Roger Cecil: When Black Means Light

Roger Cecil: When Black Means Light

 

‘Roger Cecil was one of Wales’s most accomplished artists’ (Mary Lloyd-Jones)

 

‘I am a huge admirer of Roger’s work, and am greatly saddened by the news of his death.

He was a truly lovely man and he will be a great loss to the artistic life of Wales’ (Glenys Cour)

 

‘Outstandingly good… one of the finest artists to

have come out of Wales in the last 100 years’ (David Petersen)

 

My first sight of a painting by Roger Cecil came at the Museum of Modern Art Wales. I’d gone to the Machynlleth gallery to write a profile about its founder, Ruth Lambert. She was a great subject, but the creature on the wall distracted me. The canvas was square (about four x four feet), the shapes on its surface were simple to the point of meaninglessness, and its piebald colours – a patch of white above a slab of black – were austere. Yet I was drawn to the picture like a child to a jar of mint humbugs. It could be understood as a landscape – a large sky above and a slab of land below – but the vague forms which curled languorously around each other’s edges might have been embracing figures. You could interpret the painting as a yin-yang pattern, but the white patches were like weathered snow – its title, Winter something or other, gave a clue but its name didn’t seem vital[i]. It was a magnificent piece of work, its presence as compelling as a Rothko or an Alberto Burri.

Untitled (oil and mixed media on canvas) Roger Cecil
Untitled (oil and mixed media on canvas) Roger Cecil

Roger Cecil had a knack of making you feel you’d discovered him by yourself. At the time his only publicly-funded exhibitions had been group shows; he had dropped out of the Royal College of Art, and Ruth said he was very shy.

Abertillery lies in a part of Wales I hardly knew, but associated with bolshie miners, mean houses, grey skies and poverty. It was a bright summer’s day in 2000 when I first parked my car in Queen Street, where Roger lived. I guessed his address was the one with a wild front garden, but in most other ways the building was identical with the 40 or 50 others stacked beside it on the hillside like plates in a rack. Getting out, I expected waves of Valleys’ pain to wash over me. Instead – and this made me rather guilty – I saw stability: the houses looked strong, some of them had bay windows, and apart from their pvc window frames, they hadn’t been tarted up.

But the terraced homes were packed tightly next to each other, so it was a relief to see that Roger’s front door sat back in a recess. It was a little sop to privacy in an otherwise very public place. I knocked and waited. Nothing. After a few seconds, I tried again, harder. This time the door was opened. It revealed a pale, bald man of wiry build and medium height. He had a stubbly beard but my gaze was irresistibly drawn to a striking disfigurement. His right eye was abnormally swollen and had slipped below the level of the left. But both eyes were twinkling and they radiated laughter lines. His manner was gentle and he seemed totally absorbed by his art. After a few minutes in his company, I felt it would have been easy to talk to him safely about almost anything. Without any malice, he saw humour in everything.

His house was identical to thousands of other terraced, single-fronted, two-storey, back-to-back, stone-built homes constructed in scores of other Valleys towns and villages all the way between Newport and Ammanford. But because of what was in it, this one looked like a cave that ran endlessly backwards in space and time (Mary Lloyd-Jones has described it[ii] as a Tardis). Apart from a tiny bathroom and kitchen, the entire building was his studio. There was a backyard as unassuming as himself. Except that everywhere there were things to wonder at, open your mind to, laugh at, enjoy. He stored his work in the house. When I returned ten years later, he was choosing work for an exhibition, and there were masses of paintings all over the place, not only on the walls, but leaning up against them, on shelves, on the furniture, with and without frames. Some were only a few inches across, while others measured five or six feet high or wide. There were pencil and pastel sketches, and fully-blown paintings in colours that ranged from the almost colourless to the strident: fleshy pinks, dirty whites, pale-as-thought creams, acid greens, warm browns, bold red oxides, anthracite blacks, slate greys and petrol blues. He told me that he used household paints because they were cheaper than oils, and that he mixed them to create what he wanted. But now I could see the other nuts and bolts of his trade, and they were fascinating: that surface I had liked so much in Machynlleth was repeated and developed in so many other ways. With a shock I recognised wall finishing plaster (known in the trade as pink thistle), polyfilla, car body filler, grate blacking, and several other materials used more often for decorating houses than daubing on canvas.

