Redux | Sacred Mountain: The Last Years of J. D. Innes

Redux | Sacred Mountain: The Last Years of J. D. Innes

2022 marks ten years since the launch of Wales Arts Review, and as part of our celebrations, throughout this year we’ll be revisiting some of the best and most loved features, interviews, and reviews from our archive of nearly five thousand published pieces. Today we revisit this piece by artist Keith Bowen, who has himself painted extensively in Snowdonia and knows it intimately, as he traces the story of artist J.D. Innes’ last years, his historic friendship with fellow Welshman, Augustus John, and the ground-breaking work their passion for Arenig inspired.

The Llanelli-born artist J.D. Innes died tragically young at the age of 27 yet, even in that short lifetime, his landscape painting was already highly acclaimed. Innes’ obsession with Snowdonia’s twin-peaked mountain Arenig Fawr – akin to that of Cézanne for Mont Sainte-Victoire – is reflected in the major exhibition of the Welshman’s work currently at the National Museum of Wales. Meanwhile at the Martin Tinney gallery, the ‘Arenig’ show has works by Innes as well as by contemporary artists inspired by the same extraordinary location.

J.D. Innes
Arenig, Sunny Evening

On a stormy evening in October 1910, a thin, pale, young man, dressed in a long black coat and a black-brimmed Quaker hat, staggered, soaking wet and exhausted into the remote inn at Rhyd-y-Fen, below the northern slopes of Arenig Fawr in Snowdonia. The landlord, Washington Davies, took him in, ran a hot bath, fed him, and gave him a bed for the night. The young man was James Dickson Innes. Two years before, aged just 21 and newly graduated from the Slade School of Art, Innes had been diagnosed with TB. Yet here he was, apparently quite indifferent to his health, having been out for some days painting en plein air, sleeping out on the Migneint, the wild moorland above Llan Ffestiniog. Small wonder his health was collapsing once again.

For J.D. Innes, 1910 had begun altogether more optimistically. While staying in Paris with fellow artist Matthew Smith, Innes had fallen in love with the artist’s model Euphemia Lamb: she would represent ‘the lady of his dreams’. With Euphemia, he set out to walk from Paris to the South of France and to Collioure, the small fishing village he had first visited in 1908 and where he found that Derain and Matisse had not long before been painting in their new Fauvist style.

By the late summer of 1910 Innes was in North Wales, staying with his Aunt Agnes in Penmaenmawr, using her house as a base to explore the mountains, carrying his watercolours, inks, pens, brushes and paper in a leather satchel. By plotting the locations of his paintings, we can have some idea of his route: Bangor cricket ground with the Carneddau in the distance, Mynydd Mawr from Waenfawr, the Snowdon Horseshoe from Llyn Cwm Ffynnon, Moel Siabod and Llyn y Foel, and Cnicht from Croesor.

Innes had already visited and painted the highest and most dramatic mountains following in the tracks of many notable artists, including Turner whose book Liber Studiorum was always with him. It may have been George Borrow’s Wild Wales, written 50 years before, with Borrow’s account of his walk in the area, that first prompted Innes to venture onto the comparatively featureless and inhospitable moorland of the Migneint: 15 square miles of low, undulating moorland with the high ground of 1,700 feet around its perimeter dropping to 1,000 feet in its flat, marshy centre where the slow, winding, Afon Serw eventually drains north to meet the Afon Conwy. Whatever the initial impulse for going there, the Migneint would have a huge and lasting affect upon the young painter: emotionally, artistically, physically and spiritually.

Perhaps J.D. Innes had deliberately sought out the mountains, believing a cure for his consumption would be found in fresh air and exercise. If his habit of sleeping outdoors was an extreme assertion of that belief, then practising it in a place where the average annual rainfall is six-and-a-half feet, the only shelter on offer the isolated farm of Cefn Garw at its very centre, would appear sheer folly. But it was from the centre of this moor that Innes would have looked south-east and seen Arenig Fawr for the first time. The isolated mountain, Wales’ only twin-peaked summit, was three miles away as the crow flew and 2,800 feet high. Arenig drew him into its orbit, fixed his gaze and filled his soul. Innes had been looking for a subject that would have real meaning for him; now he needed to get closer, so, with lowering rain clouds and failing health, he stumbled off the moor.

