BLOG Michael Tomlinson

NWR Issue 110

Romanticism in the Welsh Landscape, MOMA Machynlleth

Romanticism is one of those art historical terms that is particularly difficult to define. Peter Wakelin the curator of Romanticism in the Welsh Landscape at MOMA Machynlleth has in a sense passed that particular buck and left us the viewers to feel our way towards meaning via the artists he has chosen and the way they have depicted the Welsh landscape. It is a generous and inclusive continuum that starts with Richard Wilson, the happy chance of his being Welsh and then, more importantly, his desire to approach the painting of his homeland in a style that had hitherto been restricted to the great classical landscapes of the continent and its more spectacular topography. By so doing he established a tradition that continues to inspire and inform the work of artists to this day.

This exhibition starts in the pulpit room with two feel-good Richard Wilsons: the National Library of Wales’ ‘Castell Dinas Brân’, c1780 and Manchester City Art Gallery’s ‘The Valley of the Mawddach, with Cadair Idris and Beyond’, c1770-75’ Both are washed with an ethereal and welcoming light. In the latter, a track winds across a verdant foreground, disappearing round a spur in the land with Cadair rising behind like some mythical unattainable land, a Welsh Mount Olympus. Opposite is a small oil by John Sell Cotman who is perhaps better known for his superlative watercolours and ‘The Distant Mountain – Cadair Idris’, c1828–33 seems imbued with the sensibility of a watercolourist. It is an atmospheric masterpiece saturated with the pale watery glow of a summer sun diffused by damp mountain air. Some cows stand diffidently in a body of water in the foreground whilst trees converge behind into a solid clump of earthy greens as though they too have come down to the water to drink. Behind them, and little more than a suggestion, the ghostly bulk of the mountain looms. It is worth visiting the exhibition for this painting alone.

In the Owen Owen room there is a pen and ink, ‘Wooded Landscape’ by Ceri Richards, that is an object lesson to any artist in when to say, ‘Enough!’ Large swathes of the paper are only loosely included or untouched yet in a few strokes of the pen and brush, a few washes, Ceri Richards has managed to create a sense of sun and intense mysterious shade, of movement and stillness. It is a superlative drawing. Next to it is its opposite, John Minton’s closely worked and allusive ink and body colour, ‘Recollections of Wales’ from 1944. This follows a tradition that can be traced back through Samuel Palmer’s mystical work to the beautifully detailed watercolour, ‘The Southern Extremity of Carnedde Mountain in Radnorshire’ by Thomas Jones back in the pulpit room. One of the joys of the exhibition is this recognition of artistic connections over time. On the opposite wall is John Mayer-Marton’s swirling oil painting, ‘Llanthony Valley’ from 1949. It is as if a fierce squall has passed over Cezanne’s Mont Ventoux, washing away his warm Mediterranean colours and replacing them with the green earths and slate grays of Wales. The ground seems to seethe both with the energy of ongoing geological process and the physical evidence of its passing.

Over the bridge in the Tannery, David Tress revisits the Sturm und Drang school of Romanticism in his 2007 ‘Light Passing (Llyn Llydaw Towards Snowdon)’ which recalls Turner at his wild and exuberant best. The paper appears to have been attacked in an almost random frenzy that would have left a chaotic abstract but for the way the artist has scratched back to the whiteness beneath to create a sharp cloud silhouetted skyline and the sparkling highlights of the wind whipped waters.

In an exhibition even as large as this it is inevitable that some artists must be excluded. I am surprised, though, that James Dickson Innes and Kyffin Williams have been omitted. I know Innes died in 1914 and so his output falls outside the dates of both the first and second subheadings of this exhibition but was there really no Romanticism in the Welsh Iandscape between 1830 and 1925 and did Kyffin Williams not contribute massively to it in the second half of the twentieth century? Their exclusion seems almost willful, particularly as the Tabernacl Collection has good examples of both.

My only other quibble is the inclusion of William Havell’s painting of ‘Parys Mountain Copper Mine’ c1803 which for me crosses the line between Romanticism and romanticisation. Life for the workers in quarries such as this was harsh, dangerous and poorly paid, their living conditions squalid. The sentimental depiction of such human exploitation has no place amongst the higher ideals of other artists in this show.

This is an important exhibition in the history of MOMA Machynlleth and there is much more to be enjoyed in Peter Wakelin’s selection.

Michael Tomlinson blogs on art for New Welsh Review.

Romanticism in the Welsh Landscape runs at MOMA Machynlleth until 18 June


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