History in Art
15 Mar 2021
by Katy Rink

Two paintings of Shrewsbury to go under the hammer at Halls on March 17 - but all is not always as it seems. A little artistic licence, or ‘capriccio’ as it was known, results in a skyline with a touch of architectural fantasy. Can you spot it? Gerry Berwyn-Jones introduces us to the paintings.

Looking at these two paintings of Shrewsbury, one might be forgiven for appreciating them on their decorative merits alone, being attractive works of art that would befit any grand property.

Some would recognise that these are fairly rare examples, by notable hands.

But once a few details emerge about the artists concerned and their backgrounds, many would immediately grasp that these pictures become more than pleasing objects, but historical records that are loaded with human interest.

The smaller 18th century view (49 x 74cm) of Shrewsbury from the south-west is by, as yet, an unknown artist.

However, this painting which is intentionally inaccurate topographically to represent an idealised image (otherwise known as a capriccio), still helps the viewer to date the painting approximately, for Old Saint Chads is visible on the left.

Thomas Telford surveyed Saint Chads in July 1788 and advised that it was at immediate risk of collapse. This advice was ignored, the consensus at the time being that Telford was exaggerating.

Sadly, he was vindicated, for following bell ringing at a funeral on the July 8 the tower collapsed through the roof of the church after the clock struck 4am the following day.

Evidently this picture pre-dates this event.

Conversely, there are inaccuracies, for the artist has moved the Old English Bridge and gatehouse around the river, the church with a tower, Saint Julian’s, is incorrectly sited and there should have been wall towers present at this time.

This is due to much re-designing and construction throughout the 18th century and is why the city walls were gradually demolished in this period.

This process had started in the 1400s with the sections behind Pride Hill and Castle Street being removed, but the destruction did not stop there, as the Old English Bridge was demolished in 1774.

So, it is unlikely at this stage to be more accurately defined than English School, 18th Century.

English School 18th Century

The much larger panoramic view from Underdale (68 x 182cm), in the north-east, is much more detailed and can be attributed to John Bowen, based on style, palette and compositional similarities with a similar prospect in the collection of Shrewsbury Museum, which has a number of works by this artist.

Bowen had an architect’s eye for accuracy and with further research by local historians and archaeologists it should be possible to pinpoint the date of this view of Shrewsbury.

Of course, it is clear that it is pre-1788, as it too shows the Old Saint Chad’s Church.

Unsurprisingly, the abbey on the left is depicted before Telford’s road was built through its south section and the new Saint Chads and Laura’s Tower (completed in 1792) had yet to be built.

Saint Alkmund’s, Mary’s and Saint Julian’s are also depicted, the former two with spires, the first of which accurately shows the large Gothic windows beneath the spire, but it is the absence of the New English Bridge, which was built from 1769-1774, that dates the scene earlier still.

This is expected to achieve between £7,000 and £10,000 in Halls Autumn fine sale on the 17th of March and is bound to provide many hours of interest to the successful bidder in identifying and charting the evolution of so many historic buildings.

The smaller, possibly earlier, prospect is estimated at £3,000-5,000.

There was probably a shared destiny for both artists, as the career for a jobbing, provincial artist, would have been notoriously tough.

By the very nature of the inconsistent, ad hoc work it is likely that Bowen fared no better than his namesakes, Emanuel Bowen and his son, Thomas, who both died in penury.

Life was hard as a cartographer and many shared a similar fate.

Indeed, the artist of the smaller, more romantic perspective, is likely to have shared this demise, being an itinerant artist, judging from the style of the work we see here.

What they all have in common though is the works of art that they created are still with us today and these legacies give far more than aesthetic pleasure, for they each tell a story, not only a record of their time, but sometimes of their own lives.