Shaft of a Lead Mine. View near Pont Aberglasslyn, Carnarvonshire, looking towards the Bay of Cardigan, by John Hassell.

John Hassell, Wales and the ‘industrial picturesque’

Mary-Ann Constantine examines the harmonious blending of modern industry with the Welsh landscape in a series of prints by the London-based artist, John Hassell.

Among the many Welsh landscape scenes in the King George III Topographical Collection are nine prints by the London-based artist and engraver John Hassell (1767–1825). In what was by the late 1790s a crowded market for picturesque Welsh views – bridges, mountains, waterfalls, castles – the titles of these pictures seem to offer something different: a salmon fishery, a charcoal kiln, coal works, slate quarries, iron mills, copper works, the shaft of a lead mine, a group of people cutting peat. Neatly executed in aquatint and watercolour, their appealing greys and greens and browns occasionally backlit by a flush of pink, they portray a world of low-key, local industry, where nature, architecture and human activity appear in harmonious balance.

Three views in Wales

Salmon Fishery. A view from the Rocks of Aberistwith and the Bay of Aberistwith, by John Hassell.

Hassell's aquatint views combine local industry with picturesque scenery.

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For such an energetic producer of art-works Hassell is a somewhat elusive character. He was born in Stepney, and London was his base, but he evidently travelled widely around Britain, producing topographical scenes from Derbyshire to Cornwall, along with guidebooks incorporating his own engravings, such as A Tour of the Isle of Wight (1790), A Picturesque Guide to Bath, Bristol, Hot-Wells, the River Avon and the Adjacent Country (1793), Views of Noblemen's and Gentlemen's Seats (1804), and Picturesque rides and walks, with excursions by water, thirty miles round the British metropolis (1818). He also taught drawing and painting, and a number of his publications from the 1800s are manuals for aspiring artists. Though productive, he evidently struggled at times to make a living. In a letter to the Royal Literary Fund, possibly from 1809, he asks for financial help, ‘having been for these last eighteen months incapacitated by continued illness from following my Avocations’. His case was turned down, although 10 years later a request from his widow, Mary, who was ‘left with a large family of children totally unprovided for’ persuaded the Committee to grant her the sum of £20.[1]

His Graphic Delineations, published by Mary the year after his death, offers a detailed introduction to the processes of etching ‘by a manner at once scientific, tasteful, and amusing’. It opens with a paean to the art of engraving, which, besides being instructive and pleasurable in itself, ensures an afterlife for the productions of great artists. Hassell then stresses the far wider public benefits of the engraver’s skill:

'Their studies and sketches we can rarely procure but at an exorbitant price, and then single specimens can only be had for the more affluent connoisseur’s port-feuille: whereas by multiplying their works in etchings, we have a beautiful assemblage and variety of the different Masters and their styles, for supplying the less wealthy admirer and student.' (p. 3)

This ‘multiplying’ is a phenomenon which had far-reaching effects – effects that went beyond the world of the ‘admirer and student’ of art. The range and wider availability of such prints meant that parts of the British Isles (and, of course, the wide world beyond) were presented visually (if not always accurately) to those who could not visit them. With London at the heart of much of this image production, topographical prints had considerable influence on metropolitan notions of the peripheries of Britain, from the Hebrides to Land’s End. Artist-engravers like John Hassell are thus part of a larger story of the discovery and recreation of a new concept of ‘Britain’, and its different cultures, histories and communities. It was a complex process in which topographical views and the ‘Tour’ as a written genre fed, and fed off, each other.

Wales plays a significant part in this story. Relatively accessible from London, it could still offer the traveller experience of the exotic – language and customs – as well as the sublime and picturesque. These qualities became more readily discoverable as a result of two key publications, the Tour in Wales (1778–83) by the Flintshire antiquarian and naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726–98), and Observations on the River Wye (1782) by the Reverend William Gilpin. By the 1790s and into the first two decades of the 1800s Wales was an extremely popular destination for a broadening social group of tourists, including a new generation of artists and writers. Hassell made his 1792 Picturesque Tour of Bath and Bristol, which included an excursion to Chepstow and the Wye Valley, in the company of fellow artist J.C. Ibbetson; among the many others who visited Wales in this period were the young  J.M.W.Turner, John and Cornelius Varley, John Warwick Smith, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge and the novelist Catherine Hutton. All contributed to a notion of an unspoilt, wild and beautiful ‘Wales’ which would become a fundamental part of its identity (and, of course, its economy) to the present day.

