Glendalough, meaning 'Glen of Two Lakes', is a glacial valley in Co. Wicklow, renowned for its important early medieval monastic settlement, which was founded in the 6th Century by St. Kevin (c. 498-618), a hermit priest. Despite being almost completely destroyed in 1398 by English troops, Glendalough has remained a place of pilgrimage. In 1825 Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), whilst on a visit to Glendalough, described the view as 'the inestimably singular scene of Irish antiquity' (Laffan, op.cit., p. 236).
Wheatley has chosen to illustrate the view down the valley with the sun breaking through the clouds casting shadows on the various ruins below. The light draws the eye over the ivy-strewn chapel on the left of the sheet, over the figures in the centre as they meander through the ruins and across the valley past St. Kevin's church to the right of the sheet.
The watercolour is dated 1779, which was a year of significant artistic activity in Glendalough, encouraged by Colonel William Burton (1733-1796) who had founded the Hibernian Antiquarian Society to promote the country's rich heritage. In 1779, having just been elected to the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London, Wheatley fled to Dublin with another man's wife with whom he lived for several years, whilst travelling the country and sketching out-of-doors. His work of this period ranges from rural scenes such as the present work, to more formal and stately subjects such as The Irish House of Commons, painted in 1780, and now in the collection of the Leeds Museums and Galleries.
There is another watercolour of Glendalough by Wheatley, probably executed during the same visit as the present watercolour, in the Cooper Collection in the Prints and Drawings Department of the National Library in Dublin.