Explore JMW Turner's painting, 'Dolbadern Castle'

By Royal Academy of Arts

Dolbadern Castle, North Wales (1800) by J.M.W. TurnerRoyal Academy of Arts

This is one of Turner’s early oil paintings from 1800, depicting the 13th-century Dolbadarn Castle in Llanberis, north Wales.

It’s thought that Owain Goch ap Gruffydd, ruler of part of the Kingdom of Gwynedd (in modern-day north Wales) was imprisoned in this castle by his brother Llywelyn, another ruler looking to extend his kingdom in 1255. Owain spent 20 years locked up before Llywelyn reluctantly released him under the terms of a new treaty.

This is Owain being led up to the castle by soldiers.

Turner has made the route to the castle steep and bleak, accentuating the isolation that lies ahead.

The focus of the painting is the tower looming up ahead: a foreboding silhouette accentuated by the glowing sky behind.

A small, single window at the top of the castle serves as another reminder of Owain’s imminent solitude inside.

Although this is a landscape painting, and a depiction of a historical event, it’s also a meditation on the general theme of freedom.

The castle was immensely popular with late-18th-century tourists, who were drawn to Wales for its myths, ancient history, and dramatic landscapes. Turner himself went on five tours of Wales between 1792 and 1799.

When he exhibited the work in 1800 it was accompanied by a verse of a poem (probably written by Turner) about the fate of Owain:

“How awful is the silence of the waste,
Where nature lifts her mountains to the sky.
Majestic solitude, behold the tower
Where hopeless OWEN, long imprison'd, pin'd,
And wrung his hands for liberty in vain.”

Dolbadern Castle, North Wales is currently hanging in the RA's Collection Gallery, which you can visit for free, or you can take a guided tour online.

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