Grace Patrick attends the Thousand Words exhibition which explores the work of welsh poets such as Gwerful Mechain and Hedd Wyn.
Living in London is a constant swirl of activity: nowhere is quiet, something is always going on, and everywhere is always just a little busier than might be pleasant. However, every now and then there are little pockets of peace where this energy ebbs and some calm can flourish. In the basement of the Bloomsbury branch of Waterstones, one of these tiny gems has taken root. Tucked into a corner of the store in the small gallery, Carl Chapple’s work has been pulled together into something that feels like a sanctuary.
Given that the A Thousand Words exhibition is a conglomeration of two earlier bodies of work, it feels unfair to try to discuss it all in one go. The more predominant of its two components is a series of monochrome portraits, first commissioned for Terry Victor’s 2017 production of Well Thumbed, an excursion into a selection of literary and cultural history’s lewder corners.
In many ways, given the nature of the Thousand Words show that these pieces were created to support, the portraits themselves are surprising. Whereas according to its reviewers, Well Thumbed appears to have searched for some less refined moments to explore, this exhibition does something close to the opposite. Almost universally, Chapple sticks to an essentially traditional style. The subjects are portrayed generally from the torso upwards, looking either into or just beyond the viewer. They’re not designed to surprise and certainly not to shock. Instead, these are just straightforward, uncontroversial portrayals of some of the characters that Victor built his production around. In the year since Well Thumbed’s run, Chapple has added some twelve additional pieces to the collection, building it into something that feels far more similar to an archive of influential cultural figures than just an accompaniment to someone else’s work.
Even though Hedd Wyn is a prominent figure in poetry, the most intriguing face to be seen at the Thousand Words perhaps is that of Gwerful Mechain, a mediaeval Welsh poet. She caught my attention because, maybe unsurprisingly, we have no real images of her. Her portrait is therefore essentially an educated guess, sitting alongside portraits of figures who lived recently and prosperously enough for us to have dozens of photos of them, for example, Virginia Woolf or Oscar Wilde. There’s a lovely sense of preservation, even if it has no option but to be based on guesswork.
The other part of the Thousand Words exhibition is totally different in style and content, consisting of a series of paintings and sketches of ballet dancers in motion, based on photos taken during Ballet Cymru’s rehearsal and performance process. Personally, I was impressed by how successfully the sense of motion has been captured, managing to solidify the dancers’ dynamism. This is especially obvious when placed next to the far more still life-esque portraits, but it’s true and present nonetheless. The mixture of mediums used in this section of the exhibition intrigued me. They incorporated both oils on canvas and charcoal on cardboard, resulting in very different visual effects that still managed to engage with the same feeling of life or motion.
Traditionally, Welsh culture and history have of course been predominantly oral, especially thanks to language erasure in the Victorian era and, arguably, a lack of investment in recent decades. This lack of cultural support cannot undo itself: exhibitions such as this, especially outside of Wales, go an extremely long way to fill this void. To that extent, this exhibition feels incredibly valuable, and it’s especially gratifying to see them given pride of place in a London gallery space.
A Thousand Words, an exhibition that explores the work of Gwerful Mechain and Hedd Wyn is on at the Waterstones bookshop in Bloomsbury until November 24th.