This oil painting of Dolbadarn Castle which is situated in Llanberis, north Wales was a study for a diploma picture by Joseph Mallord William Turner who is acknowledged as the most important British landscape artist of all time. The diploma picture itself was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1800 and was then presented to the Royal Academy two years later. It is therefore a study for the most important oil painting of the artist’s early career. When the diploma picture was exhibited in 1800 it was accompanied by a verse about the fate of Owain Goch ap Gruffydd.
Owain Goch ap Gruffydd was imprisoned by his brother Llywelyn ap Gruffydd / Llewelyn the Last (the last indigenous Prince of Wales) at Dolbadarn Castle for insurrection for twenty years in 1257. It was a tragic event in the history of Welsh indigenous rule. Instead of literally painting the exact scene as it occurred Turner’s enigmatic work alludes to it through the atmospheric sky, the figures in the foreground and the visible presence of the haunting tower. Owain Gwynedd is depicted as wearing a red tunic and is being led by the soldiers to the castle. We know that between 1792 and 1799 Turner par took in five tours of Wales in search of the picturesque. His visit in 1799 resulted in his creation of the Dolbadarn sketchbook which is kept at Tate Britain and which led to this final work. Wales would have attracted Turner due to its myths, ancient history, castles and dramatic mountainous landscape. We also know that Turner read widely on Welsh history including Thomas Pennant’s works and was therefore familiar with the history of the Welsh princes.
Turner’s genius lay in his ability to learn from the Old Masters but also to rebel and create a new way of depicting atmospheric imaginative landscapes through his unique portrayal of light. His loose brushstrokes and violent colouring revolutionised landscape painting for future generations. John Ruskin the leading art critic of the Victorian Era described Turner as ‘the father of modern art’.
See also Turner and Wales