Elin Williams visits Oriel Myrddin, Carmarthen to take in the new exhibition Notorious by Anthony Rhys, which imagines what felons from the town of Carmarthen in the 1860s and 70s might have looked like.
All of us are familiar with the conventional mug shot. Several famous mugshots may spring to mind: Myra Hindley, Al Capone, O.J. Simpson and many more. It is hard to conceive of a world without photography as a way of documenting faces and places. In fact, photographing prisoners only really began in the 1840s, although the process wasn’t standardised until 1888. Prisoners before the era of photography exist only as anecdotes in newspapers or a couple of lines in dusty log books.
Artist Anthony Rhys offers an insight into how these forgotten characters may have appeared in his new exhibition at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen. His exhibition ‘Notorious’ imagines what felons from the town of Carmarthen in the 1860s and 70s might have looked like. Trawling through newspapers and the Felons’ register, Rhys selected thirty unique cases which spoke to him. He began imagining the physiognomy of these individuals 150 years later and instead of just being names on paper, these people are given a face, a personality. The desperate people at the centre of this exhibition did not change the course of history but they lived and died in a fascinating era and to give them a visual identity in death reclaims their stories which would likely have faded into obscurity forever.
Anthony Rhys, who only started painting five years ago, has achieved great success and won numerous awards. His work is steeped in narrative and it is not difficult to see how the written history of these people and their crimes has shaped his visual interpretations of them. It is important to emphasise how Rhys’ given influences are not strictly from the art world. Although he does draw a great deal of inspiration from Francis Bacon, major influences are literary figures Gwyn Thomas and Caradoc Evans. Using the classic mugshot as inspiration, the portraits tell a story of Carmarthen’s dark past, ranging from dishonest vicars to notorious prostitutes. In fact, the exhibition’s name is derived from one specific notorious prostitute, Anne Awberry (pictured) who during her life, was arrested 141 times. She died, aged 61 in Carmarthen Workhouse.
‘This notorious person known as Anne Awberry is no more. She had
spent most part of her time for the last thirty years, as an incorrigible
Carmarthen Journal, August 28/ Awst 28, 1863
It’s rare to have an art exhibition which feels more like a performance. The narrative of these individuals coupled with their imagined faces provides us with a unique blend of art and history. The gallery feels almost like a museum, with snippets of information on the wall beneath the portraits. Carmarthen archives have also allowed the Felon’s register to be displayed at the gallery which adds to the story. This wealth of information offers us something compelling and unusual, something which will undoubtedly pique the interest of everybody.
Technically there is an obvious skill to Rhys’ work. His style is raw and intricate. Some of the characters look demented, many have an expression of unease and panic. Anthony Rhys has also tried to ensure that not only one class is represented. It could be tempting to only depict lowly felons, those people arrested for theft or prostitution. In the collection of characters, however, there are respectable types too. Vicars found out to have illegitimate children, Matrons who abuse their patients. It is these cases which are the more compelling as an element of social scandal would have been attached to them at the time.
This exhibition is more than just portraits in a gallery. It is rich in narrative and history, extending far beyond the gallery’s walls. Events are running throughout February, including workshops, photobooths and pub crawls. This is an exhibition not to be missed. A highly original and tastefully executed window into the past.
For more information on free talks and events, visit here