The view is taken from the road between Beddgelert and Caernarvon with Pont Sant in the foreground and shows Mynnydd Mawr or Elephant Mountain. As with other watercolours resulting from Girtin's 1798 tour, Girtin did not include any local details and the view has only just been identified as North Wales (see G. Smith, Thomas Girtin: The Art of Watercolour, exhibition catalogue, 2002, p. 155).
In 1798 both Thomas Girtin and J.M.W.Turner made sketching tours in Wales. Turner covered the whole of the Principality, and returned to Snowdonia the following year to make a remarkable series of watercolours documenting his response to these, the highest mountains that Londoners seeking the Sublime could find south of the Scottish Highlands. Girtin too registered his sense of the grandeur of the place in a series of impassioned studies which he used as points of reference for some of his most impressive mountain subjects. He was particularly struck by the bony anatomy of these wild scenes, and made the very structure of the rocks his central theme. This view of the strange-shaped 'elephant' mountain Myddydd Mawr, to the west of Snowdon, deliberately contrasts its distinctively bald silhouette and rocky northern face with the pastoral sweeps of the hills bordering the river Cwellyn at its foot. With characteristic indifference to the imperatives of traditional topography, he half-obscures the great rock mass and places it, not in the centre of his composition, but away to the left, glimpsed, as it were, by an eye enraptured by the sheer expanse of the panorama.
The watercolour is based on a fine coloured study in the British Museum (see Fig. 1), which records the scene as the traveller approaches Mynnydd Mawr along the valley of the river from Caernarfon. As always with the mature Girtin, the broad masses of the landscape - and the expressive sky - are allowed to dictate the compositional thrust. Details such as figures, the grazing cattle or the sheep in a distant sunlit field are deployed to set off the larger rhythms and establish the tremendous scale of this marvellously compact, and economical design. The exceptionally fine condition of the work ensures that the impact of the artist's conception is conveyed to us today in all its power and originality. (For another example of a watercolour resulting from the artist's 1798 tour of Wales, see Fig. 2.)
The first owner of this watercolour, Elizabeth Weddell, wife of William Weddall of Newby Hall, has recently been identified as one of Girtin's most enlightened and important patrons, described in a letter from Lady Louisa Stuart to the Duchess of Buccleuch, 1798, as a woman 'who understands and loves pictures', she was the sister of Sir John Ramsden of Byram. Girtin may have come into contact with Ramsden family through the Lascelles family of Harewood, who were members of the same artisic and political circles in which Ramsden moved; Lord Rockingham, an important and influential figure amongst the Whig party, was Mrs Weddell's brother-in-law as Lady Rockingham was her half-sister. Lord Rockingham was influential in both the selection of Edwin Lascelles, later Lord Harewood, as County Member for Yorkshire and Ramsden's own election to Parliament in 1780. Lord Harewood's successor was his cousin, Edward, later 1st Earl of Harewood, whose son Edward was, from 1798, Girtin's principal patron. In 1799, the year this watercolour was executed, Girtin was staying with Edward Lascelles at Harewood House to give tuition to the younger Edward Lascelles. Girtin subsequently executed four large watercolours for Lascelles (see D. Hill, Harewood Masterpieces, Leeds, 1995, pp. 28-40).
Mrs Weddell may also have encountered Girtin's work through the Wells family. She leased her country house in Chiselhurst from John Wells of Bickley Park, whose brother was the dealer and watercolour collector William Wells of Redleaf. We learn from in a letter from Samuel Whitbread (1758-1815), another collector of Girtin's work, that Mrs Weddell bought at least four other major works by Girtin from S.W. Reynolds, the mezzotint engraver and another neighbour at Bickley, including; A Village on the River Taw (National Gallery of Art, Washington), The Village of Jedburgh (Christie's, London, 15 June 1971, lot 48, 1700 gns. and now in the collection of National Galleries of Scotland), Jedburgh Abbey (sold Sotheby's, London, 28 November 2002, lot 16, £420,000, a world record price for the artist at auction), Lydford Castle, Devon (Private Collection, U.S.A.) and Phineas Borret's Farm near Saffron Walden (Art Institute of Chicago). As evidenced with these and the present watercolour, Weddell acquired some of Girtin's finest mature compositions. In 1800 she toured the Lakes, where she met the Morritts of Rokeby Park. In 1805 Morritt commissioned Greta Bridge (Tate Gallery) from John Sell Cotman as a present for her. She appears to have been a discerning collector, with an appreciation of Girtin's radical vision and a keen interest in contemporary, romantic landscape watercolours of which the present watercolour is a superb example.
We are grateful to Andrew Wilton for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.