Walking around the Royal Academy exhibition at the beginning of May 1903, the art critic of The Speaker stopped in front of Alfred East's three landscapes and noted:
'the foremost is entitled Tintern, in the Valley of the Wye. From a hillside, as it were, garnished with fantastic firs, one looks down on lowland and river, gloriously sunlit, almost formal and typographical in design, but ennobled by a certain dignity of style. One feels that the decorative instinct here is supreme; the curvature of line, the carefully balanced planes of colour, the cool foreground itself, which is nothing more or less than a supplemental frame for the panoramic scene beyond, point to this conclusion.'
Scanning the others, Morning the Berkshire Meadow and The Castle of Coeur de Lion, and looking generally around at the other landscapes on show, the writer concluded, 'On the whole [Tintern] must take precedence, as being the most completely satisfactory'.1
East travelled to Tintern in October 1902.2 He knew that both Turner and Cotman had worked there and he went 'to discover the spot which inspired Wordsworth's famous poem'. For him there could be no more iconic landscape in English art and letters than the Wye at Tintern. Eulogized by William Wordsworth in his Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey...(1798) it inspired some of the best-known phrases in English poetry of the Romantic period. The beauty of the Wye had been 'discovered' and extensively described by the Rev William Gilpin two decades earlier and by the 1790s it was already a favourite location for travellers in search of the picturesque.3 However, over one hundred years later its classic viewpoints had fallen into neglect and tours of picturesque Wales, Scotland and the Lake District, with the burgeoning of continental travel and the industry of Thomas Cook, were less common. One of East's goals was to reclaim the landscape scenery of the British Isles - an ambition he shared with Philip Wilson Steer, David Murray and a host of lesser Edwardian painters.4
Wordsworth's descriptive passages provided East with an ideal set of ingredients for his picture. It must contain, he later wrote, 'groves and copses', 'little lines of sportive wood run wild', 'pastoral farms', and 'smoke rising through trees 'In the quest, he found 'an ancient pathway disused for probably a generation' and employed a gardener with a billhook from the local inn to hack a way through undergrowth. He then 'emerged into an open space which overlooked the landscape'. 'The ruins', East declared,
'shone in the afternoon sunshine which bathed the whole valley in that ineffable glamour so difficult to describe either by paint or words.'5
That autumn he produced pencil sketches and watercolours of Chepstow Castle and the footbridge at Claerwen, but it was the sight of Tintern that provided the defining moment. A horizontal canvas (untraced), a watercolour (Alfred East Gallery, Kettering) backed up the experience which found its ultimate expression in the present magisterial oil.
Although he was exhibiting a close competitor for critics attention in The Castle of Coeur de Lion (Chateau Gaillard) (Northampton Museums and Art Gallery) - a bastion providing a rugged symbol for a generation finally victorious in its struggle with the Boers - most critics agreed on the high overall quality of his work. Tintern was, according to The Art Journal, 'the finest record of nature in the room,'
'... an upright landscape designed with admirable decorative elegance, and carried out in a scheme of golden colour. It emphasises strongly Mr East's claim to be ranked among the most thoughtful stylists of our modern school. The sense of balance and adjustment, of harmony and contrast, and of the relation of mass to mass, and tone to tone, which it reveals throughout, is a rare possession, and one which cannot be too assiduously cultivated.'6
The Magazine of Art was equally enthusiastic, describing both Tintern and The Castle of Coeur de Lion as 'novel in aspect and treatment, bold in masses, in colour, and effect ...'7
When asked a year later by The Strand Magazine to cite the 'finest view' in Britain, East had no difficulty recalling that vivid first impression which led to the present canvas. While there were many fine views to attract the landscape painter, 'the one which is in my mind as I write is the valley of the Wye at Tintern in the golden light of an October day'.8 He told its editor, 'you may remember that Turner painted from the meadow on the left of the river', but this vantage point which he had unearthed revealed the full majesty of the scene - its ancient monastic settlement, fertile fields, rows of cottages and bridge exemplifying a community joined as one. The writer went on to quote the authoritative Murray's Handbook:
'It is one of the most remarkable and beautiful views in England - not surpassed in grandeur by any other river scene in Europe'.9
East, the world traveller, the painter who had painted in North America, Japan, Egypt, and extensively in France, Spain and Italy, was quintessentially the interpreter of British fields. Foreign experiences, Frederick Wedmore contended, brought him back 'with all the fresher feeling to the land an English landscape painter is of necessity, born to paint'.10 When, in 1910, his old friend Charles Holme, editor of The Studio, asked East to pen his recollections of the Wye as a sketching ground, he remembered the difficulty he had in finding this particular location,
'When I went down to Tintern in the valley of the Wye, I wondered if it were possible to find a subject in this famous sketching ground which had not been painted before. I spent some days in trying to discover a position where the beauty of the windings of the Wye best revealed themselves. I clambered over stony places, toiled across ploughed fields. The approach to the point I wished to reach appeared to be blocked by a tangle of brambles and a confused mass of brushwood. Returning to the inn, the gardener with a bill-hook cleared my passage. I emerged into a space which overlooked the landscape. At my feet nestled the roofs of the little village. I could see the blue water of the Wye forming a large curve, diminishing in width as it receded into the distance...'11
East enjoyed landscapes viewed from a height, where he could create the impression of looking down into the scene. He responded to the decorative quality of slender saplings that grew in these places. Trees, and their sinuous shapes, were East's delight. He referred to them as the 'peers in the nobility of Nature ... entitled to the first place in the consideration of the landscape painter' and he was not averse to bending their contours to suit his composition.12 In this instance they framed one of the most significant British landscapes. From his eyrie there is a steep decline and the valley floor is tilted up towards us to reveal its true design. He concludes (pp. 142-5) that
'One is not surprised that such a scene evoked the poetic expression of Wordsworth; but there were beauties that even that superb poet could not express - beauties of conjunction of form and colour to which none but the art of the landscape painter could do justice.'13
1 F.J.M., 'The Royal Academy I', The Speaker, 9 May 1903, p. 137. 2 A dated sketchbook page (illustrated East, Studio, vol. L, 1910, p. 141) indicates that the painter was working in Tintern in October 1902.
3 William Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales etc relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 was published in 1782 with aquatints by his nephew, William Sawrey, based on Gilpin's own sketches.
4 Kenneth McConkey, Memory and Desire, British and Irish painting at the turn of the twentieth century, 2002 (Ashgate), pp. 62-83.
5 Alfred East, 'Tintern and the Wye as a Sketching Ground', The Studio, vol. L., 1901, pp. 141-6. East was actually close to a view point known as the Devil's Pulpit.
6 A.L. Baldry, 'The Royal Academy Exhibition of 1903', The Art Journal, 1903, p. 170.
7 M.H. Spielmann, 'The Royal Academy, 1903', The Magazine of Art, 1903, p. 426. See also Anon., 'The Royal Academy II', The Graphic, 16 May 1903, p. 648 and H.S., 'Art-The Academy', 9 May 1903, p. 739.
8 Anon., 'What is the finest view in the Kingdom? Great Artist Opinions', The Strand Magazine, vol. xxvii, July-December 1904, p. 172 (illustrated).
10 Frederick Wedmore, 'The Work of Alfred East RI', The Studio, vol. VII, 1896, p. 142; quoted in Johnson and McConkey, p. 41.
11 Alfred East, 'Tintern and the Wye as a Sketching Ground', The Studio, vol. L, 1901, pp. 142-5; quoted in Johnson and McConkey, p. 32.
12 Sir Alfred East RA, The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour, 1906 (Cassel & Co. Ltd. 1919 reprint), p. 52.