had a method of dividing the landscape of Wales into three types,—the sublime (‘terrible’ mountains and rugged crags), the beautiful (calm and pleasing views, trees and fields), and the picturesque (country scenes, thatched houses 4 and ruined castles). Most of these artists were interested in landscape, not in people.
Wilson went on a pleasant journey to Wales when he received a commission from Sir Watkin Williams Wynn of Wynnstay, near Ruabon. He made several other pictures during his visit, and spent some time at Colomendy with his cousin Catherine Jones, as he used to do on his journeys to North Wales. The main work this time; however were the two paintings for Sir Watkin. He chose to design them as a pair of equal size, and they were large, on canvases 69 inches high and 93 inches wide. The two were to include Dinas Bran castle and the River Dee, and he made a number of pencil drawings in preparation for the final composition. Since the work would take a long time to finish, Sir Watkin put up a tent so that he could paint unhindered in all weathers, and directly from the scene in front of him.
The painting ‘Dinas Bran’ includes the bridge, the church and the river, in addition to the castle, and it also contains two attractive groups of men at work. The other, ‘View near Wynnstay’, is more Italian in appearance. In this the castle lies on the horizon, while the foreground shows signs of invention or imagination. It was a common device to invent rocks and trees to help compose a picture, but perhaps Richard Wilson did not quite enjoy painting (or inventing) the tree-forms in the foreground of this picture. He is said to have used the term ‘fried parsley’ for Gainsborough’s trees, but his trees in this painting are rather like that, or like strange puppets against the sky. There is a fine pencil drawing of ‘Dinas Bran’ in the National Museum in Cardiff.
If there were plenty of pictures sold in those days, there were plenty of artists available too, and competition was increasing. Zuccarelli, as we have seen, was a dangerous competitor, and Wilson, seeing his success, at one time changed his way of painting in an attempt to attract those who were charmed by the work of the Italian. But he soon gave this up when he saw the effect on his work. He was ashamed of the paintings that he did in the style of Zuccarelli, and he quite ignored the resolution passed by some ‘Committee of Taste’ who advised him to paint more in the Italian style because his work, according to this committee, did not suit English taste.
Wilson was not very patient with his critics, and could be hot-tempered. There is an account of much bad feeling when the King, George III, rejected one of his paintings with contempt. He incurred the King’s displeasure in connection with another painting. When he asked for a price of a hundred guineas for a commission, he was told that the price was too high. ‘If that is so’, said Wilson, ‘tell his majesty that he can pay a guinea a week’.
By about the age of sixty Richard Wilson was not doing too well, and he could no longer ask a hundred guineas, or anything near that sum, for his paintings. They became difficult to sell, and when he did sell the prices were getting lower than ever. There were various reasons for this decline. The fashion in painting was gradually changing, although this does not mean that he was too old and incapable of pleasing the fashionable buyers. In his own view at least he was a modern painter, as he called himself, who had since his Italian days more or less rejected the picturesque painting that had later become fashionable in London. Perhaps his work was deteriorating, that his health was declining, and that he was drinking too much. He began to paint the most easily saleable pictures, and made copies of them. Matters went from bad to worse. He was at times without money to buy paint or canvas, and after leaving the house in Covent Garden he moved many times from house to house. At the end of his stay in London he lived in part of a house and with hardly any furniture.
Meanwhile, before he failed completely, he was appointed Librarian to the Royal Academy with a salary of fifty pounds a year. This was not a great deal of money, but the appointment gave purpose to his life and the pay helped to support him for what was left of his time.
Richard Wilson’s biographers tell us quite a lot about his method of work. He had strict principles, and it is difficult to avoid thinking that the classical education that he received from his father remained with him until the time when he instructed his own students. There is something methodically grammatical about the scheme of work described by his pupil Thomas Jones; according to him, the pupil had to spend the entire first year drawing with black and white chalk on paper ‘of a middle tone’, either from his studies and pictures, or from nature. He explained that the purpose was to teach the principles of light and shade without spoiling the eye with too many colours. He also advised his pupils against putting washes of colour on drawings because he thought it spoiled an accurate sense of colour.
His favourite medium for drawing was black chalk, with some white, on tinted paper. He seldom made landscape paintings out of doors, and it was an exception for him to paint a large picture from nature as he did for Sir Watkin Williams Wynn. There is no evidence that he used finished drawings in preparation for paintings. He preferred to make small studies of what he needed, relying much on his memory and his own response to nature. There is more variety of natural form in his pictures than in the work of any contemporary landscape painter, and he depended greatly on his personal impressions.
