Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection

THOMAS STOTHARD
1755-1834

66 Hafod c.1810

Pencil with stump work on thin wove paper 20.9 x 16.4 (8 1/4 x 6 1/2)
Inscribed in pencil bottom right 'Hafod'

T10075

The inscription on this drawing identifies the view as a scene at Hafod, the estate of Thomas Johnes MP on the banks of the river Ystwyth not far from Aberystwyth in Wales. From 1780 when he inherited Hafod until his death Johnes dramatically improved the valley and the hills which surrounded his house according to the latest picturesque principles. The Picturesque, as the word suggests, invited the viewer to look at the landscape as a picture: Johnes, with his Gothick house, the winding paths, bridges over rushing torrents, hewn-out caves and, as one writer put it, the 'mighty and magnificent theatre of varied forests ascending majestically from the river' which he planted (Cumberland 1796, p.30), very consciously created a series of views which did just this. Johnes was also a scholar, patron of art and had a fine library, so Hafod soon became a magnet for educated travellers who wished to experience a terrain in which 'the Painter's Eye, the Poet's Mind' (Cumberland 1796, p.1) came together. Artists who responded to Hafod included Thomas Jones (see nos.43-5) in 1786 (Hallett 1992), J.C. Ibbetson and John 'Warwick' Smith (nos. 51-2; Clay 1948, pp.37-8) in 1793 who produced a series of views of the estate, and probably J.M.W. Turner in 1798.

Stothard was not among these first visitors. Although two of his very first exhibits in 1777 were of Welsh landscapes, his livelihood and reputation thereafter rested almost exclusively on the numerous designs he produced for engraved book illustrations. In fact he was not an artist who, in looking at landscape, would be swayed by the rules of picturesque theory. Rather, his sketchbooks were filled with sketches of 'whatever his leisure permitted, and chance presented to him' (C.R. Leslie quoted in Fleming-Williams 1994, p.66). He was not one, then, to look at landscape selectively and even critically, as Turner did in 1798 when he saw Snowdon as 'green and unpicturesque' on a clear day (Farington, vol.3, p.1060) or as Johnes himself did when he wrote that 'the first green of spring is enchanting, though it may not be picturesque' (Moore-Colyer 1992, p.196).

Stothard's first known visit to Hafod was in September 1805 when he was there as drawing master to Johnes's twenty-one-year-old daughter Mariamne. (Moore-Colyer 1992, pp.198-9). The house at Hafod burnt down in 1807, and Stothard's next known visit was in 1810 when he painted eight murals in oil for Johnes's new library. Stothard wrote at this time to his wife of how 'I have no exercise but what the pencil [i.e. paintbrush] affords me.... Sometimes I get an hour out of doors, to get a little air. The small room I paint in affords me none' (Moore-Colyer 1992, p.262; Bray 1851, p.55). This drawing is on paper watermarked 1807 and it therefore seems most likely that it dates from this 1810 stay, as probably do a number of other similar sketches done as a relief from mural painting (Bennett 1979, pp.273-7).

This sketch, drawn with a soft pencil and using a shorthand of looped lines and squiggles which catch the motif but also indicate an artist used to working in a hurry, speaks plainly of 'the crisped heads of Hafods woods' (Cumberland 1796, p.10), perhaps above one of the tributaries of the Ystwyth.

Stothard's modest output of mature landscape drawings tends to be rather overlooked because of his work as an illustrator and his early links with a much greater figure, William Blake. However, from about 1811, when they became friendly, it is conceivable that the directness of Stothard's way of looking at landscape influenced Constable and they are recorded as going on walks when they both sketched (Bennett 1979, p.275; Fleming-Williams 1994, p.65).

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.168 no.66, reproduced in colour p.169