16 November 2021

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It is no accident that Emmanuel’s Graham Watson Collection of hand-coloured books contains a large number of beautifully illustrated ‘tours’ of North Wales for the armchair traveller from the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Before the invention of the railway brought the Scottish Highlands within easier reach, North Wales was a relatively accessible haunt for those pursuing the craze for the ‘Picturesque’ and seeking their fix of scenic ‘views,’ mountains, and agreeable wildness. And the texts accompanying such views provide information for a readership eager to learn about the customs and costumes of such places – the subject of this bilingual Cambrian Costumes of 1834, illustrating women’s costume in different parts of Wales.


Coincidentally these books can also serve to illustrate the developing technical accomplishment in the hand-coloured aquatint. Emmanuel’s earliest book on Welsh scenery is Paul Sandby’s Twelve Views in Wales (1771), which is an early date for aquatint.

Sandby is a notable artist of the period, but the endeavour to represent by coloured engraving the texture and variation in such complex, broken and wild terrain is still in an early phase, and Sandby is perhaps more at home with picturesquely ruined castles.

Twenty years later, Wood’s Six Views in the Neighbourhood of Llangollen (1793) shows a developing grasp of depicting distance in extensive terrain.


It is dedicated to the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ – Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two Irishwomen of high birth who fled from their families to avoid unwanted marriages and lived together in Llangollen for 50 years, the object of fascination to contemporaries.

By 1801 Six Picturesque Views in North Wales records much more moodily atmospheric views of wild scenery and of cloudy Welsh skies and weather.


‘From drawings made on the spot’ by Brian Broughton, and then engraved by a member of the talented Alken family of artists, the views are accompanied by Broughton’s ‘Poetical Reflections on Leaving That Country’ and so are set in an elegaic Romantic frame.

Much more informed is Pugh’s A Tour through North Wales, Illustrated with Picturesque Views by a Native Artist (1816), since Pugh was a Welsh-speaker and provided his text with local knowledge and information. Deployment of aquatint technique to convey distance and sublime vastness is increasingly effective, as also in the anonymously published A Picturesque Description of North Wales, Embellished with Twenty Select Views from Nature (1823). 


Among the most beautiful aquatints, again accompanied with very full descriptions of the terrain for both tourists and armchair travellers, are those in the two editions of Thomas Compton’s The Northern Cambrian Mountains, or a Tour through North Wales (1817; 1820).


The book bills itself as ‘Describing the Scenery and General Character of that Romantic Country’. Compton describes himself as being ‘of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich’, one of the many artists trained to record operations and expeditions The earlier edition was based on Compton’s own drawings during two sketching tours in 1814 and 1815. The second edition incorporates other pictures by a clutch of contemporary artists, including Turner. 


The next technical development is exemplified in Illustrations of the Natural Scenery of the Snowdonian Mountains (1829), an early work by Harry Longueville Jones, who went on to have a career as a historian of Wales and its antiquities. 


In this book Jones provided the original sketches, which were then drawn on the stone by other artists and printed by Charles Hullmandel, the supreme early exponent of the lithograph. The uncoloured plates include some extensive landscapes in astonishing detail, but perhaps the technique is at its most brilliant in these two plates of dashing torrents of water, capturing the beautiful wildness and grandeur of Wales that all these books in their different styles strive to put before our eyes.


Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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