National Museum in Wales aims to revive interest in fine 18th century artist who broke ranks to paint from nature and was admired by Turner and Constable
He inspired John Constable and was feted by the Victorian critic John Ruskin as the father of British landscape painting. A young JMW Turner even trekked across rugged hills and mountains to find the precise spots he had painted from so that he could replicate the dramatic work.
But while the paintings of those who followed him feature in blockbuster exhibitions and appear on placemats and calendars across the globe, Richard Wilson, arguably the most influential of Welsh artists, has largely been forgotten.
An exhibition of work by Wilson opening at the National Museum Cardiff on Saturday to coincide with the 300th anniversary of his birth aims to help restore the reputation of one of the great 18th century artists.
The exhibition, which also features work by Constable and Turner, makes the case that Wilson fundamentally changed the way British and European artists approached landscape.
Before Wilson, the fashion was to sketch from nature but return to the studio to produce idealised – and inaccurate – final versions. But, to the consternation of some in the establishment, Wilson decided to paint what was in front him.
Oliver Fairclough, keeper of art at the museum, said Wilson's reputation in the 20th century "almost disappeared", and characterised his place in the collective consciousness, even in his native Wales, as modest.
"But he is a very significant figure in British and international art," said Fairclough. "It is right that we should be trying to make sure he is remembered and celebrated."
Born in 1714 into a well-to-do family of farmers and clergy in north Wales, Wilson trained as a portrait painter in London, but was considered to be something of a dabbler.
His life changed in 1750 when he travelled to Italy and set up a studio in Rome, a city teeming with artists, scholars and patrons. He gave up portrait painting and turned his attention to landscapes, then a rather un-British pursuit. Rather than slavishly following those around him, however, he decided to paint romantic, beautifully-lit but less idealised scenes.
He became successful and popular. His work sold well, and on his return to Britain in 1757 he turned his attention to Wales, until then considered a bleak landscape of no interest to artists.
"And by doing that he changed everything," said Robin Simon, editor of the British Art Journal and co-curator of the exhibition. "Nobody had looked at these landscapes until Wilson came along. After him, they all came."
Wilson painted celebrated views of mountains in north Wales, including Snowdon and Cader Idris. One work featured in the exhibition is a view of the castle at Dinas Brân above the town of Llangollen. A sketch by Turner in the next room shows he went to the exact spot Wilson had visited.
In addition, Wilson revolutionised the English country house picture. Where the house itself had always taken centre stage, Wilson pushed the building to one side, a technique copied by Constable who, after seeing Wilson's painting of Tabley House in Cheshire, wrote that it "still swims in my brain like a delicious dream".
Wilson fell victim to drink and illness. His fortunes dipped and he spent the last years of his life living in a garret in central London. By the time he died in 1782 he had become less universally admired.
Thanks to the likes of Turner and Constable he retained a certain fame in the 19th century, but fell into obscurity in the 20th. There has been no significant international exhibition of his work for 30 years.
Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting is at the National Museum Cardiff until 26 October.