Martin's Tower, Chepstow Castle
The subject, Chepstow Castle, dominates most of the print, sitting across the water from the viewer. It is in a state of ruin: ivy climbs up the towers, and the tops of the rightmost towers are either severely damaged or missing. The sun appears above the castle, gleaming in a wide rift between the clouds. In the foreground, shrubbery frames the castle on the left; to the right, it is bordered by grassland and trees. Two persons stand in front of the trees.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
PR4149 B6 B3 1813
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Martin's Tower, Chepstow Castle was first published July 20, 1811, bound in book form as an accompaniment to the first edition of Robert Bloomfield’s The Banks of Wye: A Poem in Four Books.
The Wye Tour
The popularity of the Wye Tour, a picturesque tour through the England-Wales border down the River Wye, increased exponentially during the 1780s and the decades that followed (though the Wye river was a popular site for at least twenty-five years before Gilpin’s tour); this was due in large part to the tour guide-book Observations on the River Wye, written by the Reverend William Gilpin and published in 1782. The tour focused on the natural beauty of the Wye Valley, especially the part of the Valley that fit Gilpin’s idea of the “correctly picturesque”—usually characterized by a natural object (e.g., a tree, a stone, cliffs; anything not human-made) which stood out in stark contrast to its surroundings and was often in close proximity to people or human-made objects (factories, bridges, and the like). The tour lasted two to three days by boat (the most common form of travel for tourists) or carriage (used only by the very wealthy), and significantly longer by foot; William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, took a walking tour of the Wye Valley in 1798 (see William Wordsworth’s memorial poem “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on Revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798”). The most common form of travel was by pleasure boat, which featured a canopy to shield tourists from the wind, sun, and rain; a handful of tables for writing or drawing; and several oarsmen who acted as de facto tour guides and cost three to four guineas for two days' employment (Moir 125). The tour extended, as Gilpin noted, “To [Chepstow] from Ross, which is a course of near 40 miles” and featured “a succession of the most picturesque scenes” (Gilpin 7). Highlights included Ross-on-Wye, Goodrich Castle, Symond’s Yat, Monmouth, Tintern Abbey, Piercefield, Chepstow Castle, and, finally, the junction of the Rivers Wye and Severn at Chepstow.
Picturesque tourism as an industry was largely popularized by the publication of Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye in 1782. Tourists of the "picturesque" traveled to Scotland, North and South Wales, the Wye Valley, and the Lake District (in northwest England) in search of scenery manifesting this ideal. Oftentimes, tourists brought watercolors to quickly paint or sketch the scenes that most captivated them, in the fashion of Gilpin. These tourists, and their dogged pursuit of the picturesque, would later be lampooned by caricaturists in the early years of the 1800s, but picturesque tourism maintained significant popularity until the mid-nineteenth century.
Robert Bloomfield (1766-1823)
A self-educated cobbler, Bloomfield first achieved widespread success and critical acclaim with his semi-autobiographical poem The Farmer’s Boy (1800). After a series of less-successful published works and a period of wavering health, Bloomfield took a ten day tour of the River Wye, which “rejuvenated” him (Kaloustian). The journal Bloomfield kept on the tour was eventually versified and published as The Banks of Wye: a Poem in Four Books (1811). Notably, the poem reflects more on how the scenery affects the poet rather than on the scenery itself, continuing a poetical trend established by Wordsworth in “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” and differing significantly from the predominantly analytical writing of Gilpin and his disciples.
The Wye River
The Wye River rises on Plynlimon Mountain in Wales and flows southeast for 130 miles. The last forty miles of the river, beginning at Ross-on-Wye, made up the Wye Tour during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gilpin described its beauty as related primarily to its “mazy course” and “lofty banks” (Gilpin 7). The river winds along the English-Welsh border until it empties into the River Severn at Chepstow, and features the ruins of several castles, abbeys, and the like along its banks.
Built in 1067 near modern Chepstow in southeast Wales, the ruins of Chepstow Castle served as a fitting finale for the Wye tour. Tourists had already strolled through Tintern Abbey and observed Goodrich Castle from afar, and the third great ruin of the tour tied the trip together nicely. Chepstow Castle’s decrepit towers and swiftly disintegrating walls likely served to call mortality and the irreversible flow of time to the minds of viewers, and the plants that crept over its outer façade ensured its evocation of picturesque decay.
Located approximately two miles above the junction of the rivers Wye and Severn, Chepstow was the final stop on the Wye Tour. Its most magnificent, picturesque view is undoubtedly Chepstow Castle, which served as the last great spectacle of the Wye Tour.
John Martin's watercolor, View on the River Wye, Looking towards Chepstow (1844)
The subject, Chepstow Castle, was the final great spectacle of the Wye Tour. The crumbling walls, juxtaposed with luxuriant plant life, ensured both an impression of picturesque decay and a subtle reminder of human mortality: the closed body language of the travelers in the right extremity of the print suggests that they are awestruck by the "sublime" scene before them, while the “setting sun” and rapidly crumbling castle evoke the ephemeral nature of life and beauty (Bloomfield 3.313).
The print’s significance, like many of the landscape pieces of the day, is perhaps most evident in its picturesque subject. By examining a work of human architecture that has succumbed to the ravages of nature, the engraver is addressing the Romantic notion of the picturesque. The theme of mortality (established by the setting sun) suggests that the viewer of the ruins is evaluating himself rather than the castle’s picturesque qualities, and is therefore following in the footsteps of Wordsworth. In Wordsworth’s poem “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798,” “memory and association are even stronger influences on [the poet’s] feelings . . . than is the impact of the physical scenery itself” (Andrews 86). This examination of one’s self rather than the landscape “launch[ed] a new phase in man’s relationship with the natural world, on the spot where, a generation earlier, Picturesque tourism itself was launched” (Andrews 86). By focusing on the self, rather than whether or not a scene is “correctly Picturesque," Bloomfield was embracing a shift in the way the natural world was viewed—less as a work of art to be judged, and more as a conduit to one’s innermost thoughts and feelings (Gilpin 18). This shift is a fundamental tenet of Romanticism as we understand it today.
Andrews, Malcolm. In Search of the Picturesque. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989. Print.
Bloomfield, Robert. The Banks of Wye: a Poem in Four Books. London: Longman; Hurst; Rees; Orme; etc., 1813. Print.
Gilpin, William. Observations on the River Wye. 1782. Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1991. Print. Revolution and Romanticism, 1789-1834.
Kaloustian, David. “Bloomfield, Robert (1766–1823).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 21 Aug. 2013.
Moir, Esther. The Discovery of Britain; The English Tourists. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1964. Print.
THE BANKS OF WYE; A POEM. IN FOUR BOOKS.