Of the 20 pictures John Hassell exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1789 and 1819, several were apparently of Welsh scenes. The ‘waterfalls, castles, and salmon leaps’ mentioned in the Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography (ODNB) suggest a certain commitment to the typical – and by then, stereotypical – depictions of Welsh landscape, as does the existence of the euphoniously-titled Hassell's Castles and Abbeys of the Border Counties and Cambria, engraved in aquatinta (1807). He was, then, a man with a keen eye for the market. The group of industry-themed prints, published at intervals by Francis Jukes throughout 1798, seem to have been planned as part of a larger project which also took in Cornish tin-mines and Derbyshire stonepits, and reveal, as Peter Lord has argued, the very beginnings of a wider public taste for industrial scenes.[2]

Shaft of a lead mine

Shaft of a Lead Mine. View near Pont Aberglasslyn, Carnarvonshire, looking towards the Bay of Cardigan, by John Hassell.

A view of a lead mine near Aberglaslyn in Carnarvonshire.

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And yet the visual arts, as John Barrell has noted, were far more resistant than tourist writings of this period to exploring ‘the non-agricultural part of the Welsh economy’.[3] Hassell’s Shaft of a lead mine. View near Pont Aberglasslyn makes a point of bucking that trend by keeping the much-admired bridge at Aberglaslyn, a focal point of so many travel accounts and pictures, firmly offstage.[4] It is not, however, a statement of the ‘anti-picturesque’; and nor does it evoke the industrial sublime, where human figures seem dwarfed and threatened by their man-made environment – for example in the dramatic painting by William Havell of the copper mines at Parys Mountain on Anglesey (1803).[5] Everything about Hassell’s print suggests a harmonious balance between human industry and nature. The diagonal ascent of the worked outcrops of stone around the mine-shaft are gracefully mirrored in the natural upward slope of the mountain behind. Two horses and a mule, vividly depicted, wait to have their wicker paniers loaded with lead-ore – the absence of a cart reminds us of the ruggedness of the region’s roads, another frequent topic of tourist literature. The three workers appear busy but unhurried: one of them is seated, talking to another man who is smoking a pipe; a sleeping dog lies beside him.

Coal works

Coal Works. A View near Neath in Glamorganshire in South Wales, by John Hassell.

A view of the coal works near Neath in Glamorganshire.

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A more sophisticated industrial scene is portrayed in a print from south Wales: Coal Works. A View near Neath in Glamorganshire shows the latest in mining technology, from the horse-drawn whim-gin operating the pulley, to the steam-driven pumping mechanisms in place to prevent the pit getting waterlogged. It nonetheless conveys that same sense of harmony, with a similar pleasing echoing of form in the mounded pile of large lumps of coal, the beautiful curved thatched building housing the shaft, and the curiously-shaped hill behind. Even the smoke rising directly from the dome of the boiler and from the tall, angular pump-house building seems to blend, quite naturally, into the clouds.

Slate quarries

Slate Quarries. A View of Harlech Castle, Merionethshire, by John Hassell.

A view of slate quarries near Harlech Castle in Merionethshire.

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Slate Quarries. A View of Harlech Castle, Merionethshire again gives us something unusual. Harlech Castle, used to being the centre of attention in most written and visual accounts of the period, here looks down on the action of the foreground – three people, a man swinging a pick-axe, a man and woman in conversation, and two horses (or perhaps a horse and a mule) harnessed to a cart ready to shift slates from a small brightly-lit quarry. The little cottage perched above it is part of their world, and shares the pinkish sunlight; the distinctive four-towered castle is perched higher and further back in a more distant blue-grey zone which links it to the northern mountains behind.

Turf cutting

Turf Cutting. A View near Cader Idris Merionethshire North Wales, by John Hassell.

A view of turf cutting near Cadair Idris in Merionethshire.

