image history of a waterfall

The oldest known picture is a late eighteenth century study; there are several nineteenth century prints and drawings, photographs by John Piper and a continuous record of postcard photography from the 1890's to today. Supplemented by estate agent photos, surveyor's drawings and even geologist's notes, the waterfall has been represented with different tools for different ends for over two hundred years. It's a record of human interest in a configuration of rock and water that has, naturally, no interest in us.

By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales
A cosmopolitain Royal Academician, Phillipe de Loutherbourg, made this pen and ink wash drawing in 1798. He travellled by horse transport over difficult roads to record modern British industrial wonders for a set of new prints. The edition was not completed, but his 17cm x 9 cm study is a window on how a small corner of Wales was seen by a fashion conscious visitor over two hundred years ago.

De Loutherbough was a professional working at speed. The light pencil composition just visible could have been done on the spot, and the finishing pen & wash perhaps added in lodgings or back in London.

The broken pen lines are not hurried draughtsmanship but part of a new aesthetic of roughness. 'Roughness' was a style idea that drew attention to a qualitiy of nature to be contrasted with smoother urban surfaces in general and classical architecture in particular. Natural roughness was a key part of 'The Picturesque', originally a technical term of the time popularised by William Gilpin's tourist guidebooks of the 1790's. His books advised amateur tourist-artists to use a broken pen and ink execution with simple washes; an easy to master method that would show both the Roughness of Nature and an eye for Picturesque Taste - without a professional skill in oils.

Thus the oldest image of Furnace Falls shows no interest in natural detail. There are no plants or animals to be identified and no sense of weather. The aim was to show modern industry within a fashionably generalised landscape, far from the city yet accessible to the tourist, that also contained a waterfall.

National Portrait Gallery London NPG 2493 CC licence
De Loutherbourg's self portrait in oils - above -  is of an artist-entrepreneur of great versatiity. Among many other projects he famously designed sets for David Garrick's Drury Lane theatre, and it's no surprise that he published prints of fashionable subjects in a new picturesque style.

The etching below was made by John George Wood as a plate for his - take a breath - "Principal Rivers of Wales: Consisting of a series of Views from the source of each river to its mouth. Accompanied by Descriptions, Historical, Topographical, and Picturesque.” Published in two volumes in 1813, it was leather bound, had 155 plates, four double page maps and a list of 158 subscribers - an expensive book.

Image courtesy of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust Library & Archives

The furnace had been used to smelt iron ore for about fifty years but by 1810 had been abandoned and the wheel removed. The site still attracted interest, but The Romantic Movement had moved educated attention away from industry towards wild nature, and this changed how the place was seen.

Wood's book title contains the word 'picturesque', originally a technical term but now gexpanded to its more modern sense of 'any view that could make a painting'. The fall is now of special interest, drawn over twice its actual size with a minute figure in front to make the point. The stream is in full spate. A lower spate would show a more intricate pattern of rock and water, but the artist has turned up the volume and gone for the power of nature.


With the growth of the railways Britain was opened up to mass tourism. In 1863 a small railway station opened a walkable distance from the falls at Glandyfi*, and the tourist industry began to take an interest in the fall. A tea room opened, the local post office began to sell postcards of the area, and a long association of a visit to the falls and picture postcards began.

Postcards are now such familiar things that it's worth remembering that they represented a new way of using images to express a new relationship with place. Small, standardised pictures of 5.5 x 3.5 inches could be sent anywhere by anyone, along with a hand written message. The places depicted were rarely incidental to the message, and sometimes essential to it. All kinds of people and all sorts of experience could now be attached to a picture, in this case of a waterfall. And cards could be kept - as a kind of geographical, pictorial biography.

The oldest post card of the fall I've been able to find is also the oldest photograph of the fall I've seen. It was published by Valentine’s of Dundee, a very large scale producer of cards selling tens of thousands of different views world wide, and its negative was registered with the company in 1896.*


This example is post marked 1923.  Like most messages I've seen on Furnace cards this one does not mention the fall, which is a silent witness to the sender's location. But some messages do refer to the fall itsefl and in these cases the connection between writer and place obviously becomes closer. Mentioned or not, the waterfall is still part of a personal exchange.

The picture itself is produced by a combination of card company, photographer and printer.

Picture quality varies, and some cards show signs of hasty production. Valentiine’s photographer in the '90’s may have been on commission and in a hurry: the fall is in a very low spate and there may not have been time to wait for rain. The original photo shows cloud cover, but the collotype print* has a turquoise hand tinted sky, and green foliage tint has leaked over a tree trunk to the right. The card may be makeshift, but the photo reveals the dramatic, almost vertical bedding planes of the rock structure. It's also one of the few images to show the eighteenth century boulder infill - the dark triangle at the top left of fall.  


Some of the new cards were treated as works of art, inviting appreciation beyond a factual record - some even had picture frame borders. This one, posted in 1913, was published by Park and Son of Newtown, one of their "Park for People Series". The vignetting at the bottom is a small added value of artistic attention. And though the print quality is not high, it has produced the simplified tonal massing of a ninteeenth century landscape. The fall is in full spate with few details, deep in a dark wood. There are no clues as to how to approach it, no way to inspect it further. Furnace falls becomes a vision in the forest, a secret pounding source of natural energy - quite an image for a few pennies. 

