EuroVisions: Wales through the Eyes of European Visitors, 1750-2015

Items in this story:


For centuries, continental Europeans have come to Wales for numerous reasons. During the Romantic period some came seeking a rural idyll, whilst others in the Victorian era travelled as industrial spies; and during times of war many refugees escaped to Wales to find shelter from persecution. Not only have continental Europeans left their traces among the people of Wales settling here but they have also written extensively about their experience in diaries, letters, books and magazines or, more recently, in blogs on the internet. And from the start, professional artists have been inspired by the Welsh landscape and industrial towns and have produced a myriad of images in the shape of quick sketches, paintings or photographs.

This exhibition shows a range of artwork produced by people from many countries – including Switzerland, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Poland – from the Romantic period up to the present day. These pictures show Wales in all its many facets, ranging from idyllic landscapes to industrial centres and portraits of the people living in Wales. What makes the art on display so unique are the subjects that caught the travelling stranger's eye. Collecting vistas for illustrated guidebooks, the French Alsatian Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg captured an example of early industrial enterprise in Wales when he sketched the Dyfi Furnace in north Ceredigion in the 1780s, and around the same time the French artist Amélie de Suffren captured a scene of brick kiln workers at Clydach, Abergavenny. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Italian landscape artist Onorato Carlandi praised the qualities of Snowdonia as lending itself perfectly to the challenges of modern art. And in the twentieth century, refugees from continental Europe like Heinz Koppel, Josef Herman and Karel Lek found new homes in Wales and immortalised on canvas their experiences in places ranging from Merthyr Tydfil to Anglesey.

The objects displayed in this exhibition give evidence of how travelling has changed over the past 250 years. Heavy trunks strapped to the roofs of post coaches have given way to lighter suitcases and rucksacks. Large maps, road atlases and compasses have been exchanged for handheld GPS devices. Postcards have given way to selfies. What has remained, however, is the travellers' desire to inform their loved ones, friends and contemporaries at home about their adventures in Wales, and so they continue to write books, take pictures and collect admission tickets for castles and little steam-powered trains.

Landscape and Industry

Sublime mountains, ancient ruins, picturesque villages and rain, lots of rain. These seem to be some of the constant ingredients in the descriptions of Wales in travel accounts by many continental Europeans. But Wales has drawn foreign visitors for other reasons than the desire to look at gnarled trees and white-washed little cottages scattered across the countryside.

The mountains of Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons have been praised since the Romantic period for their rugged beauty – and they have also been cursed for their inaccessibility. To seek out solitude and breath-taking views, travellers have scaled these mountains on foot, on horseback or driven in post coaches. They have cruised along the narrow roads to escape civilisation only to find that the last room in the inn had been booked just hours before by other continental tourists, as the German doctor Carl Carus discovered, much to his dismay, in Aberystwyth one evening in 1844. For many artists who sought inspiration, damp weather or the presence of other tourists were no deterrent. The Bavarian painter Hubert von Herkomer had a bespoke portable hut delivered to the banks of Llyn Ogwen to brave the weather and Onorato Carlandi from Italy took to hiding in bushes in order to observe local customs without disturbing the people.

With the rise of industry, continental visitors sought out the coalfields, the iron- and steelworks of south Wales and the slate quarries in the north. Whereas continental European countries were only starting to build up their own industries in the first half of the nineteenth century, Wales was already at the forefront of new modes of transportation, such as trains and steamboats, and industrial architecture. The bustling town life, the noisy inventions, the hellfire atmosphere of the factories and the impressive new bridges filled many travellers to Wales with awe. The Menai Suspension Bridge, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct or the Dowlais Ironworks received praise as beacons of Europe's future. Many a tour through Wales during those years of industrial expansion was just thinly disguised industrial espionage.

And then there is the rain. Drizzle cuts short picnics on the shores of Llyn Tegid. Showers follow ramblers over hills and through valleys. Storms prevent the departure of ships from Holyhead and Fishguard. However, travellers' accounts give the impression that the centre of precipitation in Wales is located on the top of Snowdon. Many travellers have braved the mountain in the hope of catching sight of the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland. But instead, they stared in disbelief at mountains of rain clouds, valleys of fog and other wet mountaineers. Even though the promised view may not have extended further than a few feet, a cup of warm coffee and a slice of cheese and bread have raised the dampened spirits of many a bedraggled mountaineer, at least since the 1840s when the first wooden summit huts opened their doors to paying customers.

Set between mountains and hills, today the ruins of Tintern Abbey and Strata Florida continue to be sought out by continental travellers as much as the disused parts of Penrhyn Quarry or Big Pit in Blaenavon – all glistening with rainwater as the sun breaks through the clouds after the most recent shower.  

Travellers and Locals

Antoine-Philippe d'Orléans, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Queen Elisabeth of Romania, Valerius de Saedeleer, Béla Bartók. Over the years, a number of famous travellers from the European mainland have visited Wales. Some of them have come to breathe in the healthy sea air, some to meet with Welsh writers or Irish spinsters. Some came to escape their war-torn home countries, while others were simply passing through on their way to Dublin.

