From around 1844 Cox based much of his subject-matter on the area around Bettws-y-Coed, in the mountains of Caernarvonshire, North Wales. He had started making annual sketching visits to the area at this time, staying first at the Royal Oak inn in the village and later at a farmhouse nearby. Cox became very attached to ‘dear old Bettws’ and its inhabitants, and encouraged other artists to come and paint there, as his friend and biographer William Hall recalls:
For a long succession of summers the famous artist might have been seen – with ruddy complexion, a figure by no means slight, and ‘clad in a suit of sober grey’ lounging before the ‘Royal Oak’, smoking a cigar, or issuing from its then humble portal, sketch-book in hand, after an early breakfast, to jot down with rapid strokes the leading features of some lovely ‘bit’ near at hand, or to trace the lines of some more extensive subject, more distant, in the Lledr valley, or by the side of the beautiful Conway river. He could find nothing in the whole Principality that retained such a hold on his affections - not even the fine scenery around Festiniog, Dolgelly, Llangollen, Barmouth, or elsewhere - as the charming views and subjects with which his favourite Bettws locality abounded.
(Quoted in William Hall, A Biography of David Cox, London 1881, pp.80–1.)
N04844 depicts the funeral procession of a Miss Roberts, a young girl related to the landlord of the Royal Oak in Bettws, who had died of consumption. Both Solly, and later Roe, reported that Cox witnessed the event in 1849 (Solly, p.174). However, the closely related large oil representing the same scene, The Welsh Funeral (City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), is dated 1848, suggesting that the funeral took place in 1847. Cox himself was probably one of the grieving mourners in the procession, and is reported by Solly to appear in both the Tate painting and the Birmingham work as the elderly figure in the foreground with a hat and cape. The village church, whose belfry is lit by the evening sun, was painted frequently by Cox, and he attended services there regularly when staying in Bettws.
An unfinished oil sketch on Cox’s favoured rough Scottish paper, dated by Solly as 1850, N04844 is one of at least six known versions of the subject in both oil and watercolour: ‘Then, more than now, were connoisseurs inclined to commission versions or replicas of works they happened to admire, but which were unavailable. “Will you paint me a ‘Welsh Funeral’ like Mr.Chose’s?” was a request not to be ignored by an artist with his livelihood at stake.’ (Roe, pp.72–3) Cox bequeathed Tate’s version to his son when he died, and the work was shown in 1890 at the first major exhibition of Cox’s work after his death, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
The stormy, dramatic sky and dark colouring of the N04844 give it a more sombre atmosphere than that of the mellow, sunlit scene in both the Birmingham painting and the large 1850 watercolour painting of the subject (Whitworth Art Gallery). Tate’s version, painted from a point further away from the church, shows a less leafy and more stark, mountainous landscape behind the figures, increasing the scene’s bleakness and solemnity.
The overt symbolism in the work is unusual in Cox’s oeuvre. Cox himself remarked on the detail of the girls playing with poppies on the wall on the right of the painting: ‘You must not think that those are common field flowers. Oh, no! they are poppies, symbolical of the sleep of death.’ (Quoted in Solly, p.252.) The painting was described by Solly as, ‘a grand and impressive picture, the figures very natural and effective’ (Solly, p.207).
F. Gordon Roe, Cox the Master: the Life and Art of David Cox 1783–1859, Leigh-on-Sea 1946.
Stephen Wildman, Richard Lockett and John Murdoch, David Cox 1783–1859, exhibition catalogue, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, 1983.