A space for a halfpenny stamp on the back of this card shows that it was produced before 1919, when the rate increased to1d. The photograph was made by local photographer E.O. Jones, owner of Jones’ Emporium, Machynelleth, a few miles up the road from the fall.

Jones must have set up his tripod and camera just next to the bridge. The fall is in fairly low spate, and the rocky banks show well in direct sunlight. It’s a spacious view and we could almost walk to the fall along the river gravel. Printing has produced a contrasty image suggesting very bright light. They are the same falls as in the card posted in1913, but it looks like a different place.

As you can see, Jones, known as 'Ted the Emporium', sported splendid moustaches. He photographed various local beauties, including one he married wearing a costume that would have done Whistler proud. His shop stocked a wide range of hardware and fancy goods and would have sold the postcards he produced. His archive is in the National Museum of Wales.*

During the 1920's companies began to sell real photograph postcards. Not only did they offer sharper, more detailed images than previous forms of printing, they suggested greater on-the-spot authenticity. This one is from George and Son’s Real Photograph Series and was posted on 11th May 1933, at Glandyfi, a short walk from the fall. In the hand, with its stiff card and glossy finish, it feels quite refined; and the silver bromide is visible, giving a sense of the photographer’s studio:


Like the card posted in 1906 to a nephew in hospital, this is another healing waterfall, addressed to Miss F Newell, number 4 Private Ward, General Hospital, Hereford' and a message that reads :

Love and good wishes dear Miss Newell.
I wish you were with
us on our way to
The Artists Valley.

Glandyfi Post Office,
Thursday Morning.
 from Yours affectionately, Ada Sclioley

The sincerity is obvious. Miss Newell lived next to and was caretaker of Egwlysfach Chapel, and would have seen the fall every day.* So Ada Sclioley has sent her friend a picture of a healing waterfall that is also a picture of home.

Artists' Valley

She also mentions the ‘Artist’s Valley’.

Furnace falls sits on a rocky stream that runs back from the road up through a winding valley, eventually opening onto a hillside. At some point around 1900 the valley became known as 'The Artists' Valley'. Re-naming the landscape for the benefit of  'trippers' didn't please everyone, but it suited the local tourist industry, and by the 1930's there was an artists’ valley tea shop among the trees at the top, postcards bearing the name and probably a better local market for artist’s materials.

 ‘Van Gogh’s’ Arles' and ‘Constable Country’ overshadow a vast number of other places that less well known painters have chosen to paint. Ada Sclioley’s enthusiasm reflects a popular awareness that painters bring a special attention to landscape, and a proof of its value. So both postcard and message are part of a wider idea that linked a love of the countryside to both photography and painting. Indeed historically they are almost inseprable - like a love that needs an image...


This lithographic print card by Photochrom Ltd. was posted in 1934 from Borth to 118 Edmund Street, Birmingham, an address in right in the middle of the industrial West Midlands. Its printed title says Borth, Artist's Valley, The Waterfall; renaming the fall as an attraction for the closest large holiday market, a resort about ten miles away.

It looks like tropical rain forest, but the title at the bottom next to a bystander in fashionable loose cut jacket and trousers says not. Sepia unifies everything into a benign wilderness, and the man looks slightly awkwardly at the photographer on the bridge. It was a new version of a very old idea: that wild places could, perhaps should, be seen from an urban perspective waring urban clothes.


The 'photochrom' process used by Photochrom Ltd involved transferring the negative to a lithographic stone plate. Four colours were then applied using separate plates. This second version of the card shows the waterfall recreated in a London workshop or maybe at Tunbridge Wells in Kent, where the company was based. The effect is bizzare - for example, a wedge of blue is set off against a bloc of yellow with no sense of natural colour. It may be a stab at Art Deco, a test piece or the result of wanting a colour card from materials available as cheaply as possible.

MORE TO COME: including photos by John Piper, surveyor's drawings for CADW, geological field strips for BGS survey.


• The station was first called Glandovey, but in1904 was renamed in Welsh as Glandyfi. It was closed for passanger use in 1965. CADW archives (box SN 69)
• Valentine's Archive, with thanks to Jane M W Campbell, Research Calatoguer and Database Officer, Photographic Collections, Special Collections Division, Unversity of St Andrews.
• A Valentine's collotype multiprint - one print for each colour. This print was discontinued in in 1939; the archive registration reads 'OUT 10-3-49" 
• And see: Hefin Llwyd, Un Ennud Fer: Bywyd a Gwaith E O Jones 1873-1915, ffotograffydd cunnar, Cymdeithas Papur Pawb, Tal-y-Bont 1980. With thanks to William Troughton, Visual Images Librarian, National Library of Wales for this reference, and to Non and John Griffiths of Eglwysfach for loan of their copy.

Surveyor's plan of fall. From the collections of the National Monuments Record of Wales: © Crown Copyright: Cadw O'r casgliadau o Gofnod Henebion Cenedlaethol Cymru : © Hawlfraint y Goron: Cadw
Photo card by Howard Lloyd Roberts, local artist, cartoonist and art master at Machynlleth. Courtesy William Troughton, NLW.

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