Llyn Idwal: A Sublime Viewpoint

17 October 2019

Peter Bishop continues his superb series looking over the centuries of art inspired by Snowdonia National Park. 

Llyn Idwal is situated in a hollow beneath steep cliffs in the northern part of the Snowdonia National Park. The lake is a short walk from the nearby A5 in the Nant Ffrancon pass at Llyn Ogwen. As a subject for painting Llyn Idwal appeared comparatively late. It was from the mid 1830s that this location was visited by artists in search of the mountain sublime. At Llyn Idwal most pictures were  characterised by a lack of recessional space and little sky. The often stormy weather added to the visual drama. Obscurity,  immensity and awe in front of nature were themes highlighted as sublime by Edmund Burke in his ‘Enquiry’ first published in 1757.

Samuel Jackson, Llyn Idwal, Snowdonia, c.1835, watercolour, 21 x 31cm, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Samuel Jackson, Llyn Idwal, Snowdonia, c.1835, watercolour, 21 x 31cm, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

An example of a sublime treatment of Llyn Idwal can be seen in this watercolour by the Bristol based artist Samuel Jackson (1794-1869).The obscuring of the view and the fragmentation of the features emphasise the sublime aspect often preferred by visiting artists to this location.

David Cox, Llyn Idwal, 1836, steel engraving, 10 x 14cm, in, Thomas Roscoe, North Wales, 1936, plate XXIII

David Cox, Llyn Idwal, 1836, steel engraving, 10 x 14cm, in, Thomas Roscoe, North Wales, 1936, plate XXIII

Thomas Roscoe’s description of Llyn Idwal:

          I was particularly struck with the bleak and stormy character of

          the scenery around Lake Idwal, singularly situated in a hollow of

          the mountain summit. Restless as the sea, and fiercely swept by

          the autumnal blast, as I passed the lone and savage spot, its

          aspect fell chill upon the spirits...

Thomas Roscoe, North Wales, 1836, p.159.

Thomas Roscoe’s North Wales guidebook was published in 1836. It included a dramatic illustration of Llyn Idwal by David Cox (1783-1859) and would have highlighted the site’s potential for generating the mountain sublime. Roscoe’s book did much to encourage visitors and artists to north Wales and to Llyn Idwal, in particular.

Charles William Mansel Lewis, The Devil’s Kitchen, (Llyn Idwal),1882, oil on canvas, 97 x 184cm  Stradey Castle collection, Llanelli.

Charles William Mansel Lewis, The Devil’s Kitchen, (Llyn Idwal),1882, oil on canvas, 97 x 184cm  Stradey Castle collection, Llanelli.

This large oil painting by Mansel Lewis (1845-1931) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1882. It was painted on location whilst camping at the site for two months with fellow artist Hubert Von Herkomer, who also advised Mansel Lewis on painting. It was painted from the protection of an open fronted temporary shed transported from Stradey Castle, Llanelli by train and then by cart from Betws y Coed station. The term ‘Devil’s Kitchen’ is mentioned by Thomas Pennant in, A Tour in Wales (1784) and refers to a deep crevice that cuts into the cliff face above the lake. The mountains are hidden from view by the obscuring cloud, masking their profiles and adding to the sublime nature of the painting. The visual power of this work is enhanced by the contrasts of light and dark. The limited range of muted browns and brighter hues in the sunlit areas also adds to the sense of desolation at this location.

John Piper, Cwm Idwal, 1949, mixed media drawing, 21 x 28cm, private collection.

John Piper, Cwm Idwal, 1949, mixed media drawing, 21 x 28cm, private collection.

John Piper (1909 x 1992) first visited the area in 1943 while working as an official war artist. He returned after the war and this view of Llyn Idwal was made in 1949. It was based on a sketch made on the spot. Here we have a close-up view of the cliff face above the lake. On the top right can be seen the narrow gully known as the Devil’s Kitchen. The lack of recessional space along with the narrow strip of sky at the top of the picture adds to the sublime effect.

This subject is still popular today, particularly with those artists wishing to explore the mountain sublime and nearby mountains such as Tryfan.

By Peter Bishop artist, writer and lecturer.

For a fuller account of this viewpoint, see, chapter seven, Llyn Idwal: A Sublime Viewpoint pp.124-149, in, Peter Bishop, The Mountains of Snowdonia in Art, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2015.