Chirk Castle from the North by Pieter Tillemans
This painting by Pieter Tillemans shows the front view of Chirk Castle as it stands on a bluff overlooking the Ceiliog Valley. The artist's grounding in the Flemish school is very much in evidence here.
The Flemish influence
The majority of 17th-century landscapes we have of the British countryside and of British country houses were rarely painted by British artists. Rather, they were the work of Flemish, Dutch and other European artists who were living and working in Britain.
Pieter Tilleman’s spectacular view of Chirk Castle from the North exemplifies the degree to which landscape painting in Britain is inextricably informed by the rich landscape tradition of northern Europe.
Born in Flanders, Tillemans learned his craft in Antwerp before immigrating to England in 1708. In 1711 he joined Godfrey Kneller's Academy of Painting and Drawing and he soon became a fashionable painter of topographical panoramas and country house views.
An organised structure
Tillemans has organised his landscape into a tripartite composition. These three horizontal zones include the high luminous sky in the far distance; the castle, groves of trees and sun-washed hills in the middle distance; and a wading herdsman driving a flock of cattle, goats and a horse in the foreground.
By organising the view according to clearly delineated bands and enlivening the foreground with a georgic shepherding scene, Tillemans is utilising landscape conventions that circulated in Flanders and the Netherlands since the early 17th century.
As with most Flemish and Dutch landscapes of the Golden Age, this is not a vision of nature as a wild or harsh environment. This is a world carefully ordered by humans.
Fact, fiction or both?
Despite the pretence of topographical accuracy, this view of Chirk Castle has been the subject of picturesque exaggeration. Like many artists before and after him, Tillemans has distorted features of the land – specifically, the rise and fall of the hills – to suit the pictorial requirements of the composition.
Indeed, he has heightened the drama of the natural topography by creating a view that is comprised of multiple viewpoints. Although he has sketched the scene from the water level of the lake, he also carefully renders the newly installed, white-oiled iron gates made by Robert and John Davies in the front of the castle. In so doing, he offers a sweeping assessment of the landscape while providing specific details – a feat which would not be possible from a single, ‘authentic’ viewpoint.
Although views such as these were subject to pictorial embellishment, they nonetheless retain important details about the evolution of the country house, acting as documents from previous eras before extensive landscaping changes or architectural modifications.
Such would be the case for Chirk Castle. In 1770, the fine baroque gates would be taken down and reassembled at the New Hall entrance to the park, and by the 1780s the parkland surrounding the castle would be comprehensively landscaped by designer William Emes.