Monthly Archives: December 2016

‘Now the country becomes suddenly Welsh’: John Malchair of Oxford, an artist and musician in 1790s Wales

Mary-Ann Constantine

for Liz Fleming-Williams, who introduced us to JM.

Back in 2013 the National Library of Wales held a memorable exhibition of Welsh landscape art. Among many familiar names, from J.M.W Turner and J.C. Ibbetson to Kyffin Williams, was one I didn’t know: John Malchair. The images – striking sketches of houses on roads winding through the hills – pulled me over to his corner of Oriel Gregynog. It took a minute or so before I realized that these were pictures from the 1790s; there’s something oddly modern about the sweep and boldness of the lines done in graphite, often with a watercolour wash. The exhibition also had a display case containing Malchair’s notes on the tour he made to Wales in 1795, written in his quirky spelling and open at July 28th:

‘The buildings are peculiar, Rude Rough and ragged, the people are so too.’ ‘Dinas Mouthwy – July 30 – 1795’ from John Malchair of Oxford, p. 129 (hereafter JM).

‘Now the country becomes suddenly Welsh and we enter a region of Mountains, here English is an acquired language and much wors spoaken than French in England, by no means so common…The trees are small and twisting often More picturesque than luxuriant timber trees’.

He noted too, the vivid greens at the base of the mountains: ‘Moss crumbled over with fragments of rock that continually role from the topp and are verry favourable to the painters touch as are also the summits on account of theire cragginess’.

One aspect of our project is exploring how our travel writers capture the experience of movement through landscape: not just the practical struggles of mud and pitted roads, but the continual shifts of light, colour and perspective. Malchair’s drawings are wonderfully kinetic. In one of my favourite sketches, ‘Dinas Mouthwy, 1795’ the movement is in many directions: water flows across a road which leads us up past the out-of-kilter cottages to the sharp slope of the hill. Catherine Hutton, travelling from Birmingham that same way a year later, evokes something similar in words:


Our road was a terrace cut on the side of the northern range, generally fenced with a hedge, now and then without a fence, sometimes on bridges thrown over streams, which poured down from the mountains across our road, and sometimes through them; while, swelled by the rain into little torrents, they tumbled in cascades into the river below

(NLW MS 19079C, 5)

Malchair also did many pictures of Oxford – its buildings and back-streets, full of fascinating glimpses of daily life – and his work was gathered together for an exhibition in the Ashmolean Museum in 1998. John Malchair of Oxford, Colin Harrison’s beautifully-produced catalogue with essays by Susan Wollenberg and Julian Munby, is full of insights and information, and includes a full transcription of the Welsh tour notebook cited above. As these writers acknowledge, the rediscovery of Malchair was largely due to the pioneering work of Ian Fleming-Williams, a Constable scholar who built up a large personal collection of Malchair’s drawings. This sweeping view of ‘Moel-y-Ffrydd’ near Llanymawddwy was donated by Fleming-Williams to the Tate in 1997:

‘It is not difficult here to account for the Sublimity, the objects are vast and very uncommon to Eyes that are only wont to contemplate the beauties of a rich farming country’ JM p.130 John Malchair, ‘Moel-y-Frydd 1795’, Tate Gallery, donated by Ian Fleming-Williams. Available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence:

In 1795 Malchair travelled with the Revd George Cooke, a Fellow of Oriel who had an interest in geology; perhaps as a result of their conversations the images of landforms from this tour have an especially energetic intensity. The pair stayed for nine days exploring the country around at Dinas Mawddwy, where Malchair sketched intimate scenes of huts and pigs and tumbledown cottages as well as the grander mountainscapes, before moving on to Barmouth, where they were further entranced by the play of light and weather along the coast.

