Catalogue entry

T04172 Bedlam Furnace, Madeley Dale, Shropshire 1803

Watercolour over pencil with stopping out and scratching out on wove paper laid down onto a second sheet of coarse wove paper 324 × 550 (12 3/4 × 21 5/8)
Inscribed ‘P.S. Munn 1803’ b.r.
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Prov: ...; Bonhams 1 July 1960 (225), 26 gns bt L.G. Duke; Duke sale, Sotheby's 11 Feb. 1971 (145) £110 bt Judy Egerton, from whom purchased by the Tate Gallery
Exh: RA 1803 (625); Landscape in Britain c.1750–1850, Tate Gallery, Nov. 1973–Feb. 1974 (270, repr.); A View from the Iron Bridge, RA 1979 (69)
Lit: Sydney D. Kitson, The Life of John Sell Cotman, 1937, p.41; Francis Donald Klingender, Art and the Industrial Revolution, 1947, revised ed. 1968, p.101; Rüdiger Joppien, Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, RA, 1740–1812, exh. cat, Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood 1973, p.52; Judy Egerton, English Watercolour Painting, 1979, p.12, repr. pl.37 (detail); Stuart Smith, A View from the Iron Bridge, Iron-bridge 1979, p.49, no.69, repr. p.50 (col.); Michael Jacobs and Malcolm Warner, The Phaidon Companion to Art and Artists in the British Isles, 1980, p.MD 18, repr. p.MD 20 (detail); Michael Rosenthal, British Landscape Painting, 1982, p.96, repr. p.97 (detail); Judy Egerton, British Watercolours, Tate Gallery 1986, p.13, pl.13 (col.)

Paul Sandby Munn is remembered today as one of the lesser figures in the story of British watercolour painting. His work is competent but generally rather pedestrian. In the early years of the nineteenth century, however, when working alongside his friend and fellow watercolourist John Sell Cotman (1782–1842), Munn produced a number of drawings of considerable expressive force, of which ‘Bedlam Furnace, Madeley Dale’ is, perhaps, the prime example.

Munn was named after his godfather, the celebrated watercolourist Paul Sandby (1730–1809), who is said to have given him his first instructions in watercolour painting. In 1799 he became a member of the ‘Sketching Society’ founded by Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), where participants would meet to draw original designs for ‘poetick passages’. Munn became close friends with fellow member John Sell Cotman, and the two artists toured Wales together in 1802 and Yorkshire in 1803. From 1798 Munn had been exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy. Towards the end of 1805, together with eight other artists he became an Associate Exhibitor of the recently established Old Watercolour Society (J.L.Roget, A History of the ‘Old Watercolour Society’, 1891, I, p.208). He exhibited at the Society between 1806 and 1815, mainly subjects in Derbyshire and the Lake District, but was never elected to full membership. By the 1810s, Munn had settled in Hastings as a drawing master, and after 1932 largely gave up painting for music. He died in Margate in 1845.

Bedlam Furnace was situated in the Severn Gorge in Shropshire around Coalbrookdale, near what is now Ironbridge. This area was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, for it was here in 1709 that the Quaker iron-maker Abraham Darby first pioneered a method of smelting iron ore using coke (a type of coal) instead of charcoal (produced by burning timber). It was some forty years before the new process was widely practised, but during the course of the following century the output of pig-iron in Britain was increased by nearly three thousand per cent. Thanks to the availablility of suitable coal, so close to good deposits of ironstone, Shropshire had a head start over other parts of the country (Brian Bailey, The Industrial Heritage of Britain, 1982, pp.88–9). The success and confidence of the iron industry in the region was epitomised by the erection of a cast-iron bridge over the River Severn at Coalbrookdale in 1779, the first of its kind in the world.

