Richard Wilson on Cadair Idris

August 17, 2019 2 Comments

Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to Cadair Idris, which my father-in-law introduced me to as the best mountain walk in Wales, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s.  As usual I started from Minffordd.  After reaching Llyn Cau I circled clockwise round Craig Cau, Pen-y-gadair and Mynydd Moel.  Early cloud lifted from the peaks, and the sun shone.  And as usual, when beginning to descend Mynydd Moel, I couldn’t help thinking about the earliest and most famous major artistic representation of Cadair Idris, Richard Wilson’s oil painting.

Richard Wilson, Cader Idris, Llyn-y-Cau

Wilson’s work, conventionally titled ‘Cader Idris, Llyn-y-Cau’, has been in the Tate Gallery since 1945.  When it was painted is unknown, though it’s likely it was a product of Wilson’s tours of Wales in 1764 or 1765.  This was after his return from a seven year stay in Italy, when he absorbed the classical landscape tradition of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, especially as it was practised by his contemporary Claude-Joseph Vernet.  Before going to Italy he’d started out as a portrait painter, but Italy awakened him to the possibilities of painting the landscape of Rome and its surrounding area.  Back in London, Wilson found another market for the same kind of painting.  But the Welsh tour seems to have released in him a completely new artistic stream, which marked a break with the conventions of the classical landscape and marked out the mountains of Wales, for the first time, as a natural subject of painting.

Wilson was no stranger to Wales.  He was born in 1713 (or 1714) at Penegoes, just east of Machynlleth, and lived there – his father was the local rector – until he was fifteen.  Cadair Idris lay only fifteen miles north of Penegoes, and he must have known the mountain as a boy, before being sent to train as a painter in London under Thomas Wright.  Though he never lived in Wales again, he had many relatives there, as well as patrons and buyers of his work.  Somehow he arrived at the understanding, before writers like Thomas Pennant popularised the ‘Welsh tour’ and before artists like Paul Sandby turned their attention to highland Wales, that his native land held the key to a new sort of painting.

There are very few published or manuscript accounts of climbing Cadair Idris before Wilson did so to sketch his picture – Michael Freeman, the expert on early Welsh tourists, lists only one, in 1732 – and no detailed topographical depictions of the mountain.  Wilson was blazing a new trail with ‘Cader Idris, Llyn-y-Cau’.

Summit of Mynydd Moel, looking towards Pen-y-Gadair

To reach the point from which he captured the mountain Wilson had already spent a considerable time climbing.  The most direct ascent, only possible by foot, would have been up the steep path from Minffordd, keeping to the west bank of Nant Cadair before crossing the stream to make the even more severe climb up the south end of Mynydd Moel.  Or perhaps he started out from Dolgellau on horseback to reach Pen-y-Gadair by what’s now known as the Pony Path, a longer but much more gradual route.  He’d still have needed a good deal of legwork to get to his viewpoint, on the flank of Mynydd Moel.  Today there are two ways south-east from Pen-y-Gadair.  One makes for the stony summit of Mynydd Moel, with its sheer cliffs and soaring views north to Dolgellau and east along the rest of Cadair’s ridge, and then joins a fence which takes you steeply down the mountain, at the risk of a sprained ankle or worse, towards the Nant Cadair slate bridge.  The other path leaves the col between Pen-y-Gadair and the summit of Mynydd Moel and hugs the long flank of Mynydd Moel, keeping roughly to the same, lower contour, before reaching the fence.  It’s somewhere along this lower path, not far from the fence, that Wilson stopped to sketch the scene.

The ‘green mound’

So what is the scene?  It’s probably the most dramatic on-mountain view possible of Cadair – though we’re now so used to Wilson’s version, which soon established itself as the definitive aspect, that it’s hard to think otherwise.  Wilson decides to ignore the summit, Pen-y-Gadair, off-canvas at the top of the slope at the right.  (Except from the north, the summit is far from striking.)  In the centre of the painting is Craig Cau.  Below is the dark eye-shaped bowl of Llyn Cau.  In the middle ground is a green mound (there is such an area, though rather lower and to the south).  On the left of the canvas is a curious dark ‘chasm’ where Llyn Mwyngil (Tal-y-Llyn Lake) and the Dysynni valley are.  Beyond it you can make out the blue of Cardigan Bay.  And in the foreground is a scattering of rugged rocks (exactly what would find on the slopes of Mynydd Moel).

Llyn Cau and Craig Cau

We’re a long way here from the Italianate landscape tradition.  The only real connection is the sky.  You’d be very lucky to come across such a completely cloudless sky anyway near the upper part of Cadair Idris, and its colour is a heat-saturated cerulean blue common in the Mediterranean but rare in Meirionydd.  The distant land to the west fades to a fine haze, and the mountain is suffused with the gentle glow of yellow light (it’s early in the morning: the standing figure casts a shadow behind him).