His early paintings might have had something of L. S. Lowry’s stick-like drawing style, but the similarity is only superficial. Like a lot of modernist painters from Picasso onwards, he used inchoate marks and scratchings to delineate objects. In his case these were often field boundaries and land surface textures such as plough, stubble, gorse and bramble patches.

Without knowing their chronology, I saw paintings in which similar themes were being developed. It was fascinating to trace them through different combinations and compositions and through variations in surface textures. There were rounded hillsides that could be interpreted as female torsos, legs and buttocks; there were abstracts that could have been interiors or open voids, often with throw-away marks that made you wonder whether the marks were mundane objects or magic symbols. There were scenes whose orientation suggested landscapes but the borderline between a recognisable topography and an internal mindscape was so fine you were always jumping between them. In several of these pictures, it seemed as though the artist was inviting you to look beyond one dimension into another – in one small canvas, there was a rectangular slab of off-white (could have been a rainy day in Wales, or a fog of semi-consciousness) and muddy orange (a desert?) that contrasted with a dark grey surrounding which also had its upper ‘sky’ and lower ‘land’ areas. A small pink, bell-shaped thing – was it a bird? – sat in this mass of grey looking upwards towards the light. But the clashing colours sing.

Some of his titles revealed his imaginative drift more definitely: ‘Pathway to the New World’, ‘Hidden Key’, ‘The Shaman Village’. Others told of journeys to North Wales: ‘Lifting of Mist, Cadair Idris’, and ‘Snowdon, Half-Way House’, which is an incredibly simple, wide, grey-green curve under a grey sky with a dark, indeterminate splodge crawling down it at one end. Looking very closely you can make out white or silver disks on the splodge, and a huge plume of white smoke shoots out of its top, reaching into the sky like a votive offering. It was Roger’s way of painting a steam train, with (possibly) a humorous nod to Turner’s 1844 masterpiece,’Rain, Steam and Speed’.

His paintings were only part of the charm: his home was his studio and his studio was an installation. There were creatures of incredible, semi-abstract sophistication made out of zinc etching plates (‘The Black Serval’); funny, phallic wood carvings; models created from rubber, melted nails or bent piping – I remember a pair of bent brass tubes, two inches high, that he called ‘Angharad’s knees’. Suspended from a row of hooks were a series of chunky copper and steel shapes that could have been pendants, percussion instruments or some of the wonderfully arcane and witty tools of his trade. In this setting the most prosaic object came alive: there were forests of broad-edged decorating brushes, home-made rag-tipped brushes, metal combs for scraping parallel lines. There were cheeky mobiles and pictures made of coins. Part of the beauty of his pieces was that they were made from bits and pieces that had been lying around, or found on his walks. And there were cartoons (some by children or friends), and wise sayings by others that he had pinned up around his house: ‘Remember’, ‘The Chinese consider it a compliment to describe a painting as chuo, or awkward. They do not admire paintings that are dexterous and clever, but lack feeling’.[iii]

Roger Cecil at home
Roger Cecil at home (credit: Caroline Juler)

Roger didn’t have a lot of money. He saved everything he earned to buy art materials and could only afford to redecorate once in a while. Besides, he loved worn surfaces, and when the paper in his parents’ bedroom became torn, he pulled more of it off to reveal the naked plaster underneath. It was mottled like old skin or the hillsides he would wander over for days at a time, sleeping rough under the sky. Living alone, he was free to create his habitat in the way he liked it, and the egg-and-dart cornices, bakelite light switches, the nicely-proportioned wooden doors, the worn, olive-coloured paintwork and the modest kitchen were of a piece with his work. It smelled of plaster, grate-blacking, emulsion paint and white spirit. It was touching to see a box full of African violets that he was nurturing on a window sill.

