The works date to the 1770s and, as they depict North Wales subjects, they can be directly linked to Sandby’s 1771 tour of the region, which he carried out in the company of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Bt. (1749-1789) and which was to have far reaching consequences both for the development of British landscape painting and for the opening up of Wales as a major tourist destination.
The previous summer Sir Watkin had reached his majority and he celebrated the event by hosting a monumental party, for 15,000 guests, at his family’s seat, Wynnstay, in north-east Wales. Despite his youth, the young baronet was already an important patron of the arts and during that summer, he had invited Sandby to stay and had employed him as his ‘drawings master.’ Sir Watkin was the largest landowner in Wales and his vast estates extended throughout Shropshire, Montgomeryshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Merionethshire and Caernarvonshire. These lands provided him with a great income and in 1771 he decided to embark on a tour in which he hoped not only to see many of his estates for the first time but also to shore up the loyalty of his many tenants. As well as Paul Sandby, Sir Watkin also invited his friends Thomas Apperley, Captain Gascoin and his agent, Samuel Sidebotham to join him and these gentlemen were looked after by nine servants. Travelling on horseback, as the condition of many of the roads was too poor for a carriage, the party left Wynnstay on 6th August and were to return just under a month later, on the 4th September.
Time spent looking at the works in the present lot allows one to recreate much of this now celebrated journey. Sandby opens the series with a view at Overton Bridge (a), which lies to the east of Wynnstay and connects England and Wales. On leaving Williams-Wynn’s home, the party crossed the River Dee at Newbridge (b) and joined the turn-pike road to Llangollen (c). From there they passed the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis (d), before re-joining the Dee once again and following it westwards to Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake). On this stretch of the river Sandby recorded the Mill at Cynwyd (e), nestled as it was in a steep-sided gorge, as well as a particularly beautiful view of the valley, which he identifies as being three miles from the village of Bala (f). Upon arriving at Bala, Sir Watkin ‘entertained the populace with a bonfire and ample supplies of ale’ and Sandby recorded this fête in a dramatic work, which shows the village illuminated by a silvery moon (g).1 After a number of days, the party hired boats and traversed the lake by water (h). Reaching the far end at Glan-Llyn, they saddled up once again and headed south-west to Dolgellau, before eventually meeting the sea at Barmouth. Just after Dolgellau at Dol Gun, which lies on the slopes of Cader Idris, they stopped to inspect an iron forge. Sandby carefully recorded the scene and in so doing captured a slice of the emerging ‘industrial’ world that would become so vital to the prosperity of the country (i).
Having travelled to their most westerly point, the party then struck out in a northerly direction. Following the coast, they passed Edward I’s stronghold, Harlech Castle (j & k), before turning eastwards into the Vale of Ffestiniog. This place is renowned for its stunning beauty and indeed Sandby’s view of the valley, which shows it bathed in the late afternoon sun, is magnificent (l). Next Sir Waktin’s party took the dramatic but treacherous road over the steep mountains of southern Snowdonia. They passed the famous stone bridge at the Aberglaslyn Pass (m), before arriving at Caernarvon. Sandby sketched the castle and here, in the present group, there are two views of the great edifice, one showing the scene by day, the other by night (n & o). After three days' rest, the party made a short excursion to Mount Snowdon. On Lake Llyn Padarn (p) they once again hired boats and then ate lunch among the ruins of Dolbadarn Castle. Sandby also recorded a tall thundering waterfall, which, judging by his view, the others seem to have explored (q).
Having returned to Caernarvon for the night, the following day they crossed over to Anglesey, before travelling back to the mainland at Bangor (r). From there they followed the coast to Conway where their arrival (as was often the case) was announced by the ringing of church bells. Sandby, of course, sketched the extraordinary castle, and here he presents it on a glorious summer’s evening from Coad Benarth (s).
After Conway they followed the River Conwy south, passed the stone bridge at Pont-y-Pair (t) and went as far as Swallow Falls (Rhaeadr-y-Wennol) (u). The party now turned for ‘home’ and, after leaving the Conway valley, Sandby appears to have made no further drawings. Having passed through Rhuthin, Denbigh, St. Asaph, Holywell and Wrexham, Sir Watkin and his entourage arrived back at Wynnstay, tired but surely exhilarated.
Sandby certainly was exhilarated, and Wales remained important to him for many years to come. In the summer of 1773 he made a second tour of the Principality, this time in the company of the great naturalists Sir Joseph Banks, Dr Daniel Solander and the Rev. John Lightfoot (Banks and Solander recently back from their incredible voyage on the Endeavour). Although they did travel in the north - re-visiting some of the locations of the 1771 tour - the focus on this journey was scientific and botanical and Banks' chosen route saw them concentrate largely on the southern coastal regions of the country. In 1772 Sandby exhibited his first Welsh view at the Royal Academy and between 1775 and 1786 he produced four sets of aquatints from drawings he had made on his tours. These publications were titled: XII Views in Aquantinta from Drawings taken on the Spot in South-Wales… (1775); XII Views in North Wales being part of a tour through that fertile and romantick country under the patronage of the Honorable Sir Watkin Williams Wynns Bart… (1776); XII Views in Wales (1777) and XII Views in North and South Wales (1786). Many of the works in the present lot relate to images included in these publications, although in all cases many compositional differences can be found.
Sandby’s tours of Wales were pioneering. Although a few artists, such as the Buck brothers and Richard Wilson, had worked there, the early 1770s was a time when its topography was very seldom experienced and very little known by the outside world. The paintings, watercolours, gouaches and prints that represent the fruits of Sandby’s travels contributed enormously to the public perception of Wales and, by the end of the century, the country had become a major stamping ground for both young artists and tourists alike.
The twenty-one gouaches that make up this lot are a remarkable survival and their re-emergence adds much to our understanding of Sandby, this, as Thomas Gainsborough described him, ‘man of genius.’2
1. P. Hernon, Sir Watkin's Tours..., Wrexham 2013, p. 148
2. S. Daniel et. al., Paul Sandby Picturing Britain, London 2009, p. 190
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