You might think that the human figures are also consistent with Italian landscape convention.  But there are no classical nymphs or shepherds, no figures from Greek and Roman mythology.  Instead there’s a distinctly modern traveller, standing with slightly bent knees, squinting intently through a small portable spy-glass towards the valley below. 

Nant Cadair and Mynydd Moel

There’s also what seems to be an extraneous pastoral touch, in the form of a cow – until you realise that the lower slopes of Cadair Idris were used as grazing for cattle as well as sheep in the eighteenth century: the ruins of old hafodtai can still be seen lower down, not far from the Minffordd Path.   Near the cow an artist is seated, sketching, and two other figures seem to be resting on the edge of the lake’s ‘crater’.  At the time it was believed that Cadair Idris was once a volcano; Thomas Pennant writes in his Tours of Wales (1778), ‘At a nearer distance I saw Craig Cay, a great rock, with a lake beneath, lodged in a deep hollow; possibly the crater of an antient Vulcano’.

In Italian paintings the mountains normally keep a respectful distance, as a decorative background to the human story closer to the viewer.  But for Richard Wilson Cadair Idris is the true centre of attention – the heroic subject of his work.  It’s almost as if he’s reverted to his earlier career as a portrait painter.  Like many a portrait painter he’s magnified his subject.  He’s exaggerated the slope of the ridge, so that you could be forgiven for thinking the highest point of Craig Cau to be the true summit.  He’s smoothed the gullied walls of the ridge above Llyn Cau, as the portraitist might rejuvenate the scraggy neck of an ageing sitter, to give the mountain a glacial, forbidding facade.

Richard Wilson, Lake Nemi and Genzano

Despite the summery weather and the kindly light that enfolds it, Wilson’s Cadair Idris is a dark, towering, majestic work of nature.  He wants you to know that you’re in the presence of a giant of the earth.  A few years earlier, in 1757, Edmund Burke had published his book A philosophical enquiry into the origins of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful, which signalled a change in how mountains could be viewed.  The ‘horror’ previously felt by lowland visitors made them recoil and flee; now, a new, pleasurable ‘horror’ attracts them to approach mountains with an attitude of awe, and to appreciate the ‘sublime’, the strongest emotion’, said Burke, ‘which the mind is capable of feeling’.  Wilson might almost have made his painting to illustrate Burke’s thesis.  He’s cleared away the paraphernalia of Italian landscape painting, to leave the sublimity of the mountain to speak for itself.  A good example is Llyn Cau.  The mysterious lake was a stock ‘character’ in Italian painting.  Wilson himself had painted Lake Nemi near Rome, a place imbued with classical allusions that would have been easily understood by his buyers.  Sacred to the Roman goddess Diana, it was known as Diana’s Mirror, and was a favourite place of the emperors Tiberius and Caligula.  Llyn Cau, on the other hand, carries no classical baggage: it just exists, as a dark unknown at the centre of Wilson’s painting.

There’s just one possible reference – a literary and, to most people, a secret one – that Wilson, a well-educated man and almost certainly a Welsh speaker, might have inserted in his painting.  The otherwise puzzling ‘spy-glass man’ immediately calls to mind the opening sentence of Ellis Wynne’s Gweledigaethau y bardd cwsg (Visions of the sleeping poet, 1703), long regarded as a classic of prose writing in Welsh:

Ar ryw brydnhawngwaith teg o haf hir felyn tesog, cymmerais hynt i ben un o fynyddoedd Cymry, a chyda mi Spien-ddrych i helpu’m golwg egwan, i weled pell yn agos, a phethau bychain yn fawr; trwy’r awyr denau eglur a’r tes ysplenydd tawel canfyddwn ymhell bell tros for y Werddon, lawer golygiad hyfryd.

On the fine morning of a warm and mellow summer I betook me up one of the mountains of Wales, spy-glass in hand, to enable my feeble sight to see the distant near, and to make the little to loom large.  Through the clear, tenuous air and the calm, shimmering heat, I beheld far, far away over the Irish Sea many a fair scene.  (Translation by Robert Gwyneddon Davies, 1897)

The poet falls asleep on the mountainside and dreams – of an angel leading him through ‘the world set out as a city of destruction’.  For Wynne the spy-glass is a symbol of the ‘new learning’ or rationalism of science, and crops up later in his story as a means of magnifying sins and follies.  Interestingly, Cadair Idris is mentioned by the sleeping poet at the start of the second section of his visions, again immediately before he falls asleep.