Malchair the musician was not idle in Wales. As Margaret Dean-Smith has shown, he had a keen interest in traditional tunes, which he would pick up from all manner of sources – in manuscript collections or from buskers, beggars, and even from the whistling of passers-by on the streets of Oxford. He was especially interested in the idea of ‘national’ song, a subject which – partly in the wake of the success of Robert Burns – became increasingly popular in Britain the early 1800s. His manuscript collections in the Royal College of Music and elsewhere (currently the focus of a PhD dissertation: see bibliography) contain hundreds of tunes which he defines as ‘Scottish’, ‘Irish’ and ‘Welsh’. Of the latter, we know from notes by his disciple William Crotch that some were collected on his tours: ‘written down by Mr Malchair, who heard it sung in Harlech Castle’ (JM, 41). Some of Malchair’s own compositions clearly drew on traditional songs, and this little piece, ‘Farewell to Dinas Mawddwy’ records his affection for a place that, evidently, had moved him very deeply indeed.  [We are currently recording the tune which will be available here]

Bwlch y Groes, north-east of Dinas Mawddwy: ‘In this scene the dreary and the comfortable are happely blended, Mr Pennant calls Bulch y Gross one of the most terrible passes in north Wales’, JM 131-32. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.,-North-Wales


Short Bibliography:

[JM] Colin Harrison, with Susan Wollenberg and Julian Munby, John Malchair of Oxford: Artist and Musician (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1998)

Margaret Dean-Smith, “The Preservation of English Folk Song and Popular Music: Mr. Malchair’s Collection and Dr. Crotch’s Specimens” JEFDSS 7:2 (1953): 106–11

For Alice Little’s current research into Malchair’s music:


Alex Deans, Curious Travellers in SSL 42:2

Nigel Leask and I were pleased to be able to contribute an account of the Curious Travellers project to the symposium on ‘Spatial Humanities and Scottish Studies’ in the latest issue of Studies in Scottish Literature. As the journal editors Patrick Scott and Tony Jarells note in their preface, these symposia are a great way of bringing together short and focused pieces of (often ongoing) research under a particular theme, while reflecting a wide range of disciplines and approaches – made all the more valuable by the fact that SSL is an open access publication.

Reading the other pieces – thought-provokingly framed by Eric Gidal and Michael Gavin’s  introduction –  I was struck by both the similarities and divergences in the approaches which different projects are taking to the so-called “spatial turn” in the humanities. The use of technology is a common theme, and the digital methods being used by Curious Travellers are discussed in our article, including our plans for manuscript tours of Scotland and Wales and Pennant’s correspondence, and some background on our mapping collaboration with the National Library of Scotland – which has gone live since the issue went to press earlier this autumn.

Other projects in the symposium are investigating more analytic, Geo-spatial Information System or GIS-based approaches, which allow researchers to produce “deep” or (my preference) “thick maps” of the ways in which culture and place interact, or to model complex social, lexical, historical and environmental information within a common geographical frame. As in the case of Murray Pittock and Craig Lamont’s project, one advantage here seems to be that of making a great variety of histories and materials accessible to a broader audience, by opening them up to a medium that more and more of us – through our reliance on constantly available online mapping services via tablets and smartphones – are now used to engaging with on a daily basis. On the other hand, the contribution from the spatial humanities team at Lancaster University reflects on the difficulties of translating between page and landscape – even writing about place, it turns out, isn’t straight-forwardly amenable to spatial analysis.

Another common theme in this symposium seems to be the sense in which the spatial humanities – while novel in their current, primarily digital mode – owe their origins in part to a very eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sense of the ways in which culture and place are mutually formative, whether through language, economy, ecology, or any number of other factors. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in the travel writing of the period, but it’s also the case that no other genre seems to draw out the complexities involved in traversing, experiencing and representing place and space quite so vividly. The question of what it means to read literary works through a spatial lens is always mirrored by that of how past writers thought about the relationship between texts and places, and there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to either; of course, its precisely this complexity that makes it so exciting to be involved in this field as it continues to grow and develop.

