This view in Snowdonia is characteristic of the wartime phase of Neo-Romanticism, a tendency that combined an interest in the dramatic, ‘sublime’ aspects of the Romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a sometimes disturbing modern psychological sensibility.
John Piper, who spent much of the time in North Wales in the 1940s, knew and admired the rugged Welsh mountain landscapes of Richard Wilson. James Ward’s monumental painting Gordale Scar, c.1812–14 may have been another influence.
Piper had become known as a painter of consciously ‘picturesque’ topography and architecture in pleasing states of decay. Ironically, the War Artists Advisory Committee subsequently commissioned intensively worked views in oils and watercolour of bombed and newly ruined buildings. Here, he uses a similar technique, combining various media to create a gloomily atmospheric setting for the rocks he had originally sketched from nature, but which now seem on the point of transformation into writhing, primeval figures.
Alison Smith is lead curator of Watercolour and Curator (Head of British Art to 1900), Tate Britain. Watercolour is at Tate Britain until 21 August 2011