The Betws-y-coed Artists' Colony

Britain's first Artists' Colony from 1844 to 1914

Betws-y-coed was the home of Britain's first artists' colony and Alison, who had a gallery in the village from 2008 to 2019, follows a long line of artists who were drawn there and influenced by Snowdonia and North Wales.

During the Napoleonic wars of the late 18th and early 19th Century, British artists were unable to travel to the Alps and so started to explore the United Kingdom. J. M. W. Turner visited North Wales in 1790, and during the 19th Century as it became fashionable to paint wild mountainous landscapes, more artists followed in his footsteps.

In the summer of 1844 renowned artist and contemporary of Turner, David Cox, made his first of many summer visits to Betws-y-coed. In this same year, Thomas Roscoe's book "Wanderings and Excursions in North Wales" was re-published including a chapter on Betws-y-coed. Before long the village had become a destination of choice for artists, with Cox encouraging his younger followers with regular demonstrations.

The years from 1850 to 1880 saw the Conwy Valley established as a firm favourite location for a new generation of landscape painters, and so Britain's first artists' colony was born. In 1851 Manchester-based H Clarence Whaite first arrived in Betws-y-coed, meeting George Popkin and later befriending James Whittaker. Also in the village during the following years were artists such as Thomas Collier, John Syer, Benjamin Williams Leader, Lawrence Coppard, and George Harrison.

During the 1860s the construction of the Conwy Valley Railway brought vast numbers of tourists and artists to Betws-y-coed, attracted by the growing reputation of the village. To cope with the influx of visitors the Royal Oak Hotel, so often the base for David Cox's expeditions, was rebuilt and a number of guest houses - Welsh owned but with English names - were constructed. As the village grew several Alpine-style villas were built by prosperous English people, and within a few years the artists of the colony were in despair that the peace and solemnity that had attracted them to Betws-y-coed in the first place had been destroyed by the tourism that the village's reputation had given rise to.

As Betws-y-coed became busier and more commercialised the artists began to migrate along the Conwy Valley, and around 1870 Clarence Whaite took occupancy of Tyddyn Cynal near Conwy. In 1881 at the Llandudno Junction Hotel a meeting of artists including Clarence Whaite resolved to establish a Welsh art academy. One year later, Queen Victoria bestowed the title Royal upon the Cambrian Academy of Art, an institution that still exists today as the RCA in Conwy.

References/Further reading: Clarence Whaite and the Welsh Art World, The Betws-y-coed Artists Colony 1844-1914 by Peter Lord. Available from the Royal Oak Hotel, Betws-y-coed, where you will also find one of David Cox’s original paintings “The Royal Oak”.

Top picture: "Llyn Dinas" by Sydney Richard Percy