Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Augustus John: Models in a north Wales landscape

Derwent Lees 'A Welsh Landscape'.Location,The Arenig Fawr outlier of Pen Tyrau.

Of all the mountains in Wales, for me, Arenig Fawr is easily the King..or perhaps it should be Queen?...of Welsh peaks. This brooding massif surrounded by the rough bounds of the Migneint, encompasses everything that is mysterious and romantic in mountain lore. It even harbours within its bounds, a contemporary human tragedy and in that, an event that can teach us something about the folly and ignorance of those who have political power. I refer of course to the destruction of the Treweryn valley and the village of Capel Celyn to create a pointless and unnecessary reservoir . An action which I blogged about a couple of years ago in The Drowning Season.

In fact, I’ve always found the mountain a rich creative seam to mine. Inspiring both art and climbing pieces which have appeared in the climbing press and blogs. In the early 90’s I had a piece in the then Climber & Rambler magazine, ‘The Art of Arenig’, which detailed the mysterious and as yet unrecorded climbing history on Arenig Fawr and the mountain’s unique place in British art. The mountain inspiring ‘The Arenig School’; An Edwardian art movement led by the leading light of the day, Augustus John but which has James Dickson Innes as the mainspring of the movement. See ‘James Dickson Innes..Artist of the Sacred Mountain’ for more.

Interestingly, The Arenig School-based in the cottage of Nant Ddu nearby-only lasted a couple of years- 1910/12-before Augustus had moved across the moors to the slate mining village of Tan y Grisiau near Blaneau Ffestiniog, where he rented a cottage and carried on painting the local landscapes and his muse Dorelia....and any other model who happened to pass under his spell!

Anyone interested in his art and who is familiar with the landscapes of north Wales cannot help but play ‘spot the location’. Not particularly with his landscapes, as these are fairly obvious for most parts. It’s more interesting and difficult though when a model is involved as often he just plonks them on a hillside or sits them on a rock which could be anywhere.

Anywhere except we know it has to be either under Arenig or under the climbing crags of the Moelwyns where his now ruined cottage is located. For years I believed that the cottage of Llwynynthyl was in Cwm Orthin, the vast open valley which most walkers heading up to Moelwyn Mawr pass through. However, an art programme, ‘Framing Wales', on BBC Wales presented by Kim Howells- the fascinating former NUM secretary, Labour MP, Culture Secretary in the Blair government and rock climber- who offered a different location to Llwynynthyl when he scaled an easy climb on one of the Moelwyn cliffs. After completing the climb, he pointed to the ruins of Llwynynthyl which sits above..or is it below?..the road up to the Stwlan Dam.
So..with this in mind,here’s a few educated guesses as to model locations.

The Red Feather:1911 Augustus John
I’m pretty sure that this is on the western slopes of Arenig Fawr under a crag known as Craig Hyrddod,( Crag of the Rams) less than a mile from Nant Ddu. In 1997 I made a first climb on Hyrddod which due to a misinterpretation, I called ‘Hurricane Wall’, thinking that the Welsh name translated as storm or tempest. Huge boulders abound hereabouts and there is a curious shrine at the base of the cliff. Another climb I did here I called Pagan Wall.

The Orange Apron:1912: Augustus John
This has to be a Tan y Griseau painting. Looking up to the high point of Moelwyn Bach from the lower slopes of Moel  yr Hydd with the slate mine levels clearly visible.

Reverie:1914 and Doreilia in a Green Dress:1914

Confusingly, Reverie is also referred to as ‘The Tired Climber’ and ‘Doreilia in Cornwall’. Most certainly this is not Cornwall but is it a Tan y Griseau painting or an Arenig work? I originally thought it had to be the lower slopes of Moel yr Hydd above the cottage, Llwynynthyl, but it could be just slightly north of the Red Feather location beneath the saddle which connects Pen Tyrau with Arenig Fawr. Both paintings show what could be a stone wall which suggests Arenig.

Lily on the mountainside:1911

This has to be looking north east from Moel yr Hydd towards Nyth y Gigfran and the mouth of Cwm Orthin. Climbers will recognize it as the location of the popular venue, Craig y Clipau.

Lyndra by the Pool: 1914-Derwent Lees.

This is a work by the Australian painter, Derwent Lees. A lesser figure in the Arenig School, very much influenced by Augustus John. Location, the lower slopes of the Arenig outlier,Pen Tyrau.

Lyndra by the rocks:1914.Derwent Lees
Lyndra appears to be Lees’ muse very much in the manner of John’s Dorelia. Here, the artist has placed his model in the lee of what appears a sizable cliff.The light and shade would suggest that it is the basalt quarry just lower down the Pen Tyrau mountainside and close to Arenig village.

So....a few educated stabs at the locations of these paintings.Anyone with their own theories,feel free to get in touch.

Anyone interested in the Arenig School then I recommend Michael Holroyd’s monumental biography of Augustus John which covers the period in great detail.

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