From the middle of the eighteenth century, Coalbrookdale was widely visited by travellers en route to Wales, the Midlands or the Severn Valley, attracted by the forges, mills, furnaces and kilns which lay in the gorge of the River Severn, and also by the iron bridge. The heavily-wooded gorge was itself an object of considerable natural beauty - Arthur Young, touring Shropshire in 1776, spoke of it as ‘a very romantic spot’ - and the site became reputed for the contrasts between the beauty of the valley and the sublime horror of industry (Klingender 1968, p.89). Artists who made sketches in the area in the second half of the eighteenth century included Joseph Farington (1747–1821), Michael Angelo Rooker (1743–1801), George Robertson (1724–1788) and William Williams (c.1740–98). However, it was not until about the turn of the century that Coalbrookdale became the subject for significant, larger scale oil paintings, notably: ‘Limekiln at Coalbrookdale’ by J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; M. Butlin and E. Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, 1977; revised ed. 1984, no.22); and ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’ by Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740–1812) (Science Museum, see Joppien 1973, no.72; repr.in col., Smith 1979, p.46).

When Munn and Cotman passed through the area on their tour to Wales in 1802, then, they were travelling through celebrated picturesque territory. Kitson gives details of their route, via Bridgnorth to Wenlock and Broseley, and then to Iron Bridge and Coalbrookdale (Kitson 1937, p.41). He argues that the two artists were keen to gather as much material as possible on the tour, and were probably therefore working almost entirely in pencil (ibid., p.40). Munn's watercolour of Bedlam was no doubt worked up from a pencil sketch made on the spot: although no specific preparatory study appears to survive, other pencil studies in the vicinity are known to have been made by him on the tour (two of the Iron Bridge are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, repr. Smith 1979, nos.67–8). Munn's viewpoint is almost identical to that adopted by De Loutherbourg in ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’, and it seems more than likely that he knew the canvas, especially since it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801. In about 1802–3 Cotman also made a watercolour showing blast furnaces, which is traditionally thought to show Bedlam, though from a viewpoint further back (private collection, John Sell Cotman 1782–1842, exh. cat., Arts Council 1982, no.12, where the geographical location of the work is questioned; repr. in col., The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750–1880, exh. cat., RA 1993, no.44). Like De Loutherbourg before them, both watercolourists celebrate the drama inherent in the blazing industrial landscape.

Bedlam Furnaces were built in 1757 by the Madeley Wood Company and were in blast until the 1840s when the company moved to Blists Hill. Madeley was known as ‘Bedlam’ during this period (see Art and the Industrial Revolution, exh. cat., Manchester City Art Gallery 1968, p.49), presumably because the frenzy and uproar of industry were associated in people's minds with the activities of a madhouse. The furnaces produced a wide range of castings, and in particular steam engine parts, and were well known for high quality foundry iron. The buildings in Munn's watercolour (corresponding exactly with those in De Loutherbourg's canvas) have been identified as follows: ‘the group on the right are the furnaces proper with the smith's shop and joiner's shop nearest. Immediately behind this building can be seen a tall engine house with two chimneys and the furnace and casting house are on the immediate right ... the flames and smoke ... are from the extensive coke hearths which were situated above the furnaces’ (Smith 1979, p.46). The group of buildings to the left was demolished to build the Ironbridge gasworks in the 1830s (ibid.).

Munn's watercolour of Bedlam was shown at the Royal Academy in 1803, but Cotman's version is not known to have been exhibited during his lifetime. Like De Loutherbourg's canvas, both watercolours are important visual documents of the Industrial Revolution, the more so since representations (especially of this aesthetic quality) are relatively rare. By the early nineteenth century, it became less easy for people to see such scenes as either pleasing or positively sublime: ‘early euphoria about Britain's industrial supremacy ... eventually gave way to a worrying awareness of the commercial and social problems which followed industrial expansion’ (Tate Gallery exh. cat., 1973, p.68). Representations of Coalbrookdale dating from after 1802–3 are much less numerous, although the site continued to be painted well into the twentieth century, by artists such as Philip Wilson Steer, John Nash and John Piper (Smith 1979, pp.67–71 passim).

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996