In the early nineteenth century, the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil was larger and more important than either Cardiff or Swansea. It was the iron capital of Wales, a role and a position that it did not relinquish for many years.
Even in the twentieth century this was the place that spawned not just highly sought after industrial products but also novelists like Glyn Jones and poets such as Leslie Norris. It was also the birthplace of one of the best-known artists of the nineteenth century, Penry Williams.
South Wales Industrial Landscape by Penry Williams c.1825. Photo credit: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales.
Penry (or Penri) Williams was born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1802. He was the son of a stone mason and house painter and from an early age showed remarkable skill as an artist. In this, the young Penry was encouraged by his school teacher, Taliesin Williams, the son of historian and folk tale collector Iolo Morganwg.
Taliesin must have had an eye for talented young artists as he also encouraged and helped the sculptors Joseph Edwards and William Davies. Clearly, despite all its many vices and problems, the seething melting pot that made up industrial Merthyr Tydfil was fostering artistic talent at a rapid rate of knots.
By 1816 the young Penry Williams was already producing remarkable pieces like “The Merthyr Riots” and it was not long before he came to the notice of iron masters and patrons of the arts like William Crawshay and John Guest. Recognising exceptional talent when they saw it, the two ironmasters paid for Williams to travel to London where he lived and studied at the schools attached to the Royal Academy.
At the Academy school, Williams was taken under the wing of the Italian painter and teacher Henry Fuseli. He was quick and adept and responded to the teaching in the most positive way, seizing his opportunity to develop his art.
In 1821, when he was just nineteen years old, Penry Williams was awarded the Silver Medal by the Society of Arts for “drawing from the antique” and from that year on he was a regular exhibitor of portraits and landscapes at the Royal Academy and at the Society of British Artists.
In 1827 Penry Williams moved to Rome where he was to live for the next fifty years. Before he left, however, he produced a series of magnificent watercolour views of south Wales and England.
His industrial landscapes – one in particular, showing an ironworks at night – were based on sights and scenes around the industrial valleys of Wales. They were atmospheric and realistic but, at the same time, they were imbued with an artistic excellence that showed his innate ability and the quality of the art education he had received.
In 1828 Williams was elected associate of the Society of Painters and Watercolours and exhibited with them each year until he resigned in 1833. His studio in Rome gradually became something of a pilgrimage site for all visitors to Italy – Welsh visitors being particularly welcome.
Penry Williams died on 27th July 1885. Since moving to Italy he had concentrated on producing Italian views and scenes of ancient Roman life. They were invariably finely judged and well produced but to the eyes of many they lack a little of the emotion that can be found in his early Welsh views.
“The Procession Returning from the Fiesta of the Madonna Del Marco” is considered his masterpiece. The painting is carefully constructed, the figures in the foreground contrasting beautifully with the sight of Vesuvius smoking away in the background.
This painting, along with several other remarkable works on an Italian theme – works such as “The Ferry on the River Ninfa” and “Girl with a Tambourine” - were later acquired by the National Gallery. They have since been passed on to the Tate.
These days Penry Williams work can be seen at the Museum and Gallery, Cyfarthfa Castle, and at the National Museum in Cardiff. He remains one of Wales’ greatest painters, a man who came from humble beginnings in one of the most robust and formative of all valley communities and went on to be hailed as one of the greatest painters of his age.
Do visit the BBC's Your Paintings website for a gallery of paintings by Penry Williams.