Picture of William Gilpin

William Gilpin

places mentioned

Neath to Pyle

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As we left Neath, a grand vista of woody mountains, pursuing each other along the river, and forming, no doubt, some enchanting vale, if we had had time to examine it, stretched into remote distance.

The vistas of art are tame and formal. They consist of streets, with the unvarying repetition of doors and windows; or they consist of trees planted nicely in rows; a succession of mere vegetable columns; or they consist of some other species of regularity: but Nature's vistas are of a different cast. She forms them sometimes of mountains, sometimes of rocks, and sometimes of woods. But all her works, even of this formal kind, are the works of a master. If the idea of regularity be impressed on the general form , the parts are broken with a thousand varieties. Her vistas are models to paint from. —In this before us, both the mountains themselves and the perspective combination of them, were beautiful.

The broken ground about a copper-work, a little beyond the town, would afford hints for a noble landscape. Two contiguous hills appear as if riven asunder, and lay open a picturesque scene of rocky fragments, interspersed with wood, through which a torrent, forcing its way, forms two or three cascades before it reached the bottom.

A little beyond this, the views which had entertained us as we entered Neath, entertained us a second time as we left it. The river, covered with shipping, presented itself again. The woody scenery arose on its banks, and the abbey appeared among the woods, though in different perspective, and in a more removed situation.

Here too we were again presented with those two woody promontories of which we had just obtained a glimpse before, with a creek or channel between them, divided by what seemed a sand-bank. We had now approached much nearer, and found we had been right in our conjecture.1 The extensive object we had seen, was the bank of Margam, which, when the sea retires, is a vast sandy flat.

Hence we had, for a considerable time, continued views on the left of grand woody promontories pursuing each other, all rich to profusion, with sea-views on the right. Such an intermixture of high-lands and sea, where the objects are beautiful and well disposed, makes, in general, a pleasing mode of composition. The roughness of the mountains above, and the smooth expanse of the waters below, wonderfully aid each other by the force of contrast.

From these views we were hurried at once upon a bleak sea-coast, which gave a kind of relief to the eye, almost surfeited with rich landscape. Margam sand-bank, which, seen partially, afforded a sweet chastising tint to the verdure of the woody promontories through which we had twice seen it, became now (when unsupported and spread abroad in all its extension) a cold, disgusting object.——But relief was everywhere at hand, and we seldom saw it long without some intervention of woody scenery.

AS we approached the river Abravon, the country degenerated still more. Margam sand-bank, which was now only the boundary of marshes, became offensive to the eye; and though on the left the woody hills continued still shooting after us, yet they had lost their pleasing shapes. No variety of breaks, like the members of architecture, gave a lightness and elegance to their forms: no mantling furniture invested their fides; nor tufted fringe adorned their promontories; nor scattered oak discovered the sky through interstices along their towering summits: instead of this, they had degenerated into mere uniform lumps of matter, and were everywhere overspread with one heavy uninterrupted bush.

Of this kind were Lord Mansell's woods which covered a promontory. Time with its lenient hand may hereafter hang new beauties upon these hills, when it has corrected their heaviness, by improving the luxuriance of youthful foliage into the lighter forms of aged trees.

From Lord Mansell's to Pyle, which stands on a bleak coast, the spirit of the country is totally lost.

Here we found the people employed in sending provisions to the shore, where a Dutch West-India ship had just been wrecked. Fifteen lives were lost, and among them the whole family of a Zealand merchant, who was bringing his children for education to Amsterdam. The populace came down in large bodies to pillage the wreck, which the officers of the customs and gentlemen of the country assembled to protect.—It was a busy scene, composed of multitudes of men, carts, horses, and horsemen.

The bustle of a crowd is not ill-adapted to the pencil; but the management of it requires great artifice. The whole must be massed together and considered as one body.

I mean not to have the whole body so agglomerated as to consist of no detached groupes; but to have these groupes (of which there should not be more than two or three) appear to belong to one whole, by the artifice of composition, and the effect of light.

This great whole must be varied also in its parts. It is not enough to stick bodies and heads together. Figures must be contrasted with figures, and life, spirit, and action must pervade the whole.

Thus in managing a croud, and in managing a landscape, the same general rules are to be observed. Though the parts must be contrasted , the whole must be combined but the difficulty is the greater in a croud; as its parts, consisting of animated bodies, require a nicer observation of form: being all similar likewise, they require more art in the combination of them.

Composition indeed has never a more difficult work, than when it is engaged in combining a croud. When a number of people, all coloured alike, are to be drawn up in rank and file, it is not in the art of man to combine them in a picturesque manner. We can introduce a rencounter of horse where all regularity is broken, or we can exhibit a few general officers with their aids-de-camp on the foreground, and cover a fighting army with smoke at a distance; but the files of war, the regiment or squadron in military array, admit no picturesque composition. Modern heroes, therefore, must not look to have their achievements recorded on canvas, till they abrogate their formal arts. — But even when we take all the advantages of shape and colour with which the human form can be varied or cloathed, we find it still a matter of difficulty enough.

I do not immediately recollect having seen a croud better managed than Hogarth has managed one in the last print of his idle apprentice. In combining the multifarious company, which attends the spectacle of an execution, he hath exemplified all the observations I have made. I have not the print before me; but I have often admired it in this light: nor do I recollect observing any thing offensive in it; which is rare in the management of such a multitude of figures.

The subject before us is as well adapted, as any species of croud can be, to exhibit the beauties of composition. Horses, carts, and men make a good assemblage, and this variety in the parts would appear to great advantage in contrast with the simplicity of a winding shore, and of a stranded ship (a large dark object) heeling on one side, in the corner of the piece.

1 See page 114.

William Gilpin, Observations of the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales (London: Cadell Junior and W. Davies, 1800) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2012.

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