(Front cover of exhibition catalogue – can be purchased from here)
When I was (a lot) younger, in my teens, I spent many hours in the rugged landscape of Snowdonia walking in the valleys and climbing the mountains. It’s still one of my favourite areas of the country, so during my visit to the National Museum of Art in Cardiff I was particularly keen to see the temporary exhibition John Piper: The Mountains of Wales – Paintings and Drawings from a Private Collection. It featured a large number of paintings of Snowdonia that the artist had created while visiting the region during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
According to the exhibition catalogue
Like artists before and since, he was drawn to the visual drama of the Welsh mountains, but he was also fascinated by their geology, as his artist’s eye explored ‘the bones and structure.
Piper drove, cycled and climbed miles to reach his chosen locations where, however isolated, wet or windy the environment, he immersed himself in ‘the “lie” of the mountains’. He drew on the spot, using various materials including his fingers, later developing drawings into prints or paintings. His spontaneous, fluid techniques seem at one with the rough textures and colours of the mountains and rocky outcrops.
There were several different styles of drawings and paintings on display. Pistyll Rhaeadr (1940) and Crooked Anvil Pyrddin (1942) were relatively simple sketches of waterfalls that concentrated on highlighting their geological features. There were also a number of sketches of the landscapes of The Vale of Clwyd (1940), Bethesda (1945), Llyn Dinas, Gwynedd (1950) and Llansanffraid Llanon (1954). But my favourites were the drawings and paintings of the mountains themselves. Some, such as Cader Idris (1943), Welsh Landscape (1946) and Cwm Idwal (1949) were “accurate” representations that could have featured in a guide book to the mountains, but many of the others were much more abstract, bringing out the nature of the landscape and the brooding atmosphere of these wild places. I particularly liked Devil’s Kitchen (1946-7), The Snowdon Range (circa 1947), Tryfan Mountain (1950) and Capel Curig (1950-55).
Although most of the paintings on display were watercolours, or “mixed media”, there were a small number of oil paintings.The Rise of the Dovey (1943-4) – featured on the front cover of the exhibition catalogue – and Rocky Valley, North Wales (1948) were similar in style in that they were predominantly dark and brooding but with brighter coloured areas in the centre to which the eye was drawn. The gallery had used spotlights to highlight these areas which had a luminous, translucent quality, causing them to almost glow.
Rocky Valley, North Wales (1948) by John Piper © The Estate of John Piper
I think that Piper, in his paintings, successfully captured the rugged beauty and the atmosphere of the wild landscape of Snowdonia. And looking round the exhibition made me want to put on my boots and get out into the mountains. Of course, that’s not really possible in Cardiff, but a trip to Snowdonia is definitely on the agenda in the not too distant future.