Roger was born in Abertillery, south-east Wales, in 1942. His father was a miner and he was one of four children. He grew up with the smell of coal dust and smelting steel in his nostrils, and got into trouble for playing on the colliery winding gear. Not long beforehand, Abertillery had been one of the largest mining towns in the South Wales Valleys – in the early 1930s its population had risen to 40,000 (it has around 11,500 inhabitants today). Abertillery’s townsfolk consisted mainly of the families and descendants of workers from the Welsh countryside and elsewhere in the UK who flooded into the area from the late 18th century because it gave them better prospects than they had before. It offered a life-line to starving agricultural workers from Pembrokeshire and Powys, but tin miners from Cornwall and the north of England came as well.

Black is a colour often associated with the Welsh Valleys. Black Glamorgan was a well-known epithet for the county because of its population’s widespread destitution. Abertillery’s first deep pit was sunk in 1843, and in its heyday – the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the town (or at least the mine owners) boasted six deep mines and a lot of other heavy industries, including iron and tin works. Industrial strife caused by terrible working conditions hammered the Welsh Valleys’ mining communities before the Second World War, and the boost they received from supplying the war effort deflated once the war was over. In the 1950s, oil became the fuel of choice. In 1960, an underground explosion at Six Bells Colliery killed 45 local men. Although it counts as a separate village, Six Bells is virtually attached to Abertillery: the disaster was on everyone’s doorstep.

L. S. Lowry (1887-1986) came to paint in South Wales shortly after the explosion (but not necessarily because of it). His painting, ‘Hillside in Wales’ (1962, Tate Gallery), is based on sketches he made in Abertillery but it makes the place look  small and remote – or as another writer has said, like an ancient Celtic monument. It wasn’t like that at all. The artist John Selway (born 1939) also grew up in the town and he recalled ‘going to see a lot of French films… I saw Rififi… Wages of Fear… Five Legs… in the Palace cinema… I was heavily involved with… amateur dramatics as well… it was really quite a sort of cultured childhood.’ [iv]

It wasn’t unheard of for miners to become artists: after the Second World War they could exhibit at the annual miners’ gala in Blackpool, and there were area and local competitions. When the Polish emigre painter, Josef Herman (1911-2000), settled at Ystradgynlais in 1944, he encouraged the local miners to express themselves in paint. One of Josef Herman’s best proteges was Cyril Ifold (1922-86) who exhibited at the Glyn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea. Another miner-artist, Keith Jenkins, worked at Six Bells colliery and created figurines of miners using a mixture of silica flour, water and coal dust. Nicholas Evans (born 1907) from Aberdare took up painting in his 70s to counteract the sense of uselessness he felt on retiring from the mines. Mainly working in black and white, he emphasised the horrific sides of mining life and like Roger Cecil was adept at working with whatever materials he had to hand.[v]

Roger knew from the age of 10 that he wanted to be a painter. After leaving school in Abertillery in 1959, and with his mother’s support, he got a place at Newport College of Art. Some of his family were sceptical about his chosen career but one of his brothers gave up his own intellectual ambitions and became an electrician so Roger could flourish. It was a good time to be an artist in south-east Wales. Post-war reorganisation of art education had infused UK art colleges with fresh vigour. In Wales, Cardiff replaced Swansea for a short time as the country’s artistic hub. Immediately after the war, emerging stars included the Rhondda Group (Charles Burton, Nigel Flower, Gwyn Evans, Robert Thomas, Ernest Zobole et al). A decade later, Newport overtook Cardiff as the place to be. ‘There was a buzz there’ according to Anthony Stevens who taught at Newport College of Art from 1960. ‘People who were working on the edge of what they could do… there was nothing like that happening in Cardiff… Newport was essentially a local art college. If you had pretensions to be an artist and lived the art style, you went to Cardiff. If you were a valleys boy and couldn’t afford very much, you went to Newport. But Newport was much more the Welsh art school than Cardiff.’ Its dynamism was largely due to a new principal, Harry Lea, who joined the College after the war. In 1963, the year Roger Cecil graduated, Newport College of Art became eligible to teach the Diploma in Art and Design (Dip AD) in both Fine Art and Graphic Design. This was a huge achievement, making it one of the UK’s top art colleges – and more prestigious than its old rival, Cardiff College of Art.[vi]