He almost always used canvas for painting, and we know from his biographer Thomas Wright (not the Thomas Wright to whom he was apprenticed), and from the portrait by Mengs in the National Museum, the kind of colours that he used. According to the picture and the descriptions he used black and white, various yellows and browns, two blues, red and perhaps a dark green. He also prepared mixtures or tints of these on his palette, and used linseed oil as a medium. He began by painting the main areas with a middle tone, and finished after putting in the darks and lights, with thin glazes and small touches of the brush. He took great care with his skies, and chose his colour very carefully, often standing aside to look at his work. He told someone ‘You should look at a picture with your eyes, not with your nose’.
As was the practice of artists at the time, he often worked in co-operation with others. His students, of course, had to help him in the preparation of paintings, but other artists sometimes painted figures for him.
The greatest collector of Wilson’s paintings was the wealthy Benjamin Booth. He left the collection to his heirs, and it is now known as the Ford collection. By the end of the eighteenth century, after the period towards the end of his life when his work became less popular, there was a change when critics began to regard him in a different light. Gradually criticism turned to praise, and he was claimed to be as good as Reynolds and even better than Claude. The way that opinion of the value of his pictures had changed is shown by the record of the sale of one of his paintings in Liverpool in 1813 for four hundred guineas. The price that Wilson had obtained for it was less than thirty guineas.
Of all Richard Wilson’s paintings, his landscapes in the country of his birth probably hold the greatest interest for us in Wales today. It is in these, according to some critics, when he brought the principles of classical Italian landscape to scenes in Wales, that he is seen at his best. The one regarded as the best of these is the painting of ‘Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle’ in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. There is another version in Nottingham. This has been called the finest landscape in its particular tradition that was ever painted in Britain.
As the picture is so important, and as the mountains of Snowdonia are well-known to many of us in Wales, it deserves to be looked at in detail. Wilson came to this place, near Baladeulyn, probably about 1765. As the name Baladeulyn suggests there were still two lakes there at the time. Today only one, the upper lake, remains, or as Robert Williams Parry wrote in his poem ‘Dyffryn Nantlle Ddoe a Heddiw’ (Dyffryn Nantlle Yesterday and Today)—
‘There are not two lakes in Baladeulyn now, and what became of the oak that was on the meadow?’
The poet is referring to the oak and the tale of Lleu in the Mabinogion, but we could ask the same question about the oak, if indeed it was one, that can be seen in the picture. There is no tree in the actual spot today, though there are plenty of trees nearby, otherwise the scene is the same as when Wilson stood there over two centuries ago.
We see the Western side of Snowdon, through the gap of Drws-y-Coed, with Craig y Bere on the left and the sharp ridge of Mynydd Drws-y-Coed on the right. Below the rocks there is a glimpse of the low meadows left by the great glaciers of the ice age. The light of the sun falls on Snowdon itself, but the rocks nearer the foreground are in shadow. Wilson, if he gave us a faithful record of what he saw, probably looked at it quite early in the morning.
We can look at the same scene today, and although it has changed little, it is difficult for us to look at it in the same way as someone could two centuries ago. It is even harder for us to see it in the same way as Richard Wilson. He had spent years in Italy and saw the mountains of Wales with eyes trained by the long tradition concentrated in the paintings that he had seen. Obviously he saw this scene in Snowdonia as it was, but as he took the paint from his palette and placed it on the canvas he was creating a picture of nature, not reproducing nature, and the picture speaks in the visual language of his time. Clouds, and mountains more or less, have remained unchanged in form through the ages, but it is impossible for people of different periods to see these things all in the same way. In other words every age has its own way of seeing, or to be more exact, every age has its own way of depicting ‘what it sees.
For instance, Wilson is clearly painting the trees according to the usual pattern and arranging them between the spectator and the mountains in order to suggest greater distance. This is an example of following a tradition in painting, and when we speak of an artist doing something in a particular way we should remember that painting is in one sense a very literal thing, whatever ideas lie behind it. In the end it is a matter of putting colour on canvas. Wilson was not making a conscious decision to paint in a particular style, but acting in a way that was by then part of his nature.
There are reasons why we cannot today see a landscape in the way that he could. We look at the country in a different way not only because we can to some extent borrow his way of seeing, but because we can also borrow the eyes of many other painters who came after him, some of them with Wilson’s influence on their work. And although natural forms do not normally change through the ages, we cannot look at the land around us without being aware of changes that have happened and are happening. We know that the quarries have changed the appearance of the Nantlle valley, that electricity cables weave through the sky and that cars hurtle along the roads. The picture we have in our mind has to be different from that in the minds of our ancestors, and so the pictures that we paint will be different, at least if we are to tell the truth about what we see.
We can fully appreciate ‘Y Wyddfa’ if we see it as a portrait of familiar rocks and hills painted in the classical tradition of European painting. It also conveys the character and nature of our mountains, an achievement that has not been surpassed up to the present century, though innumerable artists have delighted in the mountains of Wales.
