The industrial revolution describes the dramatic and long-lasting change in Wales’s landscape and infrastructure during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As innovations in steam power and the design of machinery developed and advanced, new factories, mines, railways and canals began to radically transform the landscape, manufacturing, and the way people lived and worked.

In the early 1800s, parts of Wales were at the forefront of global industrialisation. Mineral deposits and market links meant that Merthyr Tydfil became the largest and most important industrial town, leading the way in the production of iron and the mining of coal that fired the industrial revolution. It became known as the iron capital of Wales. Growing demand meant that industrial chimneys and structures were superimposed on rural scenes and landscapes.

Penry (or Penri) Williams was born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1802. He showed a talent for painting from an early age, which was nurtured and supported by his school teacher and, later two local ironmasters who paid for him to study in London. By the age of 14 he had painted The Merthyr Riots. Aged just 19 he won the Silver Medal from the Society of Arts and became a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy.

Williams moved to Rome in 1827 where he lived for 50 years. But before he left, he painted a series of views – like this one. Although the exact location for this painting is not known, Williams would have witnessed scenes like this in his hometown of Merthyr Tydfil and the surrounding area. It captured the tension between Wales’s natural open spaces and rural environments and the pace of industrial transformation. Williams went on to be regarded as one of the greatest painters of his time.

Did you know..?

Merthyr Tydfil grew from a small village with just 40 homes in 1760 to a town with a population of nearly 8,000 by the time Penry Williams was born in 1802.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.