Ellis Wynne lived at Y Lasynys, a house north of Harlech, not far from Cadair Idris – and not very far from Penegoes.  Could it be that Richard Wilson was aware of Wynne and Gweledigaethau y bard cwsg?  Or that Sir Roger Mostyn, who owned an earlier version of the painting, knew them (we know he was interested in Welsh literature).  The book was recognised almost immediately and had been reprinted several times before Wilson’s tour.  Might his painting contain a hint that what we see is not just a picture of a tall mountain, but also a vision of another, world, a world of dreams?

Richard Wilson, Snowdon from Lake Nantlle

Cader Idris, Llyn-y-Cau’ must have excited contemporary interest.  Though the painting stayed in Wilson’s possession till his death, it was reproduced in 1775 by Edward and Michael Angelo Rooker and published with other Welsh prints by John Boydell.  Wilson, though, didn’t continue to paint ‘sublime’ scenes of the Welsh mountains.  The only parallel to ‘Cader Idris, Llyn-y-Cau’ is his ‘Snowden from Llyn Nantlle’ in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (another painting of Cadair Idris, ‘The Mawddach Valley and Cader Idris’ is a more distant view).  The truth is that Wilson was in advance of the general artistic ‘movement to the hills’.  Many later artists came to Cadair Idris in his footsteps: Cornelius and John Varley, Edward Pugh, J.M.W. Turner and John Sell Cotman, and so did tourists, creating a small mountain walking industry, complete with guides, tracks and summit shelter.  Llyn Cau was even known for a while as ‘Wilson’s Pool’.  Thomas Pennant, in his Tours of Wales, thinks a verbal account of Cwm Cau is redundant, thanks to Wilson:this is so excellently expressed by the admirable pencil of my kinsman, Mr. Wilson, that I shall not attempt the description.’ 

Pete Davis, Cadair Idris (1996)

After his death Wilson was not forgotten in Wales.  In the nineteenth century he was sometimes used as the prototype for a Welsh artist unjustly neglected by the English.  He still hovers in the consciousness of those drawn to capturing Cadair Idris in paint or on camera.  For the photographer Pete Davis the mountain has long been an absorbing interest.  In 1997 Pete exhibited a fine series of prints, and published them in book form, together with a long essay on Wilson.  He came to realise that he was retracing Wilson’s steps and re-enacting his artistic journey.

Bedwyr Williams, Tyrrau Mawr

More recently Bedwyr Williams has upturned the mountain landscape tradition started by Wilson by imagining a dystopia.  In a night-to-daytime video and accompanying ‘narrative’, Williams made Tyrrau Mawr, the name of a wild and deserted summit on the western end of Cadair Idris, the site of a vast new megacity.

But anyone who walks on Cadair Idris, artist or not, can find a sense of grandeur and tranquillity, and maybe some of what the novelist Thomas Love Peacock put into words in 1811:

On the top of Cadair Idris, I felt how happy a man may be with a little money and a sane intellect, and reflected with astonishment and pity on the madness of the multitude.

Comments (2)

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  1. Pete Telfer says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post about Richard Wilson’s Cadair Idris painting, especially for drawing attention to its possible relationship with ‘Y Bardd Cwsg’.

    I’d just like to mention that the whole area around Cadair Idris was indeed volcanic as this could be a fascinating walk for your next annual visit. As you say the apparent ‘crater’ has been miss identified and is the result of glaciation. I was lucky enough to make a few of the documentaries about Cadair Idris called ‘Mountain’ for BBC Wales back in the early 00’s and one of our contributors was a university lecturer in geology. He was brilliant, unfortunately the programmes weren’t long enough to include all that he told us on camera, but his ‘lessons’ stay with me. All forms of volcanic activity can be found on Cadair Idris which was at one time a volcano larger than Etna – probably the largest volcano Europe has ever known! That was a long time ago of course and by now that mountain has been tipped on its side and slipped under the Rhinog’s so there is nothing to see of a crater. However, if you are in these hills you can find ‘pillow lava’ near the summit, rocks that were formed as lava was released underwater and as the molten rock cooled quickly in the water they formed into pillow shapes. There are dykes created when cracks in the Earth opened up and released lava, there are ‘ash bombs’ – large lumps of molten rock thrown up by the volcano as it erupted and the thing that really excited me was the evidence for volcanic vents. If you know what you’re looking for you can find these vents – soap shaped markings in the rock made as the lava in the vents was cooling. The sides of the vents were crumbling into the lava and as the lava cooled it didn’t completely melt the last bits of rock that crumbled into it from the vent walls. It was still hot enough to melt the edges of the bits of rock so that what you see today are these shapes the same size approximately as bars of soap with their edges smoothed away now part of the pattern in the granite.

    Maybe something to look out for on your next visit?


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