Halfway up Cadair Idris, beneath a precipice often veiled in cloud, is Llyn-y-Cau. The lake lies in a glacial cirque scoured by retreating ice and dammed with gravel.
The 18th-century artist Richard Wilson painted Llyn-y-Cau, an unmistakable rendering of Cadair Idris despite the adjustments he made to simplify the background and exaggerate the height of the precipice, presumably to convey a sense of organised grandeur.
Wilson was born in 1713 just 20 miles from Cadair Idris in the parish of Penegoes where he was grounded in the classics by his father the vicar. His mother was related to gentry in Flintshire and her nephew paid for Wilson’s apprenticeship in London, where he became a portrait painter. But, inspired by the work of classical landscape painters such as Claude Lorraine, he switched to creating calm English scenes in the ‘Grand Manner’ for an intellectual elite concerned with the Ancient World.
He also toured in Wales and imbued his Welsh landscapes with classical principles rather than the nonconformist spirit of the time. But they contributed to a growing awareness, initiated by London-based Welsh intellectuals, that Welsh heritage equalled Rome’s in terms of antiquity and culture. Wilson was successful. He lived in Covent Garden, had pupils of his own and was a founding member of the Royal Academy.
A pioneer’s vision
Wilson’s popularity declined with changing tastes, though. Allegedly he preferred the pub to schmoozing potential patrons in polite society. In later life he fell ill and sold his sketchbooks to pay the coach fare to Flintshire to live his final year with a cousin. But after his death his work became valuable to a new generation of landscape artists, including Constable and Turner.
Now he’s seen as a pioneer. He was one of the first to paint outdoors and pay attention to topography, light and weather. He was the first to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of Wales and one of the first to paint landscapes for their own merit.
Llyn-y-Cae is halfway up the mountain. Below are tumbling streams, pastures and an almost Arcadian forest. Winter brings peregrines and big weather although the sense of the sublime is year-round.