His few days’ rest at the inn at Rhyd-y-Fen must have allowed Innes to recover sufficiently to start drawing and making watercolours. He first started working from the back of the inn, overlooking the marshland of Uwch Mynydd towards Craig Hyrddod where the Nant Llaith tumbles down, and left towards Daear Fawr, the prominent north-east spur of the mountain. Later, he would explore the Afon Tryweryn as it headed east, with the waterfalls of Boch y Rhaeadr dropping in a series of cataracts towards the flat valley of Cwm Tryweryn. He had an exhibition date to meet at the Chenil Gallery, Chelsea, in the following January, but he must have felt happy with his situation and the progress of his work.

For all that Innes was a frail-looking young man and softly spoken, he was said to have ‘great personal charm’: he was kind, amiable and well-liked. He was comfortable at Rhyd-y-Fen, where the inn had its own supply of fresh water from off the mountain, locally-cut peat for the glowing fires, carbide gas lamps giving off their soft yellow light, and the sides of ‘splendid bacon’ hanging from the ceiling hooks. So ‘Sunny Jim’, as he was referred to by some of his friends, would doubtless have fitted in well with the other guests and ‘the local playboy’ landlord, as playing music and dancing jigs seem also to have been part of the agenda.

By November, Innes was back in London, working on his last watercolours for the January exhibition. It so happened that in December, Innes’ friend and fellow Welshman, Augustus John, was showing at the Chenil Gallery, a series of small oils painted on wooden panels which he had completed in the South of France. Innes must have looked hard at these bright, fresh, Fauve-like, plein air landscapes, for they gave him the key to the direction his next work would take.

Innes had already extolled to John the virtues of Rhyd-y-Fen and the Arenig area. That passionate enthusiasm was evidently reflected in the pictures of his January show – deemed a reasonable success – and his intense love-affair with Euphemia was continuing. Thus early March of 1911 finds Innes back at Rhyd-y-Fen, armed with oil paints and small wooden panels, waiting for Augustus to show up.

At the tiny Arenig station, Innes is standing on the down line platform between the signal box and the water-tower, his back to the mountain, looking over the opposite platform and across to the river below, the rounded shape of Arenig Fach rising from the flat marshland. Innes can see the smoke of the Bala train as it stops briefly at Capel Celyn Halt; now he hears the engine as it comes in sight and steams slowly into the station. Carriage doors are flung open, various items of luggage are thrown onto the platform and, as the steam clears, Innes sees that his friend has indeed arrived. Augustus John has come to Arenig. He is 33 years old, wealthy, hugely talented, famous, notorious even, a demon draughtsman, painter of people from rich celebrities to itinerant gypsies, and he has just fetched up in the wilds of Merionethshire at the instigation of his young artist friend.

This meeting was to become a highly significant moment in the story of British painting, comparable to Van Gogh bringing Gauguin to the Yellow House in Arles. Augustus John and James Dickson Innes were at the forefront of the avant-garde practice apparently confined to urban subjects as exemplified by the Camden Town Group; yet here were the two Welshmen, returning to the remotest part of their homeland to pursue their work in a way which would deliberately emphasise their plein-air approach with vigorous, direct brushwork inspired by a wild and mountainous landscape.

Not unnaturally, Innes was on edge at first, nervous at introducing John to his newly-discovered world and showing a ‘certain reserve’. (Quotations are taken from Augustus John’s autobiography Chiaroscuro [London, Jonathan Cape, 1952].) Maybe, a pony and trap took John’s luggage by road to the inn, whilst Innes showed John the way back over the rickety footbridge that crossed the river to the path that leads through the marsh and thus back to the inn. Their conversation would have become more animated as Innes relaxed and shared his excitement for their new venture together. In fact, Innes need not have worried, for John loved the place. John wrote to his wife, Dorelia, to say that Innes had shown him around: ‘This is the most wonderful place I’ve seen. The air is superb and the mountains wonderful’. He later said that ‘he felt full of work’ and that they had found ‘the reflection of some miraculous promised land’.

