We are now at the height of the summer holiday season and work at my Bed & Breakfast place is becoming more hectic and I am finding that I have less free time on my hands to devote to the blog. I sometimes wonder whether my blog should have been entitled My Every Other Day Art Display! Having said that I spent yesterday afternoon walking around Betwys y Coed, a small town in a very scenic area of North Wales, and it was during this walk that I came across a very old, 14th century church. What was even more fascinating was its connection with an English mid-nineteenth century artist and a series of his painting. The artist in question is David Cox and the oil painting, which he completed in 1852, is entitled Funeral at Bettws Church.
David Cox was born in Birmingham in 1783. His father was a simple blacksmith and the family lived in a poor area of the city and were, as we would euphemistically put it these days, “financially challenged”. His first art tuition came from Joseph Barber, the English landscape painter, who as Birmingham’s first drawing master had set up an academy in the city to train aspiring artists. Cox eked out a small wage by working as a theatre scenery painter. At the age of twenty-one, Cox went to live in London and continued his artistic training, this time under the tutelage of the English watercolourist, John Varley. He made some visits to North Wales and started a job as a commercial artist; producing illustrations to accompany travel writer Thomas Roscoe’s two volumes of Wanderings and Excursions in Wales.
To survive financially, David Cox also took odd jobs in the art world’s Grub Street, as a scene painter, by selling views of London and the River Thames to booksellers at two guineas the dozen. Grub Street was famous for its concentration of impoverished writers, artists and aspiring poets. Its bohemian society was set amidst the impoverished neighborhood’s low-rent flophouses, brothels, and coffeehouses. Cox also enhanced his income by teaching art, spending some time as a teacher at a boarding school for young ladies. He even published a book on art.
He later moved south of the Thames and settled into life at Dulwich where he taught a number of art students. Cox exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time in 1805. Four years after moving to London he married Mary Ragg who was the daughter of his landlady. A year later in 1809, the couple had their first child, a son, David Jnr. In 1814 to escape city life he and his family moved to rural Herefordshire and took up residence in the county town of Hereford where he taught at a girl’s school. In the late 1820’s he travelled extensively through Western Europe and in 1827 the family moved back to London. David Cox was now in his forties and had, by now, built up a reputation as a fine landscape painter and the sale of his works was increasing.
In 1841, Cox gave up teaching and moved back to his birthplace, Birmingham, this time to the small town of Harborne, a few miles south of the city. It was throughout the 1840’ and 1850’s that David Cox would make annual pilgrimages to North Wales where he enjoyed the beautiful rugged scenery and revelled in the many opportunities the area gave him for his landscape subjects. He fell in love with the Vale of Clwyd and the village of Betws-y-Coed in Conwy and his paintings of this area inspired the 19th Century Birmingham School of artists to follow in his footsteps. Soon artists from around the country descended on this small Welsh village. Many believe it was during this period that he completed some of his finest watercolours. Suprisingly enough it was until the mid 1850’s that Cox started painting in oils. David Cox died in Harborne in 1858, aged 75.
The sheer range of David Cox’s work is amazing and many considered him to be an equal to some of his more famous contemporaries such as Turner, Constable and Richard Bonnington. Cox was noted for his skill in encapsulating in his paintings the unpredictable British weather, which was no more apparent than in North Wales. He is probably best known for his many works associated with the small town of Betws y Coed which nestles at the edge of the Snowdonia National park and sits alongside the River Conwy.
With artists like Cox and their portrayal of the beautiful landscape around Betws y Coed, the village began to draw in artists from many parts and it became both an artist’s colony and a favourite tourist spot. Many of the artists flocked to Betws-y-Coed to learn more from David Cox, who made his home at the Royal Oak Hotel each summer. He actually painted the original pub sign. The surrounding area offered not only the remarkable scenery but it offered an insight into Welsh history as it was supposedly near the site of the massacre of the bards by King Edward I.
In the painting before us we see a group of mourners attending a funeral, standing outside the gates of St Michaels Church, Betwys y Coed. The original church would have been built in the latter part of the Celtic Church era around the eighth and ninth century. Nothing visible remains of that earliest ‘Bettws’ church which derives its name, Bettwys, meaning ‘Bede House’, as in rosary beads and thus meaning a “house of prayer”. The whole church seems to have been rebuilt during the 14th–15th century. This is still the oldest building in Betws y Coed today with parts surviving from the 14th or 15th century. It was mostly rebuilt and enlarged, with the addition of a vestry and north transept in 1843. However, even after enlargement, it still could not cope with the rising numbers of worshippers and it became redundant as a village church with the building of St Mary’s Church in 1873. Although the church is now officially closed for regular public worship, a service is normally held on St Michael’s Day (29th September) and a candle-lit Carol Service at Christmas tide. The Church houses an excellent quality 14th century stone effigy of Gruffydd ap Dafydd Goch – a close relative of the last Welsh Prince of Wales – Llewellyn ab Gruffydd. A rustic oak pulpit has the date 1697 upon it, but some say that date is graffiti, and that the pulpit dates to an earlier period. The Church font is dated from the 13th century, although the pillar is from a later date. In the churchyard there are many 18th century gravestones, some leaning against the church walls, and there are still even 17th century grave stones to be seen.
Many of the visitors to Betws-y-Coed in Victorian times were artists, and they were drawn to St Michael’s Church, which stands besides the river Conwy and was frequently the subject of paintings done by artists from the new artists’ colony, which thrived in the second half of the nineteenth century. Today’s featured oil painting by David Cox entitled Funeral at Bettws Church, which he painted in 1852, is a prime example. The painting is housed in the Bury Art Gallery. In it we see the small church of St Michael in the background framed by two massive yew trees. It is said to depict the funeral of the daughter of the landlord of the Royal Oak, where Cox used to stay. The death of this young girl would have affected the whole village. The sunset setting of this painting makes it very atmospheric. Cox was not known for his symbolism but this is very symbolic, with the setting of the sun and little children gathering poppies – symbolic of death.
David Cox painted a number of similar paintings, one, a watercolour, entitled The Welsh Funeral (1848), which is at Birmingham Art Gallery and there is the initial preparatory chalk sketch of the funeral painting at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.
One noticeable change to the vista now is the fact that the yew trees have grown and spread even more and when you stand at the gated entrance to the church and graveyard, it is now almost impossible to see the church between the two enormous trees.
So my walking trip yesterday did have artistic connotations but is also the reason for no blog. My thanks go to Anne Hammond who introduced me to this beautiful little church and its connection with today’s featured artist and who led our small party of intrepid walkers on this voyage of discovery.