The other most notable of the pictures of Welsh landscape is ‘Cader Idris, Llyn y Cau’. This is even more dramatic than ‘Y Wyddfa’, and the crags make us dizzy as we look at the painting. The great precipice is that of Craig-y-Cau, and to the left is the Dysynni Valley with Cardigan Bay in the background. The summit of Cader Idris is out of sight to the right of the picture. One can imagine Richard Wilson taking intense pleasure in painting the great boulders in the foreground, bringing out the glance of light upon them with delicate touches of the brush when the rest of the painting was quite dry.
At the other end of Wales he painted Pembroke castle on its tremendous rock above the Cleddau River. This picture resembles in many ways the two ‘pictures of mountains that we have discussed. It also reminds us of his fondness for lakes and rivers Llyn Nantlle with Snowdon, Llyn y Cau below Cader Idris, the Cleddau River and Pembroke castle. He painted lakes in Italy, and he is always painting rivers. Usually there is someone in a boat, or fishing on their banks. Sometimes there is only a lonely angler; in other pictures some boys fishing. Was he remembering his childhood, and did he, wherever he found himself, see the river Dyfi and the smaller streams that helped it grow?
We are indebted to him for travelling through Wales to paint. He saw the old castles with a very romantic eye, and it was in that spirit that he portrayed the castles at Conway and Cilgerran, Dolbadarn and Caernarfon, Pembroke and Dinas Bran. Yet he felt more for the rivers and valleys than for the castles, and he was at his best in the valleys of Mawddach, Severn, Dee and Wye.
But his journeys came to an end. As his health became worse he could not go on living in London, and in 1781 he returned to Wales to his cousin Catherine Jones, at Colomendy near Llanferres in Flintshire, where his brother was overseer of the estate. He was allowed by the Royal Academy to remain a librarian, but had to pay fifteen pounds of his salary to recompense a deputy. He had something, at least, to live on.
It is good to know that he was able to return to Wales to spend his remaining days in the noble old home of Colomendy. According to Ieuan Iâl, writing on the history of the parish of Llanferres in ‘Y Gwyliedydd’ in 1833, Catherine Jones was the last of the old family whose virtues the writer could hardly find words to express, obviously a gracious family that was regarded with great reverence. Richard Wilson could hardly paint by then, but we know that he had unfinished pictures at Colomendy. Ieuan Iâl gives a list of his works that were in the house: George III and the Duke of York, a head and shoulders of his cousin Catherine Jones, ‘of Mr. E. Jones his cousin, of his brother, of Mrs. Wynne of Leeswood, a small one of his father, the Temple burning, Atlanta, Calisto, Morning and Night, a view of the Rock and River near Loggerheads not quite finished, foreign views, and other valuable items, but not completely finished’.
Colomendy, evidently, was to Wilson a refuge and a second home. He often came there from London to visit ‘Madam Jones’ as his cousin was called, and he would walk for miles around in all weathers. Ieuan Iâl thought so highly of him and his work that he fortunately remembered another little touch which gives a bright glimpse of his relationship with Colomendy.
He writes, ‘There were two old scotch firs on either side of the road from Colomendy to Mold to be seen until recently, and these were in great favour with Wilson. He put them more than once in his pictures…’
Daniel Owen, the great novelist from Mold, rarely wrote about historical characters, but he has a story about Wilson and his work in ‘Y Geninen’ in 1886. ‘I remember from my boyhood’, says Daniel Owen, ‘that Jonathan Price, Ponterwyl, owned a picture by Wilson’. He tells how a certain ‘Mr. Jones the Turf’ borrowed the painting to copy, and in gratitude to Mr. Price for his kindness had given it a coat of varnish. This is how the story ends: ‘Soon after this it happened that Mr. Williams, an artist, of Caernarfon, was preaching at Mold. Sometime before going to bed on the Saturday night Mr. Williams mentioned Wilson, and the high prices that were then being paid for anything of his work. “There is a stonemason here” said his host, “who has a picture by Wilson”. “What?” cried Mr. Williams, “the stonemason with a picture by Wilson! He will get three hundred pounds for it”.
Early on Monday morning Mr. Williams went to Ponterwyl. But alas! When he saw the picture he exclaimed “Mr. Price, who was the fool who put varnish on your picture? If it were not for the varnish you would get three hundred pounds for it, but as it is I doubt you will get a pound”.
Great was the grief of Jonathan Price for the gratitude of Jones the Turf.’
In this neighbourhood, where he belonged, Richard Wilson died on the fifteenth of May, 1782, at the age of sixty-nine, and was buried in Mold churchyard.
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