Desdemona McCannon

The Time Travelling Antiquarian: illustrated guide books to North Wales 1850- 1950



‘… landscape representations become dynamic vehicles for the circulation of place through space and time’ (della Dora :193, 2009)  

In this paper I propose to investigate the ways through which print culture associated with tourist guide books to ‘North Wales’ position the ‘antiquarian’ and ‘romantic’ traveller and create a social imaginary of the region, taking a historical trajectory from Pennant in the 18th c to Piper in the 20thc. I would like to argue that the books are sites of social history through which changing attitudes to landscape, heritage and the cultural performance of the tourist can be mapped and re-enacted.  Historically, guide books form part of the ‘ruralist discourses’ within British print culture that promoted the myth of the countryside as a place of retreat and renewal. The ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ embody this ideal, and I will offer a case study into the forms of print which fashion them as a tourist attraction.

The ‘Welsh and Scottish tour’ became as fashionable as the Continental ‘grand tour’ during the 18thc. Aligned with a popular interest in ‘antiquities’ travel guides contained accounts of objects of historical importance, and information about past events along with maps offering a strict itinerary. The reader is positioned as an ‘antiquarian’ – a solitary man of learning- and the book becomes a proxy for a local expert companion and guide. Historical artefacts and natural history are recounted in detail and images of buildings, ‘views’ and wildlife are standard subjects. The landscape is presented as a set of ‘facts’. The emergence of the ‘romantic tourist’ in the later 18th, found travellers coming to Wales in search of the sublime- the sense of shock and awe as they stood at the edge of mountains and the tops of waterfalls, or perhaps the prettier, more affecting ‘picturesque’ in the form of overgrown ruins or sights of daily country folk going about their business. This combined with literary or celebrity tourism- visiting places made significant through their association with particular texts (including images) or people. Geoffrey Grigson’s ‘Shell Guides’ were conceived of in the 1930s in this tradition of  ‘gazeteers’ for the emerging motoring tourist, and their collage of text, photograph and constructed images reflect a more fragmented modern sensibility.

I will supplement my review of the ocular modes of illustrated guide books to North Wales by visiting several sites and creating an idiosyncratic guide book for travellers to North Wales which contests dominant antiquarian or practical guide book narratives, in pursuit of the ‘feminine sublime’- a dispersed and embodied phenomenology of place .


Desdemona McCannon is a writer, illustrator, curator and academic, currently a Senior lecturer at Manchester School of Art, specialising in Illustration and print culture. She is principal editor of the peer reviewed Journal of Illustration and on the steering committee of the Illustration Research Network. She is interested in illustration’s role in the minutae of everyday life, and in forming wider cultural identities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s