J.D. Innes
Arenig, 1911

John’s friend John Sampson lived fifteen miles away at Betws Gwerfyl Goch, and, very shortly after arriving at Arenig, John and Innes paid him a visit. Sampson’s Visitors’ Book bears their signatures, dated the 12th March, 1911: Innes making a drawing from memory of a view from the summit of Arenig Fawr looking south, and John drawing a self-portrait wearing a hat and beard. Sampson, professor and librarian at Liverpool University was an authority on the Welsh-Romany language and his book The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales was published in 1926. He had introduced John to the gypsies in 1901 and was instrumental in teaching John to speak and write their language. With this encouragement, it was John, along with his expanding family, who had taken things a step further, trying to emulate the gypsy lifestyle by taking a caravan out on the road. This fascination with all things Romany would manifest itself on a drinking spree in Corwen, where both John and Innes took a great liking to a young gypsy girl. Since she and her family were moving on, Innes resolved to catch them up but, once again, his health let him down and he was found in a collapsed state on the road to Ruthin.

Back at Rhyd-y-Fen, using J.D. Innes’ knowledge of the area gained the previous autumn, John and Innes started painting different aspects of Arenig. John painted a view of the inn, now sadly untraceable, as Innes began to roam further afield, coming back in the evening with a couple of finished panels, doubtless carried with corner spacers, wet to wet, and tied with string. Things seemed to be going well for them both. John said of Innes: ‘He was never happier than when painting in this area’, hence their decision to stay and look for a more permanent base. They found a cottage at Nant Ddu, one-and-a-half miles south-east of Rhyd-y-Fen, at a rent of £10 a year. Dorelia and Euphemia came to join them for a while but then left, the Spartan surroundings not conducive to a longer stay.

At Nant Ddu, John and J.D. Innes could look onto the west side of the Arenig and its twin peaks, the very view that had drawn Innes off the Migneint the previous October. In that spring of 1911, they worked side by side, their paintings testifying to the exact locations: up the track overlooking the valley between Arenig Fawr and Moel Llyfnant, down by the Afon Tryweryn, and along the path to Amnodd Bwll immediately under the twin summits; the railway line went just below the cottage alongside the stream, less than a mile to the next Halt at Cwm Prysor situated by Llyn Tryweryn. At this time, each artist can be seen to be working on their small panels with rapid brushstrokes of fluid oil paint, their paintings almost interchangeable, with the white clouds scudding over the choppy surface of the lake, and the blue conical shape of Moelwyn Mawr in the distance.

Back in 1907, John had exchanged studio visits with Picasso in Paris and, interestingly, at the time that John was working with Innes in 1911, so Picasso had teamed up with Braque to work together on their Analytical Cubist paintings. Again, their work was virtually interchangeable each with the other: Braque famously said that they were like two mountaineers roped together on a mountain. John and Innes didn’t need a rope, it was the mountain that tied them together.

It was a time which saw them both produce their best work: John’s ‘Llyn Tryweryn’ (Tate Britain) is one of his greatest paintings, a vibrant, direct landscape from a master of portraiture, while Innes’s ‘Arenig’ (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) is topographically and meteorologically accurate, emotionally engaging and awe-inspiring, demonstrating just how confident and fluent was Innes’ facility with his new approach. In ‘Arenig’, the influences of Hokusai’s ‘Mount Fuji’ and Derain’s Fauvism can be felt in the opaque-painted cloud formation placed above the transparent rendering of the mountain slopes, constructed with quick, broad, assured brushstrokes. They capture the sunlight and shadow moving over the upper slopes above the farm of Amnodd Wen, where their Welsh Black cattle are grazing in the surrounding fields. The northern flank of Daear Fawr is in a Prussian Blue inky shadow, as are the twin summit peaks, whereas the nearer top of Craig y Hyrddod is sunlit and dominated above by the huge formation of cumulus cloud.

The same painting also invites another interpretation, one which views the mountain painted in hot, earth colours, volcano-like, with the explosive cloud above emanating from its molten core. Were Innes’ possessive attachment to the mountain and his strong feelings towards Euphemia merging together? Was the very shape of the summit translating into the female form? Were the towering clouds above a climactic consummation of his overwhelming passion and his consuming illness? Augustus John certainly said he felt that, in Innes’ mind, Arenig Fawr and Euphemia were associated together, interchangeable, and becoming one.

Not all their subject-matter was so close at hand. According to John, it was sometimes a question of ‘long rambles over the moors in search of the magical moment’. The proximity of the railway station also meant they could easily go further afield, if only for a few stops down the line, as with the series of paintings of Llyn y Garn. Even the resolute-looking Harriet James, station-mistress at the Cwm Prysor Halt, would have sanctioned a short pause, three miles away at Bryncelynog for her famous passengers to leave the train with their painting gear. From there, a short scramble would have got them to the lake, where they could look east towards the Arenig and south to view the long ridge of Cadair Idris. Again, this beautiful remote location produced a series of paintings by both artists that capture the distinct heather banks that characteristically edge and fall into the waters of the lake.

