The Penrhyn Slate Quarry
Henry Hawkins (fl.1820-1881)
The slate quarry of Penrhyn was once one of the two largest in the world. Slate was used in schools, as blackboards and writing-slates and on buildings as roofing, cladding, shelves and cisterns. The quarry became a popular tourist attraction, regarded as an example of a spectacular process of the Industrial Revolution and a new wonder of Nature developed by man. Princess Victoria, then 13 years old, visited the quarry on 8 September 1832, and described the event in her diary: "It was very curious to see the men split the slate, and others cut it while others hung suspended by ropes and cut the slate; others again drove wedges into a piece of rock and in that manner would split off a block. Then little carts about a dozen at a time rolled down a railway by themselves". This is most likely a commemorative picture possibly after or in anticipation of the Royal visit, painted for George Dawkins-Pennant (1764 -1840) who rebuilt Penrhyn Castle in its massive neo-Norman style between 1819 and 1834. The artist has shown himself sketching the scene in the bottom right-hand corner, and in the centre, in a rather surprising artistic allusion: a gesticulating boy adopts the pose of Reynolds's celebrated Infant John the Baptist in the Wilderness. He is pointing heavenward, reminding the viewer that all this mighty endeavour is but human, and is subject to the mightier hand of God.
Oil painting on canvas, The Penrhyn Slate Quarry by Henry Hawkins (fl.1820-1881), signed bottom right on a stone: Hy Hawkins 1832. Dozens of figures; large pointed rock in middle distance. Gallery level right. The picture evidently contains a number of portraits, including the artist himself in the bottom right-hand corner. A foreground figure, in the centre is derived from Reynolds's "Infant St John the Baptist". Princess Victoria, then 13 years old, visited the quarry on 8 September 1832, and described the event in her diary, and this picture may be comemorative. The picture depicts the quarry from the lower side,showing in the middle distance Talcen Mawr or `Gibraltar rock', blown up in 1895.
The slate quarries of Penrhyn and Dinorwic were the largest in Wales - in the world, even, according to F.J. North (i). The scale and grandeur of their workings had impressed travellers ever since the later 18th century, when Richard Pennant, later 1st Baron Penrhyn (1739-1808), who had inherited the workings at the north end of the Nant Ffrancon valley through his marriage to Anne, daughter of General Hugh Warburton (1695-1771), had taken the only recently-granted leases back in hand in 1782, and consolidated them into one large quarry. From this he built a new road to the mouth of the River Cegin, and at the mouth of the river he created Port Penrhyn in 1786. When Pitt imposed a crippling tax on sea-borne slate in 1793, on top of the drastic slump in its use for building already caused by the outbreak of the war against France, the surviving workforce was given employment by the creation of a much more efficient iron tramway, 6 miles long, falling through 500 feet down to the port; thus enabling only 12 men with 16 horses to bring down more slate than 140 men with 400 horses had done before. By the mid-19th century it was producing a net income of £100,000 p.a. for its owner. Slate had two main uses: in schools, as blackboards and writing-slates; and - far more importantly - on buildings: as roofing, cladding, shelves, cisterns, &c. The spread of education greatly increased the former use, and Pennant ensured that the business went to his quarry by establishing a manufactory for the finishing and framing of writing-slates on the wharf at Port Penrhyn. Some time before his death in 1798, the only distantly-related Thomas Pennant, who, in the first edition of his A Tour in Wales (1781) makes no reference to any quarrying, and dismisses the slates in a sentence, waxes lyrical about the transformations wrought by Lord Penrhyn, and about this manufactory: "Previously, we were entirely supplied from Switzerland: that trade has now ceased; the Swiss manufacturers are become bankrupt" (ii) The architectural use of slate was at first greatly promoted by the symbiotic relationship between the Pennants and the Wyatts, and later by the creation of the railway network, which took them to the furthest corners of the land. James Wyatt had added a wing to Richard Pennant's Cheshire house, Winnington Hall, in 1776; and his brother Samuel reconstructed Penrhyn Castle, and built stables, entrance lodge, and estate cottages there, from 1782 onwards. In 1785 yet another brother, Benjamin, was appointed general agent to the estate, the duties of which included the running of the Quarry and Port. His brothers - but particularly Samuel, who became the leading purveyor of Welsh slate in London - thus had a direct incentive to encourage their clients to make every possible use of Penrhyn slate; at Shugborough (NT), for instance, rebuilt by Samuel for the 1st Viscount Anson from 1790 onwards, the whole exterior was faced with slate, even down to the fluted columns of the portico. By around 1800, the scale of the Penrhyn quarries had made them into something of a tourist attraction; it was in that innocent period when some of the more spectacular processes of the Industrial Revolution seemed like new wonders of Nature developed by man - marvels of the sublime more than of the picturesque — and before their deleterious implications and side-effects were much noticed or commented upon (iii). One of the first such reactions in print is that of the Rev. William Bingley, published after his first tour of North Wales, whilst still an undergraduate at Oxford: "Here I found several immense openings .... as rude as imagination can paint, that had been formed in getting the slate. On first surveying them, a degree of surprise is excited, how such yawning chasms could have been formed by any but the immediate operations of Nature" (iv). By the time that Prince Pückler-Muskau saw the Quarry, just four years before this picture was painted, its immensity was truly staggering: "five or six high terraces of great extent rise one above another on the side of the mountain; along these swarm men, machines, trains of an hundred waggons attached together and rolling rapidly along the iron railways, cranes drawing up heavy loads, water-courses, &c. It took me a considerable time to give even a hasty glance at this busy and complicated scene .... I reached the fearfully magnificent scene of operations. It was like a subterranean world! Above the blasted walls of slate, smooth as a mirror and several hundred feet high, scarcely enough of the blue heaven was visible to enable me to distinguish mid-day from twilight .... The perpendicular sides were hung with men, who looked like dark birds, striking the rock with their long picks, and throwing down masses of slate which fell with a sharp and clattering sound ....". He then describes one of the regular springings of a mine, and in so doing, alludes to the darker side of all this activity: "according to the statement of the overseer himself, they calculate on an average of an hundred and fifty men wounded, and seven or eight killed in a year. An hospital exclusively devoted to the workmen on this property, receives the wounded" (v). 