Snowdon from Capel Curig: a classical viewpoint

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18 March 2019

Peter Bishop continues his popular series looking at the art past and present inspired by the beautiful Snowdonia National Park. This time one of the finest views in Britain!

The view of Snowdon from Capel Curig situated in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park is considered one of the finest in Britain. This much photographed vista has been reproduced on postcards, calendars, picture books and prints. It is often used in the promotional literature of north Wales as well.

In painting the usual compositional formula used for this vista is classical: a carefully balanced  sequence of recessional planes through which the eye is led. At this viewpoint the panorama of Snowdon fills the distant horizon.

An early example of this view was drawn by Moses Griffith (1747-1819) and published in Thomas Pennant’s (1726-98) travel book, A Tour in Wales under the heading ‘The Journey to Snowdon’, first published singly in 1781 and included in the two volume edition of 1784.

The journey to Snowdon by Moses Griffith (1781)

 Moses Griffith, The Summit of Snowdon from Capel Curig, 1781, engraving, 12 x 19cm

In this topographical view Griffith adheres to the classical model of recessional space. He has included various activities, described by Pennant in his text, such as the hay harvest. This engraved view was seen by many visitors and artists to Snowdonia from the mid 1780s onwards who consulted Pennant for advice. 

PJ de Loutherberg from the Yale centre for British Art

 PJ de Loutherbourg, Snowdon from Capel Curig, a morning, 1787, oil on canvas, 134 x 200cm, Yale Center for British Art. USA.

Among the first artists to paint and exhibit an oil painting of this view was the London-based French-born artist, Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) He had made a tour to north Wales in 1786 and consulted Pennant’s book for guidance. The following year he exhibited two paintings of Snowdon at the Royal Academy in London. This view, and one depicting Dolbadarn Castle and Snowdon. Both views by Griffith had been reproduced earlier in A Tour in Wales (1784).

‘Snowdon from Capel Curig, a morning’, highlights the mountain bathed in an early morning light reminiscent of Italy. This large oil painting was painted in his London studio as an exhibition piece and it did much to enhance the status of Snowdonia for visitors to the Royal Academy that year. A small church and some travellers give scale to the view. The small footbridge acts as a familiar feature in the landscape – a point of human access. There is a rock in the centre foreground upon which the artist has inscribed his name and the date 1787.

Snowdon from Capel Curig by John Varley (1805-10)

John Varley, Snowdon from Capel Curig, 1805-10, unfinished watercolour, 35 x 45cm,V&A, London

An artist who made several tours to north Wales from 1799 to 1802 was John Varley (1778-1842). This watercolour was drawn between 1805-10 in London. Its unfinished state reveals the artists working methods. The structural elements are carefully drawn in pencil; the contour lines are drawn lightly, so they do not intrude into the watercolour washes. The distant mountain forms are  shown in cold blue-green washes emphasising their solidity. The view is presented in a classical  guise similar to De Loutherbourg’s oil paintings of 1787. In Varley’s version of Snowdon from Capel Curig, mountain, wood, lake and stream all combine to satisfy the picturesque taste of the day. Varley produced a large number of versions of this view. They became a popular subject in the London exhibitions and sold well.

During the nineteenth century the view was still being represented but it fell out of favour among artists in the twentieth century, however its popularity in photographic form continues to the present day.

By Peter Bishop artist, writer and lecturer.

For a fuller account of this viewpoint, see, chapter two, Snowdon from Capel Curig: A Classical Viewpoint, pp 33-45, in, Peter Bishop, The Mountains of Snowdonia in Art, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2015.