This is an unique treasure from our collections. Here we have the artisan painter John Cambrian Rowland depicting the bell ringer of Caernarfon in a traditional Welsh costume. This work is interesting from a nationalistic perspective as well as from an art-historical perspective.
John Cambrian Rowland was born in the small village of Lledrod, Ceredigion which is situated in mid-west Wales in 1819 and later established himself as an artist in the nearby coastal town of Aberystwyth. It is speculated that he studied at the Kensington School of Art. He often received patronage from the local minor gentry and his practice took him around Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Radnorshire. As can be seen in this painting he painted in a simple, flat style which was typical of the artisan painters of this period. Artisan painters began losing trade by the mid nineteenth century due to the discovery of photography in 1839 as the middle class patrons deserted them and photography studios appeared on every high street in Wales. Many artisan painters such as William Roos therefore descended into poverty. Rowland was unique in the fact that he managed to evolve with the times and by the late 1840s his style had changed dramatically. Rowland was resilient and had a head for business.
His inspiration came from Augusta Hall (Lady Llanover) the Welsh heiress and patron of the Welsh Arts. Hall was in a sense the inventor of the Welsh national costume. In 1834 she wrote a prize-winning essay submitted to the Cardiff Royal Eisteddfod which emphasised the importance of the Welsh Language and the National costumes of Wales. In actual fact the traditional dress of Wales with its heavy wool was a costume worn by the working classes across Europe from the medieval times but Lady Llanover turned it into a Welsh national costume. In 1848-1850 Rowland inspired by this new fashion created a number of costume prints which were later turned into engravings and were published by Edward Parry of Chester. They proved to be extremely popular and sold well. As Paul Joyner the art historian stated ‘Whilst the compositions are competent, the anatomy is usually inaccurate’. The images were also at times placed on kitsch ornaments and sold as far as Scotland.
By the 1850s Rowlandson had moved to live in Caernarfon where he transported his Welsh characters in traditional dress from the landscape of Ceredigion into the landscape of Snowdonia in his works which once again proved to be extremely popular. This painting therefore of the Bellringer of Caernarfon could be seen in the same light. The scene Rowland depicts of the bellringer in her traditional dress with the spectacular Caernarfon Castle in the background had nationalistic appeal and one could speculate that it may have later been developed into engravings to be sold to the wider public as his earlier works.