'Shaman Secret' by Roger Cecil
‘Shaman Secret’ by Roger Cecil

Roger studied Fine Art (in other words, painting) in Newport. His tutors included Tom Rathmell (1912-1996) and John Wright . John Selway remembers Tom Rathmell as quiet but ‘an extraordinarily good teacher’. With their encouragement, Roger won the highest award the College had to offer. John Wright backed Roger to win a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. Many Newport students had trodden the same path: John Selway was at the RCA from 1959-62, his friends Ron Carlson (1936-2002) and Douglas James did the same, and the acutely political installation artist, David Garner, followed them in the 1970s and early 80s. John Selway described his time at the RCA as ‘very rebellious’. Selway’s fellow students included David Hockney, Allan Jones and R. B. Kitaj, individualists to a man. Pop art was coming to the fore and the art colleges were way behind the times. Selway and his fellow students thought the painting course was stuck in the dark ages. At one point, they locked the staff out of the college and started destroying the plaster casts. It’s hard to imagine the retiring Roger Cecil being able to thrive in such an environment. In 1964, he won the Royal Academy’s David Murray Landscape Award, but neither the RCA nor London were his scenes. He told me he gave up on both ‘after a few weeks’.

I still don’t know if he went there or not, but his rejection of the RCA scholarship was a reason why the BBC made a film about Roger Cecil called Quiet Rebel.[vii] It shows him at home with his mother, happier to be swimming in a slower stream. He was still ambitious for his painting – and, according to another Newport graduate, the sculptor David Petersen[viii], sure of his talent. Roger felt more at ease with the down-to-earth people of the Valleys than rambunctious glitterati. He was also determined to make art on his own terms, without being forced into a commercial mould. For the next 20 years, he continued to paint, but in private. He earned his living as a labourer, working in open cast mines, on building sites and on the roads. After his mother died, he stayed on in the family house in Queen Street. He lived there alone and did not own a car. He didn’t need to: on foot, it’s a short walk from the house up the hill into open country and the enfolding hills. For relaxation and peace, Roger would go for long rambles on his own, looking, watching, absorbing the moving shapes and colours of the landscape. Sometimes he strayed into the Brecon Beacons. He would stay out in the open for days at a time.

In 1985, while working in Abergavenny, one of his old college friends introduced him to Pauline Griffiths. Now the proprietor of Abergavenny’s The Art Shop, Pauline was then teaching art at Ebbw Vale College of Further Education. Pauline recognised Roger’s prodigious ability, and a year later, she got him a teaching post at the CFE too. Meanwhile, she had introduced him to an artist called Denise Matthews and her photographer husband, Graham. They became life-long friends. Denise and Graham rented a crafts stall in Abergavenny market. They invited Roger to share it, and Denise remembers ‘he was always making things… on the stall, he sold walking sticks – I’ve still got one of them.’ She told me that Roger’s disfigurement was the result of an accident that happened when he was working as a road mender.[ix]

Pauline recalls her first meetings with Roger: ‘He was living alone in his family home… he worked on a building site. He painted incessantly. He was extraordinarily innovative producing amazing work. He was lots of fun and a generous man’. She says Roger got on very well with a number of ‘dysfunctional’ students – adults and young people who were homeless, abused drugs, or got into trouble with the police. ‘He had their admiration and trust,’ she says. ‘We built up an Art department that produced good work [and we] put on art exhibitions.’ One of the exhibitions [was held] at the home of the painter Bert Isaacs in Abergavenny.

