by Roderick Conway Morris

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Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle by Richard Wilson, 1765-66

In Wales, Tracing the Origins of Landscape Painting

By Roderick Conway Morris
CARDIFF, Wales 9 September 2014


If Richard Wilson had not embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe in 1750, he might have ended his days as an artist as he had started them: a modestly successful portrait painter in his native Wales.

But thanks to a clergyman father, who gave him a classical education, and a rich and generous cousin, Wilson was able to set off at the age of 36 on a journey that changed his life-and with it the course of Western art.

Wilson experimented with landscape painting at his first port of call on his tour, Venice, where he struck up a friendship with the Italian painter Francesco Zuccarelli. On his arrival in Rome he took further inspiration from the work of earlier long-term residents in the city, Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet. And there he met Claude-Joseph Vernet, then the leading French landscape artist there, who expressed surprise that with his talent for landscape painting, Wilson should waste his time painting portraits.

Vernet's encouragement led Wilson to devote himself exclusively to the genre, with remarkable results - as is demonstrated by 'Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Painting,' a show at the National Museum of over 160 works by Wilson, his contemporaries and followers.

Curated by Robin Simon and Martin Postle, the exhibition has come to Cardiff from the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., and marks the 300th anniversary of the artist's birth. Yale University Press is publishing the handsome catalog, edited by the curators.

Richard Wilson was born in a remote country vicarage at Penegoes, in the mountains of Wales. Wild scenery of this kind was not appreciated at that time. The Augustan sage Samuel Johnson, on having a peak pointed out to him, dismissed it as 'a mere considerable protuberance.' Yet Wilson would go on to alter radically the perception of such landscapes and establish himself not only as the father of English landscape painting but also a prime originator of the Romantic movement.

Wilson's high level of education was unusual at the time for a painter, and it was to play an important role in enabling him to move with assurance in the upper echelons of English and European society. Wilson's parents, although themselves of modest means, were well connected with the Welsh gentry. When the Rev. Wilson died in 1728, the boy's first cousin, George Wynne - a baronet, member of Parliament and one of the wealthiest men in Britain - undertook his support and financed his art education in London.

The exhibition opens with a portrait of Wilson by Anton Raphael Mengs, then the doyen of portrait painters in Rome. Unlike most of the city's large community of foreign artists, Wilson was able to lodge himself in style and mix on familiar terms with Grand Tourists visiting Italy who, at this point, were his most important patrons.

The juxtaposition of Wilson's Roman works in the first room with some fine examples by Dughet and Vernet reveal how Wilson rapidly found his own style in this new genre. Until then landscape painters aspired to the ideal rather than the real - a convention Wilson overturned with his close observation of topography, his sensitivity to light and weather conditions, and an emotional engagement with the scene. He was also a pioneer of painting en plein air.

Wilson's two earliest known depictions of actual landscapes are displayed here: 'Tivoli, the Cascatelle Grande and the Villa of Maecenas' and 'The Temple of the Sibyl and the Campagna,' both from 1752 and on loan from the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. The first painting features a painter sitting at his easel capturing the scene, and the second an artist and his assistant carrying away a large canvas and easel as the sun sinks in the western sky.

Also here is 'Distant View of Maecenas' Villa, Tivoli,' a painting that Wilson executed from a sketch he had made in 1754 while picnicking under a tree with four young Grand Tourists: the lords Pembroke, Essex, Thanet and Bolingbroke. The canvas was bought by one of the party, the Eighth Earl of Thanet.

During the six years Wilson spent in Rome, he established a thriving studio, which attracted gifted young artists including the German Adolf Friedrich Harper and the Scandinavians Johannes Wiedewelt and Johan Mandelberg, all of whom went back to their own countries and spread the Wilsonian message through their teaching posts in various academies. Harper was the first professor to teach landscape as a genre in Germany.

Having achieved international fame in the Roman art scene, Wilson returned to London in 1757 to open a new studio. Prominent among his students were Johnson Carr, William Hodges, Thomas Jones and Joseph Farington; striking works by all of them are also featured in the exhibition.

The first print of a Wilson landscape was made in 1753. Engravings became increasingly important in bringing his work to a wide audience. Many of his admirers on the Continent came to know his landscapes primarily through prints. The effect was enduring: As late as 1795, Farington was to note in his diary that the neoclassical sculptor and draftsman John Flaxman had told him that 'the French artists held the character of Wilson as an artist very high.'

Following his Italian experiences, Wilson brought to Britain a new approach to landscape painting, which he applied chiefly to the mountainous landscape of his native Wales. The section of the exhibition devoted to these includes two classic images from the mid-1760s: 'Llyn Cau, Cader Idris,' of the volcanic lake beneath the peak of Cader Idris, in the shadow of which the artist had been born and raised, and 'Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle.'

Mediated through Wilson's art - his 'grandeur in the choice or invention of his scenes, felicity in the distribution of his lights and shadows, freshness and harmony in his tints,' in the words of John Wolcot - these landscapes became arenas of the sublime.

Through them he contributed much to putting Wales, a country little visited until then, on the map. Among those who responded to this new enthusiasm for the region were the Romantic poets Coleridge, Shelley and Wordsworth, all of whom spent time there.

One of the founding fathers of the Royal Academy, Wilson became a familiar figure on the London artistic and intellectual scene, the witty and convivial companion of people like the writer Edmund Burke, the actor David Garrick and the fellow artists Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. But he began to find it difficult to sell his pictures in the 1770s and he took to drink. He was reduced to selling his treasured sketchbooks to raise the coach fare for his last journey to Wales, where he was taken in by a cousin at Colomendy Hall, Llanferres. He died there in May 1782, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary's at nearby Mold.

Wilson had assured the young man who bought his sketchbooks: 'Depend upon it, you will live to see my pictures rise in esteem and price.'

The rise in esteem was soon confirmed by the influence Wilson was to have on his greatest English successors, John Constable and William Turner.

'I recollect nothing so much as a solemn - bright - warm - fresh landscape by Wilson, which swims in my brain like a delicious dream,' wrote Constable of his encounter with the Welsh artist's 'Tabley House, Cheshire,' which is among the canvases in the exhibition.

Constable had visited the gallery of the house, which was owned by Sir John Leicester. Recalling this experience, Constable said of Wilson: 'He was one of the great appointments to shew to the world what exists in nature but which was not known till his time.'

Turner, too, was an ardent admirer. As a young man he made a pilgrimage to Wales, seeking out Wilson's birthplace at Penegoes and the places that Wilson had captured for the first time in paint.

As a tribute to Wilson, Turner chose as the subject of his diploma picture at the Royal Academy in 1802 Dolbardarn Castle, one of the sites in Snowdonia that Wilson made famous.

A version of this article appears in print on September 10, 2014, in The International New York Times.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023