“For Rome hath left us more than walls and words … which makes poets sing and prophets see.”
Wilfred Owen’s Uriconium: An Ode (1913) is merely one of many examples of how the buried and largely invisible Roman city at Wroxeter has inspired artists through time. Before the first excavations on the site, local people would speculate on what lay beneath their fields, not really understanding what they observed, but canny enough to know where to dig when they needed stone to repair their houses or field walls. The lost city of Welsh legends and poems was not entirely forgotten.
In 1859, the antiquarian and popular author Thomas Wright began his excavations on the site and, within a few short weeks, had exposed the extensive, and impressive, ruins of a Roman bath house. The novelty of the site, and the modern ease of being able to travel to see the ruins by train, enticed many to visit, including Charles Dickens. They were not disappointed either by the spectacular nature of the ruins, or by the lurid stories that began to be told of what had happened to the city at its demise. In that same year, the ruins were taken permanently out of cultivation and opened to the public as a visitor attraction.
Over the course of the later 19th and early 20th century, the site fell back into quiet decrepitude, which only added to its air of romantic neglect and melancholy. Despite this, work continued and further extensive excavations exposed, albeit temporarily, the ruins of houses, temples and the forum. Each fresh foray into the past and the accompanying discoveries triggered more artistic responses until, after the Second World War when the site was taken under the wing of the state and order was gradually imposed. As part of this, new excavations were started on the site of the baths whose interpretation, while proving to be less lurid than those of Wright, have been startling in their findings, and have brought yet more legends into play with the suggestion that Wroxeter was Camelot!
This lecture, given by Dr Roger White (pictured), the leading authority on the site who has worked at Wroxeter for more than 40 years, will explore the relationship between archaeology and art. The aim is not so much to uncover a truth, but to show how archaeological discoveries inform and inspire us to look at the past in new ways, and often in unconscious relation to the present. Who, in the end, is to say where facts stop, and fiction starts?
This painting, entitled “The Old Work” is by Thomas Prytherch (1864-1926).
Prytherch was the son of an ironworker and came from a humble background. At age 10 he was working in the Dowlais ironworks where Lady Wimborne, wife of the ironworks owner noticed his artistic talent. Later, Pritchard Morgan (MP for Merthyr Tydfil) also saw Prytherch’s work and funded his studies at the Slade School of Art. He painted in oils and watercolours and worked from a studio in Wroxeter.
The picture depicts the Old Work, which is the largest piece of free-standing Roman wall in the country and can be seen at Wroxeter.