Pauline also mentioned Roger’s love of walking: ‘He was a very focused man. He could live out on the mountains and knew how to survive the harsh terrain with only the bare essentials. In fact a group of SAS soldiers training on these mountains observed him and invited him to train with them in Norway. He was taught to ski.’  (Whether or not he went to Norway I don’t know.)

Roger Cecil's handmade tools (credit: Caroline Juler)
Roger Cecil’s handmade tools (credit: Caroline Juler)

For Pauline and Roger, teaching at Ebbw Vale went sour with the arrival of a new department head, so they left. By then, Roger had spent four years in a job he loved. It gave him enough confidence to contemplate going it alone as an artist. Again, Pauline Griffiths helped him, this time to find commercial galleries that would exhibit his paintings. A dealer called Gordon Hepworth agreed to represent him in London, and he began to sell his work elsewhere, via other galleries, including MoMA Wales. William Gibbs was one of the first collectors to appreciate his talents. In the late 1990s, Roger studied for an MA at Central St. Martin’s, enjoying his time in London.

Meg Anthony of Oriel Myrddin, Carmarthen, was one of those who appreciated Roger’s unique gifts. In 2006, she organised a retrospective show for him. Its simple title, Cariad (‘Dear one’), is a reference to his habit of personifying the Welsh landscape as much loved. It was his first solo show in a publicly-funded space. The catalogue contains essays by two fellow artists, Sarah Bradford, who wrote about his ‘Methods’, and the well-known Welsh abstract painter, Mary Lloyd-Jones who called her text ‘Meanings’. Their words reflected his ability to create depth with great simplicity. It seemed that finally, Roger Cecil had found champions who were prepared to credit him with the intellectual standing he deserved.

Meg Anthony is one of his most sensitive critics. In her introduction to the Cariad catalogue, she wrote: ‘The magic of Roger Cecil’s work is in part down to the man, for he is enigmatic and surprising, diffident and proud. He has deliberately avoided the art establishment, remaining shy of its protocol and systems of exposure and recognition… Paint is Roger’s passion, and Wales is his darling, his “cariad”… His relationship with Wales is Romantic… These works remind us of our scale and place in a greater order… They also show us that at a time when the very act of painting is under scrutiny, an abstract painter can articulately defend painting’s role and value… This exhibition… shows us that paint can transmute from the material thing, to something else, something resonant, meaningful and beautiful.'[x]

Roger Cecil National Eisteddfod installation Ebbw Vale 2010 (credit: Caroline Juler)
Roger Cecil National Eisteddfod installation Ebbw Vale 2010 (credit: Caroline Juler)

BBC Wales made another film about Roger in 2009. It was part of a series called Time May Change Me, and followed up on Quiet Rebel. When I saw him the next year, he was choosing paintings for a one-man show at the National Eisteddfod. Several large canvases eventually went on view in a large, industrial hall in the Ebbw Vale steel works. Although it was an impressive space, the paintings’ singing colours were rather lost on the coldly functional grey concrete walls.

It’s a cliché that Roger Cecil was a recluse – he had many visitors[xi] – and that the Valleys have always been depressed. It’s true there are few decent jobs in the area and that social problems abound. Although life was hard here, something else has been lost. The closely-knit communities that fired Richard Llewellyn to write his 1939 novel, How Green was My Valley, have lost their reason for being, along with their dangerous, backbreaking work. A 2013 report by the BBC’s correspondent, Mark Easton, described the South Wales coalfields as ‘unbearably sad’. But there were saving graces. Take the social levelling (few could afford to be uppity), the choirs, the rugby clubs, the humour, and, always there but sometimes forgotten, the mountains and moorlands where people like Roger Cecil could escape from the savagery or banality of ordinary life and find a rugged heaven. If you had the legs to carry you, hitched a lift or had money for the bus, the Brecon Beacons were within reach, and the Tillery Valley itself had beautiful walks. Margaret Thatcher sounded the mines’ death knell, but even that wasn’t the end. For what it’s worth, efforts to turn nearby Blaenavon’s collieries into a visitor attraction have resulted in it being granted World Heritage status. And things are looking better for Abertillery: it has won a £13 million EU makeover grant. Improvements include refurbishing the theatre and miners’ club, new car parking and a traffic scheme, all to be completed by 2016.

