Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This article considers the nineteenth work of twenty-five bought at Anderson & Garland Ltd, Newcastle upon Tyne, 21 March 2017, lot 46 as Various Artists (British 19th Century) Sundry drawings and watercolours, mainly topographical and floral studies, including a grisaille “South Gate Lynn, Norfolk”, bearing the signature J.S. Cotman, various sizes, all unframed in a folio.
Here we continue to venture beyond the main loci associated with the Twopeny family, to accompany Susanna Twopeny on a tour to North Wales.
This is a studio watercolour of a landscape with a range of hills and mountains seen across a stretch of water. There is a wooden pier in the middle distance, stretching across the composition to the right from a cluster of cottages and a fortified block house. There is a boat with white sails off the end of the pier, another similar boat seen beyond the pier and another with red sails beached in the right foreground. There is a rowing boat on the foreshore bottom left, and two others further off in the centre.
The subject is properly titled in the inscription on the verso as ‘Penmaenmawr from Beaumaris’. Beaumaris is a pleasant small town on the south-east shore of Anglesey, North Wales, and looks out onto the North Wales coast towards Conway. It effectively guards the northern entrance to the Menai Straits, separating Anglesey from the mainland. In the centre of the composition is the pier at Beaumaris, and beyond we look eastwards to the great bluff of Penmaenmawr mountain, with beyond, Foel Lus (362m) and the twin small peaks of Alltwen (255m) and Penmaen bach (245m), which hide Conway beyond. The latter hills look almost Alpine here, but that is just a trick of the light.
The inscription lower right is slightly inaccurate. Although this is most certainly a view of Penmaenmawr, this is not quite the Menai Straits. That narrow passage separating Anglesey from the mainland actually begins a couple of miles to the right of this field of view, off Bangor, and extends beyond there to Caernarvon. The waters here, rather are those of Laven Sands towards Llanfairfechan at the right, and Conway Bay in the distance beyond the pier.
In this case we have clear evidence of the artist and date; the mount is inscribed lower left, “ST 1852”. The same initials, in the same hand, appear on a sepia watercolour of Tolethorpe Mill, Rutlandshire (see part #15). We have identified these initials as those of Susanna Twopeny, born in Rochester in 1796 the elder sister of David Twopeny, whose work has been extensively discussed in this series. Michael Cayley has done some excellent research on the family on Wikitree [cf https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Twopeny-32
Susanna Twopeny remained a spinster and after a spell of living independently – in the 1851 census she was head of household at Walter, Kent, accommodating her younger sister Charlotte – moved with her sister to live at the family seat of Woodstock Park, Kent as part of the entourage of the head of the family, her brother Edward. As previously noted a watercolour has recently been advertised for sale of St Margaret’s Church, Rochester attributed to her. It is not by any means as assured as either Tolethorpe Mill or the present work, and it is not altogether clear on what the attribution rests, except for a label on the backboard, but it well might be rather earlier than the present work.
The present watercolour is an exceptionally confident and assured production for an amateur, and indeed many a provincial professional would have been proud of it. The treatment of the sky is particularly confident,
as is the drawing of the boats, the handling of the foreshore, details of the pier, and the tiny figures leaning over its rails.
The boat off the end of the pier is particularly deft, and the handling of its reflections and gradations of colour in the water, really very impressive.
We might infer that the artist kept a sketchbook, and that the watercolour was made at home. We might also infer that this was a regular and serious occupation. Such accomplishment as displayed here, comes only as the result of sustained practice.
It is worth giving some consideration to what is shown. The pier was only six years old, having been completed in 1846.
This was the culmination of two decades of investment in Beaumaris as a resort, and the pier was designed to facilitate the paddle steamers that plied between the North Wales resorts and Liverpool.
By the date of the watercolour this trade was very well established. Paddle steamer services began in the early 1820s. Anglesey was further opened up by the construction of the Menai Bridge by Thomas Telford in 1826. Traffic encouraged investment and in 1825 Beaumaris corporation built Green Edge, a terrace of fine houses for season lets, clubs and libraries. In 1831, in anticipation of a visit of Princess Victoria, the Beaumaris burgher Sir Richard Bulkeley built a grand hotel. As it turned out Princess Victoria’s visit did not materialise, and in the same year one of the Liverpool paddle steamers, the Rothesay Castle, was wrecked on Dutchman’s Bank, just off Beaumaris, with the loss of 130 souls. Optimism prevailed, however, and in 1835 the corporation built Victoria Terrace, even grander than Green Edge. In 1846 the pier was built directly opposite the hotel, and all these grand buildings survive to this day. In 1850 Robert Stephenson’s extraordinary Britannia railway bridge was built across the Menai Straits and the following year Victoria finally made her visit to Beaumaris to open the new bridge and stayed at the Bulkeley Hotel.
So the year of this watercolour marked something of a high-watermark in the reputation and fame of Beaumaris as a resort, and gives perspective and context to the making of this watercolour. It might be observed, however, that the treatment here seems to take the site almost out of time. There is no sense of the new world of terraces, hotels, paddle steamers and tourist facilities. Instead, however it is an older world, apart from the pier, that is being invoked. A world in which one arrives serenely under sail, rather by rail or steamer.
The amateur paints for their own, rather than public purposes; and it is perhaps this, rather than any matter of technique that characterises this watercolour. In her own drawing-room, Susanna Twopeny could immerse herself in the world of her own preference. The professional artist had to engage with the world shared with others, so it is remarkable in browsing through a selection of period images of Beaumaris, what effort professionals sometimes invested into incorporating the new.
When I was teaching at the University of Leeds, one of our core tenets was that aesthetics are generally constructed by an opposite reality. So one might say in this case that its aesthetics were constructed by the din of development. It is worth observing that even the most permanent features of this scene were subject to the forces of change. The hill of Penmaenmawr was a source of a particularly good granite setts for expanding industrial towns and cities. Susanna Twopeny might well have been able to hear the sound of blasting across the water from the quarries. During the course of the next few decades so much stone was taken that the height of the mountain was reduced by over 500 feet.
On reflection one might also apply the same aesthetic principle of opposites to this article, especially in relation to current circumstances. Thinking about this watercolour is an instructive obverse to the coronavirus reportage raging out of control in the contemporary world.
TO BE CONTINUED
Next, a fine antiquarian study by William Twopeny.