Furious traveller – beauty and horror on Cadair Idris

Aled Gruffydd Jones

Bedwyr Williams, ‘Tyrrau Mawr‘,
Artes Mundi 7, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

The Minffordd path to the five summits of Cadair (or, for us Gogs, Cader) Idris rises steeply from Tal y Llyn to Llyn Cau. On Thursday morning, 24 November this year I walked slowly uphill from a nearly-empty car-park, each step falling on ground so familiar my feet were almost on auto-pilot. Each turn evoked a memory, some recent, some very distant, recalling unbidden snatches of conversation or the sound of a voice. Walking alone, enveloped by the silence that follows grief like my shadow on the path, I soon reached the abandoned hafodtai, roofless but with their stone lintels still firm over the doorways and windows. I always pause there, where the ground evens, to catch my breath and to be reminded that this was once a settled, populated landscape. Not a playground for walkers, but summer grazing land, an intrinsic, productive part of the farming economy, and thus also of the social and cultural fabric of Meirionnydd.

Llyn Cau

From the ruins, the path rises gently to Llyn Cau, the glacial lake in the cwm at the foot of Craig y Cau. Then follows the steep but always exhilarating climb up the south ridge to the tops of Craig Cwm Amarch and Craig y Cau itself, and from there to the summit of Pen y Gadair, the highest point of the mountain.

Llyn Cau and Craig y Cau, from the southern ridge, Pen y Gadair in cloud to the right, 24 November 2016.

Llyn Cau and Craig y Cau, from the southern ridge, Pen y Gadair in cloud to the right, 24 November 2016.

From the trig-point, on a reasonably clear day (admittedly, a rare event), you can visually take in the subsidiary summits of Cyfrwy and Tyrrau Mawr above the Mawddach to the west, and the whole of Llŷn. The long arm of the wild Rhinog, and beyond them Eryri, hold your attention to the north as the faint path traverses the summit ridge to reach the final, breathtaking Mynydd Moel near the mountain’s north-eastern edge. From there, the track descends roughly and precipitously to the point where Richard Wilson probably sketched his celebrated ‘Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris’ in circa the early 1770s.

Richard Wilson, Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris ?exhibited 1774, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013,, accessed 05 December 2016

Richard Wilson, Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris ?exhibited 1774, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013,, accessed 05 December 2016

I have, over the years, grown to be more forgiving of the mildly over-dramatised upward stretching of Wilson’s Craig y Cau, and the strange scattering of individual figures in distorted perspective. For one thing, it’s a point from which you can trace the day’s walking almost in its entirety, as you can in Wilson’s painting. Born in nearby Penegoes in 1714, Wilson’s curiously gentle depiction of Cadair Idris stimulated not only a host of later landscape painters, from Joseph Mallord William Turner to Alfred de Bréanski, to trudge over its slopes in his footsteps, but also a veritable Victorian tourist industry as well, with enterprising Dolgellau folk taking visitors on horse-rides the long and easy way up the Pony Path to a café (of sorts) at the summit of Pen y Gadair. This one painting has, for two and a half centuries, framed the classical view of a magic mountain, an upland Wales rendered beautiful for metropolitan eyes to enjoy.

Tyrrau Mawr

Nine days later, Yasmin and I are weaving our way through Christmas shoppers and the noisy Cardiff traffic to see an exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cathays of the short-listed candidates for the Artes Mundi Award 2016. We have come in particular to see our old friend John Akomfrah’s film about emigration and displacement, but then we step into a large darkened room, and find ourselves standing, awestruck and aghast, in front of this.

Bedwyr Williams, Tyrrau Mawr, 2016. 4K Video Installation 20 minutes video loop. Artes Mundi 7 installation view, National Museum Cardiff, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Limoncello Gallery.

Bedwyr Williams, Tyrrau Mawr, 2016. 4K Video Installation 20 minutes video loop. Artes Mundi 7 installation view, National Museum Cardiff, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Limoncello Gallery.