Both artists periodically came and went from Nant Ddu: John took off on various drinking expeditions with the likes of Howard de Walden, then tenant of Chirk Castle, while Innes often returned to the South of France and the high mountain peaks of Canigou and Tour Madeloc. On one occasion before returning to Nant Ddu, Innes wrote to Mr. Davies – quarryman, amateur geologist and father of Washington – asking him to light the fires to warm up the cottage before his imminent return (fuel would have been the black peat cut around Nant Ddu, as opposed to brown around Rhyd-y-Fen). Euphemia returned periodically with Innes and, influenced by John’s use of models posing in the landscape, Innes asked her to stand for him in front of Arenig Fawr, amongst the boulders of the stream, and on the shore of Llyn Tryweryn. Unusually, he painted her seated at a dressing table inside the cottage at Nant Ddu.

Some of these paintings appeared in the great Armoury Show in New York in 1913, included by arrangement with John’s patron, John Quinn. Innes showed 6 works and John 38 (the second largest contributor after Odilon Redon). Euphemia appeared in the exhibition as a model in Innes’ pictures and she was also the subject of a statue by Jacob Epstein.

In April of that year, Innes had his second one-man exhibition at Chelsea’s Chenil Gallery: it proved to be a huge success, both critically and financially, with sales grossing over £700, a considerable sum of money for the time. The major, large-scale and final statement on Arenig Fawr was the centre-piece of this show: ‘Arenig, North Wales’ (Tate Britain), painted in London from sketches, from an intimate knowledge of the location and the memories of the last two-and-half years of intense activity.

J.D. Innes’ health was deteriorating but, at some point, he must have felt strong enough to go back up the mountain one last time, carrying a silver casket of Euphemia’s love-letters which he buried in a stone cairn on the summit. It was an offering that joined his two great passions in one selfless, deeply romantic act of love, a way of saying both thank you and adieu.

J.D. Innes now spent time in Morocco recuperating and convalescing, before returning to his parent’s home in Tavistock. From there, he writes that he is still sleeping out of doors and knows the night sky well. However, in one deeply tragic letter, a feeling of hiraeth overwhelms him, and he wishes he were back in Wales as ‘I find myself to be very much the Welshman’. In 1914, he was admitted to a nursing home in Kent, where John and Dorelia took Euphemia to visit him. ‘The meeting of these two was painful – we left them alone together: it was the last time I saw him.’ Innes died on the 22nd August, 1914, aged just 27. He would have liked to rest beside the summit cairn of Arenig Fawr, but he was buried with his family in Tavistock.

John gave up the rent of Nant Ddu (the cottage was demolished in the 1960s). Washington Davies, the kindly landlord at Rhyd-y-Fen, was declared bankrupt, and the property returned to the local estate. It became a farm and has remained so ever since. John moved on to become even more famous and wealthy as a society portrait painter. He did go back in 1931 to give the gypsy funeral oration in Romany for his friend John Sampson, on the slopes of Foel Goch above the village of Llangwm, surrounded by gypsy harpists and fiddlers. It was said that tears were streaming down his face as he walked back down the mountain, although he insisted it was only the wind in his eyes.

Augustus John made his final visit to North Wales in 1955, to make a chalk drawing of John Cowper Powys in Blaenau Ffestiniog. His daughter Vivien drove the car so that John would have seen the old places that he had known passing by: they would have gone right past Rhyd-y-Fen as the old road still went that way; he would have looked across the marsh and river to the little station of Arenig as the trains were still running at that time; then going over and along the winding road that takes you through the wild, open emptiness of the Migneint, and looking back on the left at the twin peaks of Arenig Fawr. He knew that it was here, 45 years before, that he was involved in a unique episode in British art, and that he had produced his best and most vital work. His regard for Innes’ work was immense: ‘By the intensity of his vision and his passionately romantic outlook, his work will live…’

Can Innes’ many paintings of Arenig Fawr be seen as the equivalent of symbolic stations, votive candles lit at the foot of his altar-mountain, and did this religious fervour and commitment become as one with the woman Innes worshipped? For, as Augustus John wrote: ‘Mynydd Arenig remained ever his sacred mountain and the slopes of the Migneint his spiritual home’.