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In Turf Cutting. A View near Cader Idris, Merionethshire, North Wales we have what looks like a distinction of class: three men either riding or leading their horses (curious travellers, perhaps?) have stopped to examine the activities of a group of workers, who are busy cutting, moving, and stacking turves of peat in boggy ground that appears to border a lake or river. The distinctive sledges used for transporting the turves can be seen, one in the foreground and one descending the steep hill behind. Thomas Pennant, writing in the 1770s, drew attention to the ‘peat paths I now survey with horror, reflecting on a frolick of my younger days in climbing to its summit, to enjoy the pleasure of darting down again on one of the peat sledges’.[6] Even without the frolicking this was dangerous work, described here by the botanist Reverend John Evans in 1798:

'The mountains are so steep, that to use a cart or horses would be impossible; a sledge therefore is adopted, which is a machine formed of rail work similar to the bed of a cart; and holds from two to four hundred weight: this the owner carries up the hill upon his back, “duris uterque labor” loads it with peat, then placing a cord over his breast, which is affixed to the sledge, he drags it to the verge of the summit; reversing his position he now exerts all his strength to stop the velocity of the sledge, going before it backwards, and guiding its various motions, till he arrives at the foot of the mountain.'[7]

A peat-cutting scene near Mallwyd was also vividly drawn by J.C. Ibbetson, who shared Hassell’s interest in the world of work;[8] and there is another minutely-detailed account of the activity and the construction of the sledges in Edward Pugh’s Cambria Depicta (1816), a rare tour by a Welsh-speaker – full, as John Barrell points out, of lively encounters and conversations.[9]

View of the town of Aberistwith

View of the Town of Aberistwith, by T. Jones and J. Hassell.

A view of Aberystwyth with bathing machines in the foreground.

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Hassell’s ‘industrial picturesque’ prints appeared throughout 1798, but that is not necessarily the year of his travels in Wales. How much time did he spend there? It is hard to pin him down, but the evidence of his publications, including the trip with Ibbetson in 1792, and a print showing sea-bathing at Aberystwyth in 1795, suggests that Wales was a place he returned to, and probably got to know well. Confirmation of this appears in a personal aside in his biography of his friend and fellow artist George Morland:

'At one hundred and twenty miles from the metropolis, the writer had once the pleasure of meeting the late Mr. Thomas Macklin, the printseller, with a portfolio of prints; and having, for the two years preceding the interview, resided principally in Wales, every thing he could shew of the arts was necessarily acceptable.'[10]

The extent of Hassell’s knowledge of the country is not just a matter of curiosity. The more attention we can pay to the styles and agendas of individual writers and artists, the richer and more subtle will be our understanding of the historical processes behind the creation of a Romantic-era ‘Wales’ whose legacy endures to this day. Perhaps more importantly, by locating these pictures in real places at a particular time, we can begin to write a counterpoint history of each scene, drawing on other pictures, other travel accounts, but also on local historical and literary sources in Welsh.

We may be wise, too, to feel a little resistant to these harmonious compositions of people at work. Though drawn from a period before mass industrialisation and its attendant social and environmental miseries, their fluency in the idiom of the picturesque perhaps blinds us to the harshness of working conditions at the time: we cannot see the workers under the ground, or smell the poisonous smoke of the Swansea copper works, or grasp the rapidity of the kinds of change documented by Thomas Pennant up at Holywell, where most of a wooded valley gives way to factories in the space of twenty years. Indeed, looking back into this early industrial world from a distance of over two centuries, John Hassell’s vision of a balance between the natural world and human exploitation of its resources seems more than a little poignant.[11]


[1] British Library, Loan 96/RLF1/227.

[2] Peter Lord, The Visual Culture of Wales: Industrial Society (Cardiff, 1998), pp. 35–37.

[3] John Barrell, Edward Pugh of Ruthin 1763-1813: ‘A Native Artist’ (Cardiff, 2013), p. 49.

[4] See, e.g., J. Barber, 1796 (Maps K.Top.46.48.b) or Mary Smirke, 1800 (Maps K.Top.46.10.c).

[5] For discussion this and other images of the Parys mines see Lord, Visual Culture of Wales, pp. 22–28.

[6] Thomas Pennant, Tour in Wales (1784), II, p. 81.

[7] John Evans, A Tour through part of North Wales, in the year 1798, and at other times (London, 1800), p. 62.

[8] J. C. Ibbetson, Method of obtaining peat from hills near Mallwyd, National Museum of Wales. NMWA 12879.

[9] Barrell, Edward Pugh, pp. 190–92.

[10] J. Hassell, Memoirs of the late George Morland (London, 1806), p. 91.

[11] With thanks to John Barrell, Peter Wakelin, Aled Gruffydd Jones and Tom Drysdale.

  • Mary-Ann Constantine

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