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'Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle', 1765, by Richard Wilson


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About the artwork

Richard Wilson was the most successful 18th century British landscape painter. The son of a clergyman, Wilson had a sound classical education, and this, coupled with powerful family connections, aided his artistic career. Initially he made a good living as a portrait artist. After a long period of study in Rome during the 1750s, he returned to Britain and painted several Welsh views, of which this is the finest. In Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle Wilson did not strive for strict topographical accuracy, but rather for a carefully balanced harmony of forms. To achieve this he made alterations to the size and scale of hills and the positioning of trees and people. It is nature mediated by mind rather than simply mirrored in the canvas.

Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782) trained in London under the painter Thomas Wright and soon established himself as a portrait painter. In 1750 he visited Venice and Rome where he studied the work of artists such as Titian, Poussin and Claude Lorrain. This clearly had a considerable effect on his choice of subject and while in Italy Wilson devoted himself to the painting of landscapes and ancient ruins.

Wilson could speak Italian and this, along with his classical education, made him the ideal companion for British aristocrats making the Grand Tour. They in turn became the immediate clients for his landscapes and views of classical ruins.

On his return to England around 1757 Wilson secured several commissions and established a reputation for landscapes invested with historical meaning and moral messages. Despite the recognition of Wilson's talent, during the 1770s his career began to falter. Wilson's insistence on the Classical tradition was becoming unfashionable and his elite client group was fairly small. Sickness combined with alcoholism led to the eventual collapse of his career.

Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle is one of Wilson's masterpieces: a well thought out composition revealing his skill as a draughtsman. Wilson normally made chalk drawings and produced complex tonal studies, which he regarded as complete works of art, rather than preparatory drawings for big compositions.

Soon after his return from Italy Wilson gave up drawing for its own sake and turned to pencil sketches to produce quick records of scenes that were suitable for paintings. A pencil sketch now in the Huntington Library was the starting point for the painting shown here. A later version of the same view belongs to the Castle Museum in Nottingham.

Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle is notable for the subtlety of its composition. The harmonious diversity of natural forms in the painting can be seen as a metaphor for the unity achieved in society through the careful balance of opposing parts. The sense of tranquillity and order that emanates from the painting promotes an ideal of social order and harmony.

The presence of the mountain in the distance does not inspire awe in the spectator but emphasises the eternity of the landscape. A moral message emerges for the viewer: nature is timelessness, continuous in the past and the present. It is in nature and in peasant life that people can find peace and happiness.

Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle belonged to William Vaughan of Corsygedol (1707-1775), one of the richest landowners in north Wales and probably a distant relative of Wilson. William Vaughan was also involved in the Celtic Revival movement, which was devoted to the preservation of the Welsh language and culture.