1832, the year in which this picture was painted, was one under doubly favourable auspices for Penrhyn Quarry. In 1831 Pitt's duty on slate was finally repealed, and on 8th September 1832, the 13-year-old Princess - later Queen —-Victoria visited it, recording the event in her journal, in a way that almost describes the various activities visible in this picture: "It was very curious to see the men split the slate, and others cut it while others hung suspended by ropes and cut the slate; others again drove wedges into a piece of rock and in that manner would split off a block. Then little carts about a dozen at a time rolled down a railway by themselves" (vi). It seems unlikely that the artist, had he painted this picture in or after September 1832, would have missed the opportunity of depicting the royal visitor, so that it was almost certainly painted earlier in the year, and more probably on commission than as a speculation. By this time the owner of Penrhyn was the rebuilder of the Castle in its present, remarkable neo-Norman form: George Hay Dawkins-Pennant (1764-1840), nephew of the discoverer of Palmyra, and 1st cousin once removed of Richard Pennant, Lord Penrhyn, whose family name he had added to his own after inheriting this princely legacy. Unlike his son-in-law, Edward Douglas-Pennant, 1st Baron Penrhyn, to whom he is, however, supposed to have bequeathed the task of filling his great pile with a worthy collection of pictures, George Dawkins-Pennant devoted his energy to building rather than to collecting paintings. But, in addition to acquiring a certain number of historical portraits, he seems to have commissioned from George Fennel Robson (1790-1833) a set of eight appropriately large watercolours of views of or from his Caernarfonshire estates. The present picture, commissioned from a more local artist than Robson, in keeping with its 'inferior' subject-matter, represents, as it were, the economic underpinning of these views and of the Castle itself. In 1848, Hawkins went on to exhibit a picture of The Great Bangor slate quarries, North Wales at the Royal Academy . Since the slate quarries actually at Bangor were of no particular consequence, whilst Bangor was the port from which most of the Penrhyn slate was trans-shipped and so sometimes took its name, it seems possible that this was a second representation of the Penrhyn quarry. A decade after the present picture, the Penrhyn Slate Quarries were again depicted, in a dramatic lithograph by W. Crane of Chester for his Picturesque Scenery in North Wales (viii). But, by contrast with the present picture, and in keeping with the title and context of the publication in which it appeared, the human figures in it are but few, on the scale of ants, and are solely intended to point up, by their minuteness, the vastness of the quarry. In the present picture, per contra, they are active constituents of the scene, and it seems clear that a number of them are portraits - to which, however, we regrettably lack the key. The artist does, however, appear to have shown himself sketching the scene in the bottom right-hand corner, whilst a boy indicates some distant feature of it to him. In the centre, in a rather surprising artistic allusion, another gesticulating boy adopts the pose of Reynolds's Infant John the Baptist (ix). Since he points heavenward, rather than to any feature of the scene, it is possible that he is intended as a deliberate reminder that all this mighty endeavour is but human, and is subject to the mightier hand of God; just as the settlement next to the quarry, where the workers lived, was called Bethesda, the name of the sacred pool at Jerusalem, after the chapel built there in 1820. Notes: (i) Slates of Wales, 1st edn., 1927, p.00; 3rd edn., 1946, p.66. (ii) A Tour in Wales, vol.II (1781), p.284; Tours in Wales, 1810, vol.III, pp.85-87, esp. p.87. (iii) Francis D. Klingender, Art and the Industrial Revolution , revised & edited by Arthur Elton, 1968, esp. ch.5. (iv) Excursions in North Wales, 1798, vol.I, p.179. (v) Briefe eines Verstorbenen [1829—31], transl. by Sarah Austin as Tour in England, Ireland, and France in the Years 1828 & 1829 .... by a German Prince, vol.I, 1832, pp.46-49. (vi) Quoted by gracious permission of Her Majesty the Queen. I am grateful to Delia, Lady Millar, for finding and communicationg this reference to me. (vii) It is not known what, if any, relation Henry Hawkins was to the G. Hawkins who was entrusted with the more exalted task of executing a set of lithographs of the interiors and exteriors of Penrhyn Castle for Col. Douglas-Pennant, published in 1846. (viii) Klingender, op.cit., p.82 & fig.11. (ix) Alastair Laing owes this observation to Jonathan Marsden. (adapted from author's version/pre-publication, Alastair Laing, In Trust for the Nation, exh. cat., 1995)
Presumably commissioned by George Hay Dawkins-Pennant (1764 - 1840); thence by descent to Hugh Napier Douglas Pennant, 4th Baron Penrhyn of Llangedai (1894 – 1949), who left Penryhn and its estates to his niece, Lady Janet Marcia Rose Pelham (1923 - 1997), who with her husband John Charles Harper, thereupon assumed the name of Douglas Pennant, and in 1951 made over the castle and part of its contents in lieu of death-duties to HM Treasury (from the estate of Hugh, 4th Baron Penrhyn (1894 – 1949), which transferred them to the National Trust for display at Penrhyn Castle, 1961.
Marks and inscriptions
'1832' (signed and dated)
Makers and roles
Henry Hawkins (fl.1820-1881), artist
In Trust for the Nation, National Gallery, London, 1995 - 1996, no.34