EDWARD PUGH: Place and Landscape in Six Views of Denbighshire, 1794

John Barrell, Edward Pugh of Ruthin, 1763-1813. ‘A Native Artist’ (University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 2013).

by Ailsa Hutton

In 1794, Edward Pugh was to publish by subscription a series of images known as Six Views in Denbighshire, a set of recognisable localities within the region of north Wales where the artist was born and raised. The watercolours, en grisaille, were engraved by William Ellis, measured 12 by 9 inches, and each one was dedicated to a member of the Welsh gentry. These views were the work of an artist that had experienced moderate success in the London art world, exhibiting several paintings at the Royal Academy between 1793 and 1808, and providing the illustrations for the 1804 publication Modern London, published by Richard Phillips. Between 1804 and his death, Pugh worked on his topographical account of Wales, Cambria Depicta, which was described as “a TOUR through NORTH WALES, illustrated with 71 Picturesque Views of that Romantic Country, beautifully coloured from Nature.”[1] The volume was topographical in style, covering matters surrounding the country’s natural features, settlements and land use, industry and commerce, its institutions, history and monuments, but was also intended as a guide to where artists might find views worthy of depicting.

It was by sheer coincidence that John Barrell discovered an unsigned and undated watercolour in the 1990s that led him to piece together Pugh’s significant artistic and literary output. In his most recent publication, Barrell has given a detailed account of this previously little-known artist, documenting his life and work in ten beautifully illustrated chapters.

Barrell’s is the first work to pay any attention to Edward Pugh as an artist or otherwise. He covers each of the Six Views in the first six chapters, chapter seven examines his drawings for Modern London, and the final three chapters discuss the Cambria Depicta. Barrell places his reading of Pugh’s landscapes within the social, economic, political and artistic conditions that existed in Britain during the time in which they were created and therefore dedicates his large introduction to providing a rather thorough historical context. The reader’s understanding of the Six Views particularly benefits from this in-depth historical context, as Barrell sees these views as relating to and “understood in terms of, contemporary issues and conflicts: the exploitation of common land, the collapse of marginally profitable lead mines, the pauperization of the families of enlisted men, the survival or otherwise of customary rights and of the moral economy, the progress of improvement, and so on.”[2] One of the key strands of Barrell’s reading of Pugh appears, as indicated in the title, to be his value as a native artist, an artist who intimately knows the areas he is depicting. In this sense, Pugh represents scenes of northern Welsh villages with an understanding and accuracy that the English tourists and artists flooding into Wales in this period, who depicted Welsh scenery as sublime and generalised landscapes, could simply not do. Pugh and his work have a “hybrid” characteristic, in line with Pugh’s dual identity as an artist, as a “London-Welshman”, one who operated at both a national and local level in London and North Wales, as well as Chester. His Six Views could speak to both a local audience who recognised and understood the scenes, villages and activities he was depicting, but also appealed to a national and metropolitan audience who readily consumed prints such as these of the “now established genre of ‘views’, sequences of prints often depicting the rough, picturesque landscape of Wales and Scotland now being explored by tourists in great numbers.”[3] Pugh was commercially minded when it came to marketing the Views in London, but also was careful in aiming the intensely local views at Welsh landowners. The Views themselves certainly have a hybrid quality as they operate between popular contemporary aesthetic modes of representation such as the Picturesque, the Sublime and the Beautiful, taking on aspects of each mode but never fully becoming one or another.

Perhaps a more satisfactory category in which to place Pugh’s work is in topographical art: Pugh’s artistic style hoverss “between ‘landscape’ and ‘topography’”, that is to say between landscape painting that portrayed idealised scenery, such as the Picturesque sought to do, in the manner of Claude Lorrain and topographical art which took real scenery, usually an identifiable and named spot, as its subject generally remaining truthful to the appearance of the landscape itself. The relationship between landscape art and topographic art in this period is somewhat complex, as Barrell’s account makes plain.[4] Pugh’s views seem in some respects to apply to both of these categories, as both a generic landscape and a place. To a local audience his image was recognisable as an actual place, and their interest in the image therefore would stem from their familiarity with the scenery and activities shown within it. However, people who saw his Views but had never visited Wales would have little interest in the topographical accuracy of the place and would instead view the image as a landscape.

Barrell’s analysis of Pugh’s Six Views draws attention to the varied concerns at play within them. Many of the picturesque elements within them are to do with composition and arrangement, such as sweeping framing devices, dark foregrounds and the division of the picture into parts, but also through the way in which the subjects are depicted, emphasising roughness and variation in texture. Sublime subjects are often included in the views, such as hills and peaks, and rocky waterfalls, while antiquities that allude to Wales’ ancient past also form parts of his subject-matter. While the locations Pugh draws are undoubtedly of real places which he has visited and sketched in situ, he often delicately distorts the landscape in order to include, omit or exaggerate certain features. However, the way in which Pugh subtly included aspects of more recent activity in the landscape within the Views, such as the vestiges of fading industries like mining, the looming threat of enclosure and the effect it will have on the local inhabitants, and the improvement of roads and bridges in the Denbighshire area, does not fall into the criteria of the Picturesque or the Sublime. It is these subtle hints towards contemporary concerns that make Barrell assign the Six Views to topographic art rather than the Picturesque or Sublime. This, in turn, draws attention to the varied and complex nature of topographic art and topography itself, that it can represent many different concerns while still appealing to a metropolitan audience that favoured such aesthetic categories as the Picturesque and Sublime.

This is something that is emphasised by Barrell, as he strives to explain topography and topographical art in its more “expansive sense.” Like a number of other recent publications that seek to explain topography and its relationship with other aesthetic modes of interpretation in a more satisfactory way, Barrell’s approach focuses not on the way in which the landscape has been represented, whether idealised or accurate, but instead upon how topographical art has the ability to say different things to different audiences.[5] For example, Pugh’s Six Views managed to allude to the improvement and modernization, both economic and in its agriculture and infrastructure, of Wales whilst also looking backward at the loss of native tradition and a moral economy that modernization would inevitably bring. In this way, Pugh’s Six Views of Denbighshire together demonstrate how topographical art often represents not just one, but multiple readings of a place. For Barrell, topographical art allows us to understand a place as ”contested sites, places over which different interests assert different claims.” Unlike the Picturesque or other forms of idealised landscape art, topographical views “will be views of places that have been modified by who has owned them and who has worked them, by who inhabits them and who visits them.”[6] This, then, presents images like Pugh’s as having multiple meanings, some of which will only be understood by people who know and understand the location being depicted, and others which will have relevance and significance within a national sphere. Barrell’s reading of Edward Pugh’s Six Views is a substantial contribution not only to the life and times of the Welsh artist Edward Pugh, but to the study of landscape in late eighteenth century Britain.

Notes

  1. Taken from the Advertisement for the Cambria Depicta in the Morning Chronicle dated 4 June 1816, cited in Barrell 2013, 171.
  2. Barrell 2013, 31.
  3. Barrell 2013, 31
  4. Barrell 2013, 143-148. Barrell’s point here is that ‘Topographic art’ was actually not an eighteenth-century term used to describe a distinctly visual mode of landscape representation but rather a more fluid term that was linked with literature and antiquarianism. The term only came to be used as a distinction between idealised and real landscape representation in the later nineteenth century.
  5. See for example, S. Daniels & J. Bonehill (eds.), Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain (London, 2009); A. Bermingham, Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a polite and Useful Art (New Haven, 2000); S. Daniels, Fields of Vision: Landscape Imagery and National Identity in England and the United States (Cambridge, 1993).
  6. Barrell 2013, 148.
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