Here again is Llyn Cau, with Craig y Cau above it, and Pen y Gadair just out of view in the cloud. On its rocks and scree rise the towers of a brand new city, named by its architects after one of the mountain’s western peaks, Tyrrau Mawr. My first, admittedly unkind, thought is that it resembles an early stab at the computer game, SimCity, which turns out to be about the only trace of Bedwyr Williams’s trademark irony here. I suspect you’ll find few other comedic twists among these cold, gleaming glass and concrete towers.

We confront the huge scale of the digital canvas, its immersive combination of music and a spoken narrative that relate the story of a song about a twenty-year old city, without roads, and with only the merest hint of human habitation as tiny lights switch on and off in apartments and offices. The emptiness of the quay-side, the theatre and the flood-lit sports-field further accentuate its fragmented, alienated human presence.

The lens that focused the image of the mountain appears to have been placed closer to the lake than the spot where Wilson put his easel, on the other side of the cwm, some half way up the southern ridge, near the point where Wilson’s two figures are standing together (below). His photography quotes Wilson, but gives him a different accent, perhaps even a different language. Certainly, he gives his Llyn Cau a different purpose.

Approximate lens position of ‘Tyrrau Mawr’, turned towards the north-west

Approximate lens position of ‘Tyrrau Mawr’, turned towards the north-west

Tyrrau Mawr’ shocks. It is a raw, brutal work. For the first few moments I assume it to be a still image, before I slowly realise that it pulses, like a living thing, the clouds blowing to the north-west, as does the smoke rising from the dark tower in the centre, the water in the lake lapping gently. In its twenty-minute cycle from evening to dawn, the light constantly changes position. Its stillness, the hard stone of the mountain, the sun’s reflection lighting up in sequence each detail of the ‘great towers’ brings a calmness to the composition that renders it exquisitely beautiful. It reminds us of the melancholy of a cathedral.

Yasmin, a fan of the artist since seeing him at his first exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery in 2012, curated by the ever-innovative Jonathan Watkins, whispered to me as we finally walked out, ’It’s like Caravaggio’. Ein Caravaggio Cymraeg, yn wir. Her hyperbole was measured. Williams really is playing, mysteriously, with light, and the digital matte painting techniques he uses are, if nothing else, painterly. His exhibition, The Gulch, now showing at the Barbican until 8 January 2017, is described by its curator as the work of ‘one of the contemporary art world’s most exciting and innovative artists’, so perhaps her remark is not so overblown after all.

Cadair Idris and ‘Tyrrau Mawr’

Cadair Idris is no mere contrasting, if picturesque, background here, not an empty stage where the architectural drama unfolds. It’s a place of myth and memory. Idris was a giant of learning, master of both the ancient arts and the cosmic sciences. The hell-hounds of the Mabinogi hunted his mountainsides, and the long skyline is inscribed with stories – of religious zeal, poetic gifts and madness.

Where Richard Wilson made Cadair Idris look serene and almost pastoral, Bedwyr Williams renders it terrifying. Here is a Brazilia or a Naypyidaw waiting to happen. A new Shenzhen built on concrete poured over a national park, the grandiose and overweening arrogance of Trump Towers desecrating the sublime. In the turning of a fragile and loved psychosocial space, whose cultural geography runs deep, into nothing more than ‘foundations’, I see the burning of Penyberth, hear Gwenallt’s blistering Rhydycymerau, remember Tryweryn and Aberfan. Yet we’re told that the city houses people just like us, busy with the micro-details of their lives. It’s just that we don’t see them. They too have been subsumed by the great towers. ‘Tyrrau Mawr’, by observing so unwaveringly the erasure of layers of history and memory, and the building of new ones, is a work of quiet fury. Go see it.

And next time you climb as far as Llyn Cau, stay awhile in Bedwyr Williams’s ‘Tyrrau Mawr’ and listen, entranced and horrified, to the sounds of his city. They’re the sounds of our Trumped-up times.

Diwedd dydd, diwedd oes, Cadair Idris, 24 November 2016.

Diwedd dydd, diwedd oes, Cadair Idris, 24 November 2016.

Photography © Aled Gruffydd Jones, unless otherwise noted.