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', a technical term of the time popularised by William Gilpin's tourist guidebooks of the 1790's. The books advised amateur tourist-artists to use a broken pen and ink technique and simple washes, a method easy to master and with an execution that would show both the Roughness of Nature and an eye for Good Picturesque Taste - without 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 the weather. The aim was to show modern industry and a fashionably generalised landscape, far from the city yet accessible to the tourist, which 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 had 155 plates, four double page maps, a list of 158 subscribers and was leather bound - an expensive book.

Image courtesy of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust Library & Archives

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

Although Wood's book title contains the word 'picturesque', by then its meaning had changed to a broader sense of 'any view that could make a painting'. The print doesn't dsiplay generalised roughness, but uses fine point hatching and soft ground tones to bring out the individual character of things. And the fall is now of special interest, drawn at least twice its actual size with a minute figure in front to make the point. The stream is in full spate, obliterating the distinctive dog-leg shape of the fall. A lower spate would show a more intricate interaction of rock and water, but the artist has gone for power and turned up the nature volume:


With the growth of the railways and the opening of Britain for inexpensive holidays tourism  quickly expanded. In 1863 a small railway station opened at Glandyfi*, a walkable distance from the falls, and the tourist industry bagan to take a new interest. A tea room opened, the local post office began to sell postcards of the area, and an association of a visit to the falls with picture postcards began. This is now such a familiar convention that it's worth remembering that picture postcards created a new way of using images. Hand written messages with small, standardised pictures of 5.5 x 3.5 inches, could now be sent by anyone to anywhere with a postal address. Something like Instagram, though of course much less instant.

The oldest photograph of the fall I've been able to find is the one used to make this post card published by Valentine’s of Dundee, a large scale card producer selling tens of thousands of different views world wide. The negative was registered with the company in 1896.*


This example is post marked 1923, and there's no mention of the fall in the message. In fact most of the card messages I've seen don't mention the fall, which is left a silent witness to the sender's location. "Wish you were here'' means something like "wish you were here, in the place represented by this waterfall ". But some messages refer to the picture more directly, and in these cases the connection between writer and place becomes closer. This combination of writing and image meant that anyone could now use a picture to personalise a waterfall. 

Irrespective of how it's used, a postcard picture shows how a place was seen by a combination of photographer, printer and company management. It's not a uniquely personal vision, but it still represents a point of view.

The quality of imagery varied, and cards can show signs of hasty production. Valentiine’s photographer of the '90’s may have been on commission and in a hurry - since the fall is in particularly 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 hand tinted sky of turquoise; and green foliage tint has leaked over a tree trunk to the right. The card may be makeshift, but this 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.  


Though not strictly 'picturesque' in the old sense, the new postcards could be treated as works of art and invite appreciation beyond a factual record, - some pre-war cards were even given printed picture frames.* This one, posted in 1913, was published in central Wales by Park and Son of Newtown, as one of their "Park for People Series". It is vignetted at the bottom, a small added value of artistic attention. And although the print quality is not high, it has given the photograph the simplified tonal massing of a ninteeenth century landscape. The fall is in full spate, with few internal details deep in a dark wood. There are no clues as to how to approach it, no way to inspect it further. Furnace falls is a secret, pounding source of natural energy, a vision in the forest - quite an image for a few pennies. 

A space for a halfpenny stamp on the back of this card shows it was produced before 1919, when the postage rate increased to 1d. 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 on or just next to the bridge. The fall is in fairly low spate, the rocky banks showing well in direct sunlight. It’s a spacious view, and it seems we could walk to the fall between the trees or over the river gravel. Printing has produced a contrasty image suggesting very bright light. They are the same falls as in the card posted in1913 above, but seen as a different place.

As you can see, Jones, also known as 'Ted the Emporium', sported splendid moustaches. He photographed various local beauties, including one he later 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 other forms of printing, they also 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 you hand, with its glossy finish that echoes the still pool, there's a sense of holding something quite refined; and at some angles the silver bromide is visible, giving a sense of the photographer’s studio:


Like the card posted to a nephew recovering in hospital in 1906, this is another healing waterfall.  It was sent by Ada Sclioley to 'Miss F Newell, number 4 Private Ward, General Hospital, Hereford' and it’s message 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. And it’s not just a modern picture of a waterfall that she sends to her friend in a difficult time. Mention of a visit to the nearby ‘Artist’s Valley’ was important too.

Artists' Valley
Furnace falls sits on the River Einion, 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 an improved local market for artist’s materials.

The existence of ‘Van Gogh’s’ Arles' or ‘Constable Country’ overshadows the vast number of less well known locations that have made subjects for painters. Recognised attention by an artist has the effect of picking out one place over another, and Ada Sclioley’s enthusiasm shows how interest by even unknown artists could be enough to encourage people to visit.

Both post cards and paintings were part of a much wider culture of attention to the countryside that had grown since the industrial revolution. And both kinds of image could open the door of the imagination.


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; which renames the fall as an attraction for the large market at the seaside resort ten miles away.

The density of foliage suggests South American rain forest, but the bystander in 30's wide cut trousers and jacket suggests not. Soft sepia unifies everything into an afternoon out in fairly benign wilderness, while the man looks slightly awkwardly towards the photographer on the bridge - perhaps it was his wife? It's not possible to know how this picture was received in Birmingham, but it would have kept alive the very old (eightenth century) idea that wild places could be appreciated waring town 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 workshop in London or maybe Tunbridge Wells in Kent, where the company was based. I think the effect is bizzare: for example, a wedge of blue is set off against a bloc of yellow with no sense of natural colour. They may have been emboldened by Art Deco, but its more likely the result of wanting a new coloured card from the materials available as cheaply as possible.

MORE TO COME: photos by John Piper, surveyor's drawings for CADW and geological field strips for BGS that bring the record to the present day.


• 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.


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