While the majority of visitors from the European mainland came purely as explorers of the country, a good number were inspired to undertake the journey in order to meet with notable people in Wales. The Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, were perhaps among the first 'international' celebrities in Wales. These two noblewomen from Ireland notoriously escaped to north Wales from unwanted marriage and, over the years, received many famous visitors from all over Britain as well as from France. Among their visitors was the novelist Madame de Genlis, living in exile in Britain because of the French Revolution. However, instead of finding tranquil sleep during her visit to Plas Newydd in 1792, Genlis was kept awake at night by an aeolian harp (a kind of wind chime) that had been installed right outside her window.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the quality of the roads and of some inns and guesthouses raised the eyebrows of many visitors from continental Europe. However, it is common for the travel writers to write about the unexpected friendliness of their Welsh hosts and the strangers they met on the road. The Austrian linguist Hugo Schuchardt travelled to north Wales in 1875 to learn the Welsh language. People eagerly shook hands with him every time he was introduced to them as "the German who understands Cymraeg" and, so that he could improve his Welsh, his Caernarfon landlady always approached her guest with auspicious solemnity. Speaking. Very. Slowly.

During World War I, Welsh hospitality reached new heights when Belgian refugees were encouraged to set up their temporary homes in Wales. In particular the Davies sisters of Gregynog Hall invited musicians, painters and sculptors to Wales, not just out of the goodness of their hearts but also in the hope of invigorating the arts in Wales. Even though the Belgian refugees seem to have largely been forgotten prior to the centenary in 2014, they did not return to their home country without leaving traces of their presence all over Wales. Valerius de Saedeleer's paintings of winter landscapes, the woodcarvings by Joseph Rubens on the pews of Llanwenog church in Ceredigion, or the Belgian Promenade walk between Menai Bridge and Church Island are just a few of the lasting examples of Belgium's gratitude to Wales.

Exile and Immigration

Revolutions, political radicalism, war or the prospect of a better life. The reasons for continental Europeans to desert their homes and countries are numerous and filled with many twists and unexpected turns. The people of Wales opened their doors to thousands of refugees not only during the French Revolution, the European revolutions of 1848 and the two World Wars, but they continue to welcome visitors from diverse backgrounds to this day.

During the French Revolution, a number of aristocrats travelled to Wales to escape the daily routine of their exile in London. In 1806, one of these, Antoine Philippe d'Orléans, cousin of the executed king of France, explored the Welsh countryside to improve his artistic skills. But for many other refugees in Britain during the nineteenth century, the circumstances of their exile were exactly the reverse, because their attempts to establish freely elected governments had failed. During the March Revolution of 1848, Johann Heinrich Bettziech, a journalist from Saxony, had distributed a number of anti-monarchist leaflets and so incurred the personal wrath of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV. During his British exile, Bettziech explored a number of coalmines and ironworks in south Wales and wrote sympathetic accounts for his German readers of the dangerous and badly paid work undertaken by the Welsh workers.

The two World Wars brought death and devastation to the whole of Europe. The lives of the Welsh population were affected not only by the rationing of goods, bombing raids and the loss of soldiers at the front, but also by the increased presence of continental Europeans in Wales. Many people escaped to Wales as refugees, some were sent to Wales in an effort to rescue them from persecution, such as the Basque children escaping the Spanish Civil War in 1937, and others were detained as prisoners of war. Whilst most of the refugees and imprisoned soldiers headed homewards after the wars had ended, the majority of the Jewish children from Germany who had been brought to Wales in the Kindertransport of 1939, such as Ellen Davies who was sent to Swansea, had lost the families or homes to which they could have returned.

However, political upheaval or wars were not the only reasons for continental Europeans to come to Wales. The large Spanish and Eastern European communities of south Wales are testament to the large waves of continental immigration during the industrial age. For about a hundred years until the second half of the twentieth century, the Sioni Winwns, the onion sellers from Brittany, had been a familiar sight around the Welsh streets. And to this day, Italian immigration has left its mark on many a seaside town where the local chip shops and ice cream parlours are run by Italian families, who sell their goods to holidaymakers and other European travellers.



The original exhibition was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the three-year research project 'European Travellers to Wales, 1750–2015' undertaken jointly by Bangor University, the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies and Swansea University.

This exhibition has been made possible by the generous support of Ceredigion Museum, Swansea Museum and Gwynedd Museum. The organisers of the exhibition would further like to extend their gratitude to the institutions who kindly made their items available to the public: National Library of Wales; National Museum Cardiff; Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery; the School of Art, Aberystwyth University; BBC Wales; Bodleian Library, University of Oxford; National Railway Museum, York; Madame de la Villemarqué, Quimperlé and Fañch Postic, Centre de Recherche Bretonne et Celtique Université de Brest.

We would also like to thank the private lenders Gwyn Griffiths, David Lindner and Elmar Schenkel as well as Peter Lord, Renate Koppel, Karel Lek Wolf Sutschitzky and the Josef Herman estate for their kind support and permission to feature their interviews and artwork.