Comparisons with Lowry, as with the Cornish ‘primitive’ painter, Alfred Wallis, may be tempting because these earlier artists also had hermit-like or childlike qualities and are sometimes regarded with pity. They say comparisons are odious and these ones do Roger few favours: his work stands on its own and (in my opinion) it was far richer than theirs. But the manner of Roger Cecil’s death, and his isolation from the herd have painted him with the same dread brush. For the last couple of years, Roger had apparently been suffering from dementia. In February this year, he was admitted to a Newport hospital. Unnoticed by the staff, he walked out of the hospital on 21st February. He was missing for three days. During that time, somebody gave him a lift on the road between Newport and Llanyrafon, and reported this occurrence to the police. But he was not traced. Roger’s body was found in a field near Cwmbran on the 24th February. It looked as though he had died from the cold. The first reports of his absence referred to him anonymously: it was only when Graham Matthews alerted the BBC that his true identity emerged. Perhaps he was looking for his one close relative – a niece who lived in Cwmbran – or perhaps he was doing what he had so often loved to do in the past: walking to the hills.

I met Roger Cecil only twice, in June 2000, and July 2010. He was ready to acknowledge those who had helped him. They included Meg Anthony and Pauline Griffiths. When I asked him about Ruth Lambert, his voice was full of warmth: ‘She was good to me, that woman.’ Ruth’s assessment of Roger was equally affectionate: ‘Three happy memories in particular come to mind when Roger’s name is mentioned.  Seeing his huge canvases against the walls of the Owen Owen Gallery at MoMA Wales and the mesmerising effect they had on visitors. We had not seen anything like them before and he was incredibly generous to us; visiting his home in Abertillery where everything from newspaper cuttings to his exquisite silver was an artwork in its own right; and his MA Show at Central St Martin’s which I had the enormous privilege of attending.’

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many of Roger Cecil’s advocates are women. He liked women, possibly because they were less threatening than men. There was one female who came up repeatedly in his conversations. She was Angharad (Welsh for ‘Beloved’). He talked about Angharad so matter-of-factly it was bewildering: where was she? Was she doing the ironing, out shopping, off at work? She sounded like his girl-friend, lover and muse rolled into one. It was never clear whether Angharad existed or not – if she did or does, perhaps a future biographer will identify her. It’s likely that Angharad was really his muse; she was the goddess of painting to which he dedicated his life.

Was visiting Roger Cecil a kind of therapy? Definitely: he should have charged. He’d have liked that joke, I think.

(Roger Cecil, painter and sculptor, Abertillery 1942 – Cwmbran 2015)

[i]Winter night with Angharad.
[ii]Quoted by Mary Lloyd Jones in the catalogue to the exhibition, Cariad: Roger Cecil, Oriel Myrddin, Carmarthen, 8th April – 20th May 2006.
[iii]Mary Lloyd Jones in Cariad: Roger Cecil, op. cit.
[iv] Quoted in Art and Society in Newport, by John R. Wilson and Roger Cucksey, Newport Museum and Art Gallery, 2000.
[v] Quoted in Miner-Artists, the art of Welsh coal workers by John Harvey, National Library of Wales, 2000.
[vi]Quoted in Wilson and  Cucksey, op. cit.
[vii]Shown in 1964 as part of a series about unusual people
[viii]Personal communication, 17th March 2015
[ix]David Petersen says that Roger’s face was already damaged by the time he went to Newport College of Art; he believes that Roger was born with the disfigurement.
[x]From Cariad.
[xi]According to Peter Wakelin, whose Guardian obituary of Roger Cecil appeared on 18th March 2015, he made each visitor feel as if they were getting exclusive access to his studio.