J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) is acknowledged as the most important landscape artist in the history of art in the British Isles. His contribution to every aspect of his field was immense. Throughout a long and successful career he was recognised as a genius and his art valued even above the exquisite and rare pictures of his contemporaries such as Thomas Girtin and John Robert Cozens.
Turner, the son of a Covent Garden barber, showed great talent at a very early age and was encouraged by his father to become a painter. In the 18th century and 19th century the area of the Piazza at Covent Garden was a popular location for artist's studios. The Welsh artist Richard Wilson had a studio on the Piazza and no doubt artists were a familiar part of the social life of that part of London.
Trained as a topographical and architectural draughtsman, Turner learnt rapidly from his first master, Thomas Malton and by 1790 exhibited a watercolour at the Royal Academy, London. In that year he enrolled as a student at the Academy where he learnt the high art of pure landscape painting.
From early in his career he enjoyed travelling to draw sites. He kept to this practice over many years travelling throughout Britain and Europe to observe beautiful scenery.
Turner never married, and bequeathed his huge collection to the state. The Turner Bequest, after a long and complex history, is now preserved under one roof at the Clore Gallery, Tate Britain. Other important collections of Turner's work in Britain are at the Whitworth Gallery (Manchester), Fitzwilliam Art Gallery (Cambridge) and the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford). The National Museum of Wales has several Welsh watercolours by Turner, and examples were donated by the Davies sisters of Llandinam.
Turner was an artist who had a particular genius for combining topography, the history of a region and contemporary scenes from his own observation. In Wales, Turner found a landscape and people of great interest. The variety in the hills, mountains and valleys over a relatively limited area allowed him to discover the richness of the country within a few weeks of holiday. The romantic history of Wales was an attraction to Turner whose interests at the turn of the century included myths, ancient history and the drama of human tragedy. It appears that he read Welsh history and was aware of the broad sweep of medieval conquests and Welsh rebellions. He read Thomas Pennant's Tour of Wales, and noted many important sites to visit as a result.
The two Turner paintings owned by the Library reflect these qualities in early Turner together with his significant experimentation not only with media but with the process of composition. Aberdulais was worked up in his studio from just one pencil drawing, which had been taken on the spot at Aberdulais in the summer of 1795. That drawing, page 6 of Turner's South Wales sketchbook is a detailed account of the actual scene. If one compares the finished watercolour, several elements have been strengthened and emphasised so that a narrative theme brings the landscape to life. Dolbadarn although only produced, at the most, three years later, developed in a much more complex and mature way. Turner spent some considerable time preparing many working drawings for Dolbadarn; all of his intentions are not clear, but evidently he considered it a subject worthy for careful creative treatment . The panel now at the Library was the result of firstly working on paper and only when the overall concept was ready did he execute this rare work on a small panel. It is likely that Turner then used this version to paint the larger oil on canvas, presented to the Royal Academy.
These two works together mark the dual traditions in the British art of pure topographical landscape and Romantic compositions. They also underline the variety of pictures available in the Library's collection.